REVIEW: “Under the Northern Lights” by Charlotte M. Ray

Review of Charlotte M. Ray, “Under the Northern Lights”, in Glass and Gardens: Solar Punk Summers, edited by Sarena Ulibarri, (World Weaver Press, 2018): 250-270 — Purchase here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology).

This was a cute little love story which I found strangely odd because the narrator seemed so personality-less; his only character trait seemed to be his falling in love with Krista, the woman whose blimp crashed into the lake outside his house. Now, Krista, on the other hand — she was pretty awesome. Confident, ambitious, educated, she I enjoyed reading about enough to feel bad that she had such a bland person falling in love with her, someone whose sole role in the story seemed to be to do that — the fact that the unnamed narrator also happens to cultivate the one thing Krista was searching for especially is a bit too neat of a coincidence. Still, it was a rather sweet way to end the anthology.

REVIEW: “It’s the End of the World As We Know It” by A. C. Wise

Review of A. C. Wise, “It’s the End of the World As We Know It”, in Steve Berman, ed., Wilde Stories 2017: The Year’s Best Gay Speculative Fiction (Lethe Press, 2017): 259-275 — Purchase here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology.)

Do dead boys get boners? Or are they safe from being mortified? Oh, God, pun intended.

This is a classic coming-of-age, boy-meets-dead-boy, high-school-prom-graduation-and-what-comes-after story — oh, wait, that’s not really classic, is it. Nevertheless, that is exactly what the story is, and it was a pure delight to read. Now, I’ve never been a high school boy myself, so I can’t attest to the verisimilitude of the narrator’s (I just realised we never learn his name) experiences, but they feel so very real and genuine, the embarrasment, the longing, the joy, the fear. This is a story I will file carefully away, to keep safely until the time comes that I think “I know someone who needs to read this story,” at which time I’ll pull it out and share it with them. Because everyone at some point in their lives, particularly in high school, needs to read a story that shows them they are not alone.

(I also totally and shamelessly want to see this short story turned into a movie. But only this story, however short a movie it ended up being, and not some story vaguely inspired by this story but with a whole bunch more added to it. Because the twist that comes about 2/3 of the way in is both completely unexpected and entirely perfect.)

There is no way to separate the act of reading a story from the reader. There is no way I cannot read the title of this story without thinking of the same-titled REM song, the song that was my mental soundtrack in the weeks after discovering I was pregnant. I cannot get away from those memories or that song while reading this story, which makes my experience of it individual, singular (but though it is individual to me, it is no more individualised than any other reader’s experiences of the story). So I was quite glad that a nod was made to the REM song at the end of the story. I hope those kids think of that time of their lives every time they hear the song, too.

(Originally appeared in The Kissing Booth Girl and Other Stories, 2016.)

REVIEW: “My Heart’s Own Desire” by Robert Levy

Review of Robert Levy, “My Heart’s Own Desire”, in Steve Berman, ed., Wilde Stories 2017: The Year’s Best Gay Speculative Fiction (Lethe Press, 2017): 199-211 — Purchase here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology.)

He said he was a man of means now hidden to the world, and that he wanted nothing more than to take me back to his place. It is safe, he said, and warm. He also let it be known that he could conjure the most illuminating things, potion-soaked wafers that gave you crystal visions. The Hierophant’s shit is so good, my brother Carter told me later, people say God is his supplier.

Content note: Contains explicit incest.

This was a difficult story for me to read, not the least because of some fairly graphic incest scenes. I’m not a huge fan of graphic sex scenes, but there are some contexts when they feel so right and natural that I do not mind them and even enjoy them. But the context here just feels so wrong.

Often when I’m reading, the underlying question I am continually asking is “Why this story?” Why did the narrator choose to tell this story? Why did the author choose to tell this story? Quite often the answer is a simple — if unhelpful — “because it’s a good one”. But other times, I feel like I must struggle with the story to find the answer, because the underlying premise to the question always is “they must have had a reason, a reason that they thought this story was the one worth telling”. One of the salutary things about fiction is the way in which it can force people to question their defaults and assumptions, to take a second look at why they react the way they do. I found myself doing that quite often reading this story — asking myself “is the repugnance with which I view incest preventing me from seeing clearly the answer to ‘why this story’?” Is there something the author has to say that makes this particular mode of saying it not only appropriate but justified?

At the end, I don’t know. I also don’t know whether the fault lies with me, or with the story — or with both, or with neither. It was well-written — lovely pacing, beauiful imagery, depictions of drug-induced experiences that I can appreciate aesthetically even while I have no point of contact in my own experiences — but I’m not sure that was enough to rehabilitate this one for me.

(Originally appeared in Congress Magazine, 2016.)

REVIEW: “The Gentleman of Chaos” by A. Merc Rustad

Review of A. Merc Rustad, “The Gentleman of Chaos”, in Steve Berman, ed., Wilde Stories 2017: The Year’s Best Gay Speculative Fiction (Lethe Press, 2017): 55-66 — Purchase here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology.)

He has no name, for it was banished long ago. By royal decree he has no face, for he does not exist. No one has heard his voice, soft like velvet; no one has seen the exhaustion and pain in his eyes; no one has felt his hand, scarred and calloused, on their cheek in an apologetic caress.

I really enjoy 1st-person POV for short stories, because then I feel like I’m sitting around a campfire, or in someone’s quiet room, or at a theatre, listening to someone tell a story. This story is steeped in history and mythology, and it feels real — not that the events in it happened, but that they are events that someone, somewhere would tell to captivate an audience who is disposed to believe the teller’s fantasies. It feels like something Shahrazad would tell her captive king.

