REVIEW: “In the Frozen, Ancient City” by Sarah E. Donnelly

Review of Sarah E. Donnelly, “In the Frozen, Ancient City”, Luna Station Quarterly 31: Read online. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman.

The short story is a hard length to pull off sometimes. The author has to give the characters enough life and depth for them to be worth the reader investing in them. There has to be enough background to give the illusion of an entire world sprawling out in front of the reader, but not so much that the story is bogged down by information rather than story. There has to something that answers the question “Why this story? Why this narrator?” — there are so many stories that can be told, why was this one chosen? And there has to be some sort of resolution, something that makes the reader feel it was worth their while to have read the story. It’s tough to pull all of these off in one and the same piece.

What this story does well is the characters. Both Nerys and Seika are rounded characters with distinct personalities, and any SFF story where the central characters are women will always get a thumbs up from me. There is also a lot of details about the geography, both natural and artificial, which helps to set the story. However, at times I was left with a desire to have more setting; the little hints that are dropped here and there provide a sketch of the scene but leave more questions than they answer. Where is home? What is the ancient city? Why is it frozen? Is home also frozen? Why are they in the ancient city? Why is it there? None of the answers to these questions is necessary to understand the story, but they do linger and niggle.

Another niggle comes from the resolution. So many short stories end in or involve death, in part because death provides a good resolution; it is, in many ways, easy. It is easier to die than to live. It is easier to tell a story of death than a story of life, because death is neat and simple and final, and life is messy and complex and unbounded. This observation should not be taken as a criticism of this story; but it is perhaps a criticism of the genre and length in general: Why aren’t there more happy endings?

REVIEW: “The Gardens of Babylon” by Hassan Blasim

Review of Hassan Blasim, Jonathan Wright (trans.), “The Gardens of Babylon”, Iraq+100, edited by Hassan Blasim (Comma Press, 2016): 11-33 — Purchase here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology.)

For a speculative story about how the world will be in the future, “The Gardens of Babylon” spends a lot of time looking back to the past, with the speculative (or in this case, properly science fiction) elements primarily a means of allowing the characters to not just look backwards but also experience what life then/now was like. The title itself is intended to invoke a memory of the historic wonder of the ancient world; the titular gardens in this story are very clearly presented as a new vision and interpretation of paradise.

The story is woven out of two threads: One is the story of a present-day man who worked as a translator, translating Raymond Carver stories, and the other is the story of the narrator, in the future, who is tasked with converting the stories of the past — include the tale of the translator — into an interactive game for people to enjoy in paradise. Both the narrator and the translator have similar narrative voices and styles, as well as similar goals — the narrator to preserve history through retelling it, the translator to preserve it through translating it. At times, it is difficult to keep the two speakers and the their two tales distinct; but this confusion ends up being exploited in the resolution of the story.

Two things struck me about Blasim’s vision of the future as depicted in this story:

  • First, this is the second story in the anthology wherein the dominant power is the Chinese.
  • Second, the biggest influence on the future was not the war or the fall-out from war, but rather climate change. The war is basically an afterthought, a nonevent.

This is part of what I have enjoyed so much about this collection — the sheer diversity of imagined futures.

REVIEW: “You and Me and Mars” by Sandy Parsons

Review of Sandy Parsons, “You and Me and Mars”, Luna Station Quarterly 31: Read online. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman.

Reading a story is a very situated act: Who you are and what you bring to the story will affect not only how you read the story but also the story itself. “You and Me and Mars” is a story told by an “I” to a “you”, and neither the “you” nor the “I” are given any gender in the opening lines. Yet when I read the line:

Or maybe you could have consulted me when you started to design the drones, considering that was my idea.

I, being a woman working in academia (and, further, a science-oriented part of it), immediately read the “I” as being female and the “you” as being male. It is strange how the set-up of the story makes me identify with the narrator instead of the narrator’s “you”. I am not sure why it is, but it provides an interesting experience reading the story. The narrator’s lack of understanding of what is happening bleeds over into my own lack of understanding. I am not quite sure where we are going, or why, or why I have been chosen for the journey.

The feeling persists throughout reading the story, the wonder of why the narrator is where she is and why her story is a story to tell. I reach the end, and I am still uncertain whether this story is supposed to be optimistic or not.

REVIEW: “Beacon of Truth” by Charity West

Review of Charity West, “Beacon of Truth”, Luna Station Quarterly 31: Read online. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman.

The writing, reading, and possession of fiction a subversive act. Fiction is the glorification of lies.

This quote sums up West’s story, which weaves together a number of common dystopian tropes — the forbidden nature of books, technology that prevents people from lying, the one person who can lie and will teach others how to.

The middle part of the story reminds me of China Mieville’s Embassytown, in the way it highlights how difficult it is to use language when it can only be used literally and truthfully. Every single analogy or metaphor or hyperbole that the Glib uses, in his conversation so ordinary, is almost unfathomable to the narrator.

