REVIEW: “Frost” by ‘Nathan Burgoine

Review of ‘Nathan Burgoine, “Frost”, in Steve Berman, ed., Wilde Stories 2017: The Year’s Best Gay Speculative Fiction (Lethe Press, 2017): 69-79. — Purchase here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology.)

To have a man like this, a man like his father, and his brothers, who would look at him and respect him and—yes—love him, even though he was small, and narrow, and gentle. What that might be like.

Flipping through the book to pick the next story to read and review, I opened to the page that had this opening quote, and knew immediately that this was the story I wanted to read. So much hope and sadness in those two sentences, and also a hint of something more.

“Frost” is in essence a classic fairy tale, with the clever youngest son hero, magic to mend a broken heart, and what should be a happily ever after. The man Frost is “born of magic and a longing for love,” and though he seems everything that Little Jay, with the gift of magic in his hands, desires and needs, as often happens when magic is involved, not everything is as it seems. Before my eyes I see the happily ever after melts away as the frost melts in the sun, and my heart ached for the unhappiness that threads through the entire story.

But,

Anything broken might never be what it was, but in the right hands, with enough heart, it could always be something else (p. 79).

There is hope at the end of the story, but I’m not quite sure it’s enough to make it a happy story.

(Originally published in 2016 on ‘Nathan Burgoine’s blog.)

REVIEW: “Turing Test” by Eric Scheller

Review of Eric Scheller, “Turing Test”, in Steve Berman, ed., Wilde Stories 2017: The Year’s Best Gay Speculative Fiction (Lethe Press, 2017): 215-220. — Purchase here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology.)

The interior of the case is decorated like a florid setting room, wallpapered, the floor spread with a rug of oriental design. There are three automata and all three are instantly recognizable…

A spec fic story about Alan Turing and automata? Oh, my heart, yes, please! One thing that sometimes frustrates me about science fiction as a genre (painting with very broad brush strokes here), is how narrowly “science” is often interpreted. As a scientist myself, I am often longing to find representation of my kind of science in traditional SF stories. But the laws of logic are desperately hard to play with, almost more so in fiction than in real life, where logicians think nothing of speaking of true contradictions and impossible worlds. So I had high hopes for this story as being “close enough”, not my science but close enough to it.

When one says “automata” in the context of SF, many readers probably think first of dumb robots moving mindlessly — something embodied. The automata that I know and love (and sometimes hate) from my days in grad school are much more abstract: They are (sometimes deterministic, sometimes not) (sometimes finite, sometimes not) state-machines that take as input strings of symbols and after a (possibly unique) computation (or “run”) of the machine either gets into an infinite loop, or accepts or rejects the string (Deterministic finite state-machines will never cycle infinitely, and will always accept or reject the input.) The most general class of automata is the class of Turing machines — and here we circle back to the content of the story as opposed to a mini lesson in computation.

Alan, who “loves permutations and crossword puzzles” (p. 215), enters the Ashmolean Museum and asks to see the automata the curator has in storage. But the automata that he is shown are not Turing machines but the embodied type, three versions of Oscar Wilde each in a different guise and a different pose. I am disappointed that the automata are not the ones I wanted them to be, but this lessens my enjoyment of the story only in passing. Scheller takes us through a story that is both history and fantasy, and captures all of the aching sadness that surrounds Turing and his life. For all that so much of him differs from me, there is so much of him that I can see in myself, and for that, I am satisfied.

(Originally published in Meet Me in the Middle of the Air, Undertow Publications, 2016).

REVIEW: Wilde Stories 2017 edited by Steve Berman

Review of Steve Berman, ed., Wilde Stories 2017: The Year’s Best Gay Speculative Fiction, (Lethe Press, 2017) — Purchase here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman.

As a cis woman who is in a happily monogamous het relationship, I am probably the least qualified person to review this collection of stories. But, oh, it has a story about Turing in it, and as a logician who sometimes flirts with computer science and AI, I feel eminently qualified to read about Turing, and for that story alone I bought the book.

As a “best of” collection, it draws upon stories published the previous year, so all of these first came out — in various venues — in 2016. Many are thus things I would not have otherwise come across, which is one of the advantages that collected volumes have — they provide a different type of exposure for the stories and the authors that wrote them. And this particular volume is a physically lovely one — beautiful cover art by Dmitry Vorsin, attractive typesetting, and a suppleness to the pages which reminds me, as if I needed a reminder, of why I love print books so much more than electronic ones.

Each story is prefaced by a short quote from the story, bound to spark the reader’s interest. The tales included are the following:

  • “The Tale of the Costume Maker” by Steve Carr
  • “Das Steingeschöpf” by G. V. Anderson
  • “Where’s the Rest of Me?” by Matthew Cheney
  • “The Gentleman of Chaos” by A. Merc Rustad
  • “Frost” by ‘Nathan Burgoine
  • “Bull of Heaven” by Gabriel Murray
  • “The Sound a Raven Makes” by Mathew Scaletta
  • “Angel, Monster, Man” by Sam J. Miller
  • “Most Holy Ghost” by Martin Pousson
  • “Ratcatcher” by Amy Griswold
  • “The Drowning Line” by Haralambi Markov
  • “My Heart’s Own Desire” by Robert Levy
  • “Turing Test” by Eric Schaller
  • “Of All Possible Worlds” by Eneasz Brodski
  • “Carnivores” by Rich Larson
  • It’s the End of the World As We Know It” by A. C. Wise
  • “The Death of Paul Bunyon” by Charles Payseur

Each of the stories will be reviewed individually, and linked back to this post when the review is posted.