Who, exactly, the narrator is, and why She (for that is the name which we are instructed to use) has chosen to tell this tale rather than another one, put me in a position where I — cis, het, female — feel like I’m wholly unqualified to review the story. There are so many aspects of the story where I simply do not have the right standing to comment on them. So I will stick to making personal remarks: This is a love story, and I loved it, and it is magical.

(First appeared in Apex Magazine 2016).

REVIEW: “Saturday Night Science” by Michael M. Jones

Review of Michael M. Jones, “Saturday Night Science”, Broadswords and Blasters 1 (2017): 37-52 — Purchase Here. Reviewed by Yana Shepard.

This one is humorous and easily my favorite so far. And sapphic relationships! I’m all about f/f relationships! I was so happy to read this.

The main character, Camille, shows some fire when needed and a huge nerd, showcased via locations in the story. There’s also disability rep. Camille has no feeling in her legs so must rely on a wheelchair to get around.

Daphne, the other character, gave me a Doctor Who vibe. I love Doctor Who. Love that show. So it was no surprise to me that I fell in love with Daphne just as much as I fell in love with Camille.

“Saturday Night Science” had so many nice surprises.

I recommend it to any who enjoy SF, multiverse shenanigans, humor, and happy endings.

REVIEW: “Making Us Monsters” by Sam J. Miller and Lara Elena Donnelly

Review of Sam J. Miller and Lara Elena Donnelly’s, “Making Us Monsters”, Uncanny Magazine Volume, 19 (2017): Read Online. Reviewed by Jodie Baker.

Do you enjoy weeping? Well then, I highly recommend you read “Making Us Monsters”. Sam J. Miller and Lara Elena Donnelly have written a correspondence across the ages between wartime poets, and lovers, Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon. If you’re not crying yet there’s a good chance you will be by the end of the story.

The science fiction element in this story is quite subtle. In 1932, Sassoon suddenly begins to receive letters from beyond the grave. Front line missives from Wilfred Owen are delivered by post or appear mysteriously among other correspondence, in pockets, or among the pages of books. These letters, delivered by an unknown hand after all these years, is all the sci-fi the story includes, but such a small otherworldly touch yields a deep, examination of two men, their relationship, and war.

Sassoon documents these finds in his diary, and is soon speaking directly to ‘Will’ in his entries. It is clear that Owen thinks Siegfried has forgotten him, as he receives no reply in 1918. Siegfried fears what each letter will bring but also longs for each new word from his former lover.

The idea of letters supernaturally appearing from beyond the grave alludes to the growing interest in spiritualism that followed WWI, as people sought solace, understanding, and connection in the face of such large scale tragedy. And there is so much to dig into in this story. The distanced correspondence sharply dissects Sassoon, a man often torn between hatred of the destruction war brings, and a belief that war somehow uplifts and unites men to make the feeling beyond soldiers finer than anything else. And the writing style does a fabulous job of emulating the way the poets wrote about war – often full of tragedy, emotion, and lush, dark imagery that seduces the reader into seeing war through the prism of gothic romance before it rams home the utter, brutal hell of battle.

Sassoon’s relationship with Owen – as mentor, lover, and stirring influence – is laid bare, and is heartbreaking. Was I wrong to hope that the science fictional aspect of this story might lead to a happier conclusion? A letter that allows Sassoon to find some peace? An entirely out of this world reunion with Will? Sadly, it was not to be. Instead I was left sad, although in other ways quite satisfied, by “Making Us Monsters”. The horrors of war, especially the way the men in charge aim to create soldiers who suit their bloody purposes, are brought to the fore. And I found this story a fascinating take on the First World War, and on these two men in particular. If you enjoyed Pat Barker’s Regeneration trilogy about the war poets make this your next read.

REVIEW: “Elemental Love” by Rachel Swirsky

Review of Rachel Swirsky’s, “Elemental Love”, Uncanny Magazine Volume, 19 (2017): Read Online. Reviewed by Jodie Baker.

“Elemental Love” is a story about the poetry, and romance, of science. If you feel a sense of wonder when you hear that ‘we are all made of stars,‘ this is the story for you.

An unnamed narrator details the remarkable nature of the elements contained inside their lover’s body. Under their watch, each component is revealed as a marvel with links to the wider world, remarkable properties, and a deep soulful poetry at the heart of their function:

One percent: Phosphorus.

Named the light-bearer for the morning star, for Venus glowing on its nightly rounds. It dwells in the membranes of your cells; it nurtures them; it mends them. Love’s namesake keeps you whole.

It is an unbearably romantic declaration. What a shame biology lessons were never like this in my day.

The narrator unfurls this list of elements in response to their lover’s query: ‘You asked: Why I would love you.’ And this is where the more traditional science fiction element of the story kicks in. It is revealed that the narrator is something other than human, and considers their own body less full of wonder. ‘There are no miracles in me,’ they announce towards the end of the story.

However, it is clear from the reported speech of their lover that not everyone agrees. The narrator’s miracles are the kind of engineered marvel that many a sci-fi fan can appreciate. The story ties up with a little bitter-sweetness, as the narrator casts doubt on the value of their own astonishing nature. Yet the reader is able to see that this romance is more equal than the narrator perceives, and leaves this story with the satisfying image of two beings tangled together in awe. Biology meets engineering, and both prove as fascinating as the other.

As in her Hugo nominated story of love and loss, “If You Were a Dinosaur, My Love“, Swirsky shows a deft touch for rhythm and feeling in “Elemental Love”. The flow of this story, the placement of line breaks, and the restraint of what Swirsky chooses to include about each element, all build to help this story move at a perfect pace; slow, rippling, and subtle. Let yourself be seduced by Swirsky’s way with words – you’ll never look at your own body the same way again.