REVIEW: “All Clear” by Hao He

Review of Hao He, “All Clear”, Apex Magazine 110 (2018): Read Online. Reviewed by Joanna Z. Weston.

In the near future, the world has fragmented from what we know. Zhang Dong’s father blames technology and change, and has founded a village that rests on family and tradition, a culture that Zhang Dong chafes against, at the same time that he struggles to communicate with his own son. All of this comes to a head when members of several other villages or enclaves come together to attack.

This story has it all – fear and rejection of technology, psychic powers, the collapse of our current world-order, inter-generational conflict, and of course, fighting and intrigue. It’s a lot, but the story carries it well, balancing world-building with plot and character to create a harmonious whole.

Zhang Dong is a truly sympathetic protagonist. He wants to be a good person, a good son, a good father, but he also wants to happy, and he senses that these things may be mutually antagonistic. I suspect that many people know that feeling. He has been toying with the notion of moving away and founding his own village, a concept he returns to a handful of times during the narrative. Again, many people today daydream about running away from their lives (often to start a goat farm, but that may just be the people I know). By the end of the story, Zhang Dong comes to believe that maybe he can shift his current circumstances to both facilitate communication and maybe better line up with his moral compass, which is a hopeful note for all of us.

For all that the conflict is fairly action-oriented, this story felt like a slow build, once the initial action-scene wraps up. And that’s a good thing! It gives the reader time to get to know the characters and the world and the background up until this moment. I would recommend this for anyone who likes human-centered near-future science fiction with subtle themes.

REVIEW: “Kerouac’s Renascence” by Tal M. Klein

Review of Tal M. Klein, “Kerouac’s Renascence”, Apex Magazine 110 (2018): Read Online. Reviewed by Joanna Z. Weston.

Kerouac is living in Japan, so that his sister will not see his declining health. Now that his illness has reached its final stage, he plans to go to California to grant himself a dignified death, aka euthanasia. Selling all his possessions leaves him with more money than anticipated, so he chooses to travel there by way of a 22 day cruise, as a final treat. Against his better judgment, he makes friends and falls in love. Then things get weird, and we as readers remember that we are reading a piece of speculative fiction.

I did not find Kerouac to be the most likable narrator, but he is engaging and sympathetic. His choice to isolate himself from the people who care about him – a choice made repeatedly during this story – is frustrating to read simply because it is so realistic. It’s such a common (if hurtful) human coping mechanism that I would not be surprised to learn that psychologists have a special term for it. And that’s really where this story shines, in the ordinary. Most of the story takes place in the “real” world, with speculative elements appearing around three quarters of the way through, and Klein captured my attention and my interest without them.

This story is on the longer end of what Apex publishes, which means that it has plenty of time to delve into smaller moments and build itself, yet it never felt meandering. The story is tight.

This piece deals with some heavy topics – chronic illness, assisted suicide, fear of death and pain – without becoming maudlin. It’s not a light piece, but neither would I describe it as ponderous. For all that Kerouac’s life has been consumed by these topics, his conscious thoughts tend to push them aside, which lets the story breath without ever letting us get distracted from the stakes.

The ending surprised me, so I don’t want to spoil it for anyone else, but I will say that the title is a bit of a clue. This is a strong story on a dark topic, but there is hope.

REVIEW: “The Chariots, the Horsemen” by Stephanie Malia Morris

Review of Stephanie Malia Morris, “The Chariots, the Horsemen”, Apex Magazine 110 (2018): Read Online. Reviewed by Joanna Z. Weston.

A young woman begins ascend to heaven during the church potluck, and is barely caught in time by her mother. The same thing happened to the girl’s mother, when she was that age. Her great-grandmother ascended as well, though her grandfather, a preacher, remains firmly earthbound. The women restrain their own ascension to please him, or at least to mitigate his anger.

There’s a lot packed into this fairly short (1,650 words) story, but at its heart I’d say it’s about women giving over control of their bodies in order to court male approval. Their bodies naturally want to lift off the ground and fly away, but they resist because a male relative, an authority figure, disapproves. It triggers his own feelings of inadequacy and loneliness, which the women must protect him from. They go so far as to chain themselves to the furniture and gain copious amounts of weight to rid themselves of this unwanted tendency.

I was uncomfortable with the use of weight gain as a method of controlling their ascension. It makes sense that maybe if they became heavy enough, they wouldn’t life off the ground, but it also felt a little fat-phobic to me. I don’t believe it was intended that way, however, and your mileage my vary.

It’s interesting to me that this story is couched in Christian imagery and terms, when it feels so earthy and embodied. I don’t get the sense that either woman is particularly pious, no matter how their society has framed the phenomenon that lifts them into the air. Despite that, the religious overtones make an intuitive sort of sense for the story, and work well in it.

This is a strong story with an empowering ending, and I highly recommend it as a quick read.

REVIEW: “When You’re Ready” by M. Ian Bell

Review of M. Ian Bell, “When You’re Ready”, Apex Magazine 110 (2018): Read Online. Reviewed by Joanna Z. Weston.

A scientist is hard at work, modeling a human life from conception, tweaking variables of upbringing, trying to guide the simulant to a specific outcome. He’s done this many times before, but never gets the results he is looking for. The story follows his current attempt, with reflections on what has gone wrong before.