Overall, the collection is powerful, beautiful, and sad. Every single story is steeped in emotion, and lovingly crafted.

REVIEW: “There are No Wrong Answers” by LaShawn M. Wanak

Review of LaShawn M. Wanak, “There are No Wrong Answers”, Podcastle: 505 — Listen Online. Reviewed by Heather Rose Jones

Sometimes a story doesn’t hit my sweet spot, not through any lack of writing quality, but simply because the structure is one that grates on me. “There are No Wrong Answers” was one of those (suggesting, perhaps, that there are wrong answers) due to the use of the interruptive quiz format that framed and was interspersed with the main narrative. Kudos for the experimental attempt, but it doesn’t work for me personally.

Lana has a talent for designing and analyzing personality tests, her neighbor Madame D (a drag performer and fortune teller) is a talented cold reader. Their intersection over a straying Labrador retriever results in an awkwardly developing friendship as Lana gets prickly over Madame D’s suggestion that their occupations have more in common that she’d like to think. Lana gets hired as lead test administrator for an employment counseling firm, which leads to the major conflict in the story.

The overall shape of the story is an overlay of “protagonist is aided to greater understanding of herself and learns to appreciate people she originally looked down on” and “supernatural powers achieve justice for wrongs done.” The genuine supernatural elements would seem to undermine the original premise that psychological counseling and cold reading are twins of the same parentage, but without them, this wouldn’t be a fantasy story at all.

(Originally published in What Fates Impose edited by Nayad A. Monroe)

REVIEW: “A Good Egg” by Shawn Proctor

Review of Shawn Proctor, A Good Egg, Podcastle: 499c — Listen Online. Reviewed by Heather Rose Jones

A brief heartbreaking fairy tale exploration, riffing off of the Humpty Dumpty rhyme, with a brief allusion to Cinderella in passing. What if Humpty Dumpty’s great fall was falling in love with the king? I liked how the author played with the clash of the structural absurdity of the Humpty Dumpty nickname and the bodily egg imagery (both shape and fragility) in combination with the understated pathos of the rhyme’s outcome, mapped onto a rejected lover. Not a happy story but an exquisite one.

REVIEW: “Chasing Flowers” by L. Chan

Review of L. Chan, Chasing Flowers, Podcastle: 498 — Listen Online. Reviewed by Heather Rose Jones

A ghost story and a love story–that is, a story of love between ghosts, trying to find a path to reunion in the face of the rules of the Chinese afterlife. In the initial exposition we are given a sketch of those rules, how they tore the two women apart after death, and the doomed circumstances of their love in life that locked them into a cycle of seeking. But one is truly a ghost while the other has been doomed(?) to cycles of rebirth, never entirely knowing why her life is full of emptiness and pain. This psychic connection is tied symbolically in the story to depression and self-harm, with a repeating motif of cutting echoing the harvesting of sap from rubber trees, as well as themes of the harm that women do themselves or allow to be done to them in the name of conformity and tradition. There’s a lot of darkness in this story but a hopeful ending–or as hopeful as a love story can be when one of the two is a ghost.

REVIEW: “For the Love of Snow White” by Delilah Night

Review of Delilah Night, “For the Love of Snow White”, in Myths, Monsters, and Mutations, edited by Jessica Augustsson (JayHenge Publications, 2017): 36-68 — Purchase here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology.)

It takes a lot of guts to start off a story “Once upon a time”, but Night should have every confidence in herself: This is one of the most satisfying fairy tale retellings I’ve read.

Fairy tales are rife with shadowy evil step-mothers whose sole purpose in the story seems to be to provide a bad guy. We never find out why they are evil, or what happened to the hero/heroine’s first mother. We do in this story; the narrator here is Snow White’s step mother, and we learn about how she came to the kingdom, ensnared the king, and, ultimately, cast Snow White into a sleep like death.

But the story isn’t just “Snow White told from another perspective”. It is a story of the clash between pagan druidic religion and the coming of a new god, a mix of classic myth/fairy tale with Christian religion and druidic rituals. It is a story of love and familial bonds. There is a very happy and cheerfully ordinary F/F romance.

Only two things slightly detracted from the story. There was some slightly overt erotica, which doesn’t in principle bother me but which felt rather out of place in this story particular story, and there is also one count of attempted incest, which, eugh, but in this case it did work in the story.

Part of what makes the story so successful is its length, one of the longest in the volume. I’ll be very curious to see if any other story can oust this one from its current spot as my favorite.