REVIEW: “Angel, Monster, Man” by Sam J. Miller

Review of Sam J. Miller, “Angel, Monster, Man”, in Steve Berman, ed., Wilde Stories 2017: The Year’s Best Gay Speculative Fiction (Lethe Press, 2017): 123-151. — Purchase here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology.)

Because to succeed as myth, Tom had to be dead. Otherwise the charade became too complicated to maintain. And who would know, in this city where the dying stacked up faster than firewood, that this one particular name in the long litany had never been an actual person?

A thought occurred to me, while reading the title of this piece, that while women have the threefold “Maiden/Mother/Crone” division, there isn’t really anything equivalent for men. What would such a tripartite characterisation of men look like? What types of myths and history could such a division tap into, in the way that the one for women does?

Miller’s story doesn’t actually address this question, but these were the thoughts playing in the back of my mind as I read it. I really enjoyed the complex narrative structure: Three parts, one for each portion of the title, one for each of three named narrators, the three that gave birth to Tom.

I loved the way the story operated at two levels, at one, just a story, at the other, an interrogation of the limits and boundaries of lies, fiction, and myth. Above all that, I loved the beauty of the story, with fine, delicate, ugly language. (The story is so full of lines I’d like to quote that if I quoted them all, I’d just be reproducing the entire story. “Adulterous toad-priests”. “Being a criminal is not so different from being an artist.” “Because of course it will hurt, because the things we need most always do.” “Love is the disease.” Ah! So many beautiful words.)

There is a rawness to the stories in this anthology that is unlike anything in any of the other anthologies I’ve reviewed for SFFReviews. It is hard to read these stories, Miller’s included especially, and not be moved. I also think I will be hard pressed to find a more powerful story in the collection than this astonishing one.

(This story first appeared in Nightmare, 2016).

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: “The Future of Hunger in the Age of Programmable Matter” by Sam J. Miller

Review of Sam J. Miller, “The Future of Hunger in the Age of Programmable Matter”, Tor.com (2017): Read Online. Reviewed by Danielle Maurer.

I’m not sure what I expected when I picked up this story to read, but it wasn’t a gay love story of sorts told during a post-polymer kaiju apocalypse. That said, I’m certainly here for it.

The story takes a science fiction framework and props it against a very human backdrop. The technobabble we expect is here, but it takes a back seat to a story about three core characters: Otto, our first-person narrator and former drug addict; Trevor, Otto’s controlling boyfriend with the too-perfect exterior; and Aarav, the visitor who comes between them. The story is split into two distinct halves: a key night before the kaiju made of programmable matter wreck New York City, and life in the refuge camps of upstate New York.

The prose has its moments of beauty, though in places it leans toward the overwrought. The frequent run-on sentences give it a breathy, babbling, almost nervous quality which can sometimes be grating.

But despite the mechanic flaws, the emotional core of the tale is powerfully depicted. Miller draws a realistic picture of Otto as a recovering addict, constantly worried that he’s not good enough, that he’ll fall back into his old destructive habits. And even though Otto thinks Trevor is perfect, Miller’s skillful depiction lets the reader know how much Trevor takes advantage of Otto’s mindset. It’s a heartbreaking tale, for much is lost on both macro and micro scales, but it’s also one of self-empowerment for Otto. Well worth a read.