But the real punch comes in the final paragraphs. As a parent of a young daughter myself, I found the lead-up to the ending difficult to read, and the very end brought tears to my eyes — but they were tears of happiness, not despair. It was a brilliant finish.

REVIEW: “Kahramana” by Anoud

Review of Anoud, “Kahramana”, Iraq+100, edited by Hassan Blasim (Comma Press, 2016): 1-10 — Purchase here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology.)

Anoud’s story of a woman pledged to be married to Mullah Hashish, who attacks her would-be husband when he tries to rape her, escapes to the American Annex of Sulaymania and becomes poster-girl for the refugee women the war has left only to be cast aside and forgotten when the media had no further use for her, is the opening story of the anthology, and starts the book off on a remarkably down note. (It does have an Informative Footnote, though, and we know how much I love an informative footnote.)

This story is more prosaic than some in the collection; there is little about it that is either science fictional or fantastic, and the main speculative elements come from simply imagining that the world in 100 years isn’t all that much different from the world now. There is no clear setting, and except for a few sparse details that impact on the plot hardly at all, the story could be set contemporarily. The result of this is that one comes away from the story with the feeling that nothing ever really changes.

The narrative voice shifts from a bird’s eye, abstracted account, to a close personal telling from Kahramana’s point of view, to clips from reporters and interviews. Each is distinctive from the other and together they provide the reader with both close and far views of the world. But whichever view is taken, what is seen is not very hopeful. I’ve actually read this story twice now: Once when I first received the anthology, and then again now to review it. Between starting the anthology off with this story, and the one that follows it (“The Gardens of Babylon”), the first time around I did not get a very good picture of what the collection as a whole would be like — which is partly why I’m reviewing them out of order for SFFReviews.

REVIEW: “The Mercenary” by Beth McCabe

Review of Beth McCabe, “The Mercenary”, Luna Station Quarterly 31: Read online. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman.

“The Mercenary” is a classic story of boy-ditches-girl, girl-becomes-a-time-traveller. Oh, wait, that isn’t actually one of the classic story lines? Well, there are worse reasons to become a time-traveller than being ditched for another girl.

On the other hand, there are plenty of other reasons why a girl might join a guild of time travellers, and sometimes it pays to extend beyond the standard tropes whereby the heroine needs to be thwarted in love before she can assume her agency as a heroine. When a narrator tells me

But I had never let go of my heartbreak – or my obsession.

my first thought is “Well, here’s a character who’s got a long arc ahead of her.”

Unfortunately, much of the early part of the story is spent rehearsing the past, rather than actually traversing that needed arc. When we do start moving forward, it doesn’t take long until we reach the “ahah” moment — the moment at which I go, “I bet I know how this is going to end.” I do like moments like that because then I can spend the rest of the story feeling smug, either to have that smugness confirmed when I am proven right or to have the delightful surprise when I am proven wrong. [Spoiler: In this case, I was right!]

On the other hand again, what I really want is a story that doesn’t have any of those moments, where every step is a surprise, where I have no idea where things are going to end up. Familiarity is comforting, but this story could have made me a bit more uncomfortable.

REVIEW: “The Corporal” by Ali Bader

Review of Ali Bader, Elisabeth Jacquette (trans.), “The Corporal”, Iraq+100, edited by Hassan Blasim (Comma Press, 2016): 35-60 — Purchase here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology.)

Many of the stories in Iraq+100 betray a deep sadness and fear about the future — but not this story. Bader’s story is a mix of exuberantly hopeful, riotously funny, and — in places — scarily prescient. Bader’s vision of the future is told through the eyes of someone from the past. The Corporal was killed by a sniper during the original invasion, and ends up in limbo while awaiting to learn whether or not his death made him a martyr (as a philosopher, I love the idea that the reason why the limbo queue in the afterlife is so long is because Socrates won’t stop asking God questions!). Eventually, though, he gets sent back to earth as a prophet — 100 years in the future. In that future, the American invasion “worked”; Iraq is now a democracy, a place of peace and calm, and a beacon of democracy in the rest of the world. The cities of Kut and Nasiriyah are quiet and clean and filled with happy people.

The speculative element of the story is quite minimal, especially in the beginning, simply there to scaffold the juxtaposition of the two Iraqs; this does not make the story any less gripping.

Reading the story, it’s hard to remember that these were written before November 2016 and the aftermath of the US election. For example, a 21st-century man explains to the Corporal:

“Just take America: now it’s an extremist state, gripped by religion…The extremists found refuge in America, and that’s the problem now. America has become an extremist state, overrun by religious intolerance…”

“Are you telling the truth, sir?”

“Yes, America is a rogue state now. It’s part of the axis of evil. The civilised world is trying to bring the country back to its senses and bring back democracy.” … “The problem is with the West — that’s right, the problem is with the West, which has been transformed into an oasis of terrorism, a haven for religious intolerance and hatred” (pp. 56-57).

It’s hard not to read this and reflect on how much truth resembles fiction sometimes.

It was a brilliant story with a brilliant ending, and one that hits a little too close to home for comfort. My favorite of the book so far.