I enjoyed the way this story plays with memory and experience, and how people are hurt, supported, and otherwise influenced by the people around them and by their own choices. The way it engages with the nature versus nurture question is hardly unique – I think it’s pretty well accepted at this point that both factor into the people we become – but the depth of the reflection is rare, and I found it rewarding. I feel like this mirrors how many of us reflect on our lives, endlessly imagining how different circumstances might have brought us closer to the person we wish we were.

The story deals with so many interesting questions. How much can you change a person before they become unrecognizable to the people who know them? Can undesirable events lead to desirable results? What about an individual is inborn, and how much can be changed through experience? And most importantly, how much can a person will themselves to change, given a set past?

This doesn’t have what I would consider a twist ending, but the ending does color the story that came before, once you get to it. The pieces of the past slowly come together to create a satisfying conclusion. I highly recommend this for anyone who likes reflective, essentially psychological science fiction.

REVIEW: “A Different Kind of Place” by Tobias Buckell

Review of Tobias Buckell, “A Different Kind of Place”, Apex Magazine 109 (2018): Read Online. Reviewed by Joanna Z. Weston.

Zadie just wants to distract herself from the zombies. She goes to the salon to escape from the news stories, but the subject just keeps following her as she deals with the residents of her upper class small town who don’t trust the new vaccine or see the need for any sort of zombie protection. After all, Chester isn’t that kind of town.

I think zombies work best as an allegory, and they work particularly well in this story about the early days of a zombie apocalypse. This is a sharp commentary on how people, especially the well-off, assume that bad things only happen somewhere else, whether that’s another town or another country.

The undercurrent of racism serves to both ground the story in reality and further define the sort of town Chester is. As a brown-skinned school teacher in a mostly white town, Zadie is never sure if she can trust the intentions behind the smiling faces she sees everywhere. These aren’t the sort of people to express overt racism, but they express themselves in small, subtle ways that neither she nor the reader can mistake.

All in all, this is a thoughtful zombie story whose themes are highly relevant to our times.

REVIEW: “Suzie Q” by Jacqueline Carey

Review of Jacqueline Carey, “Suzie Q”, Apex Magazine 109 (2018): Read Online. Reviewed by Joanna Z. Weston.

Suzanne thought she’d escaped her painful past when she passed the summoning exam and was accepted into Holyfields, where she’d learn to summon angels. But when the story starts, she’s living on the streets of the neighboring city, dodging shadows that will eat her and bad people who will feed her to those shadows. Slowly, we learn how she got expelled from Holyfields and why she has a demon inside her. In the end, that demon proves itself to be a surprising strength.

This is a story that works as well as a metaphor as it does as a literal story, and I appreciate that. I can’t say that this is exactly an enjoyable read, dealing as it does with sexual trauma and coercion, followed by betrayal, but it is an absorbing one. The lingering effects of abuse and bullying are realistically portrayed in the character of Suzanne, and the world is tantalizingly sketched out. When she finally finds her power, I nearly cheered. She’s able to find the ways that suffering has made her stronger, and learns to use that for herself. The ending avoids the sin of romanticizing suffering, of making it seem that trauma and abuse were somehow worthwhile, by making it clear that her strength is born not just of the bad things that happened to her, but also her own choices.

This isn’t an easy story, but it is a powerful one, though it could be triggering to people who’ve experienced sexual trauma.

REVIEW: “Three Meetings of the Pregnant Man Support Group” by James Beamon

Review of James Beamon, “Three Meetings of the Pregnant Man Support Group”, Apex Magazine 109 (2018): Read Online. Reviewed by Joanna Z. Weston.

Imagine, if you will, aliens who come to earth after deciding that humans make excellent hosts to incubate their offspring. Imagine that this has become a known – if still controversial – aspect of every day life. What might that experience be like for the men so impregnated? The result might be this surprisingly thoughtful story.

I’m going to be honest with you – the premise of this story did not sit well with me. Growing alien fetuses in men’s appendixes seemed too weird, too gross. But the concept is grounded in strong writing, nuanced world-building, and a group of well-developed characters. This is a story that had to work to win me over, but it did a good job.

The world-building starts with the left-handed student desks that the men sit at in their support group, that identifies the group to anyone at a glance, even before the men walk in. See, the alien fetuses grow in their appendixes, so the pregnant men develop huge bulges on the right, rendering them off balance. The desks give them an opening for their side bellies, and something to lean against to counter the unbalanced weight. Every detail in the story is that well thought out.

This is a very human story. Yes, there are aliens, and we have to assume they have spaceships and a planet, but none of that matters here. This is about relationships – between the narrator and his sister, the support group, and his own body. It’s also about choice, as the men struggle to understand why they were picked for this role, what it means.

The problem in this story lies in the gender essentialism, which I did not pick up on the first time through, but which I saw discussed elsewhere and feel the need to address here. It presents the concept of pregnant men as a science fiction oddity, when there are real transmen who can, and sometimes do, carry children. This story does those men a disservice and could be hurtful to certain people, so be warned.

I still  believe this is a good story for people who like human-sized, thoughtful SF, but with some reservations.