REVIEW: “King’s Favor” by Ana Mardoll

Review of Ana Mardoll, “King’s Favor”, in No Man of Woman Born (Acacia Moon Publishing, 2018): 22-46 — Purchase here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology).

Content note: border walls, population purges, violence, mention of self-harm.

I have to admit, my feelings towards this story of Caran the hedge-mage who is sent as a spy into the kingdom of Northnesse with a view towards overthrowing their witch-queen are…ambivalent.

I actually started the story once, broke down a few pages in, and had to start it again from the beginning a few days later. The primary issue the first time around was linguistic: I found the neopronouns ‘nee’ and ‘ner’ difficult to read, because I’d never been exposed to them before. Even uncapitalized, they read like proper names rather than pronouns to me, and when they occurred capitalized, this was even more pronounced.

This is more a matter of familiarity than anything, but given that the neopronouns in the previous story, xie and xer, were different, I did wonder what the utility of having multiple neoppronouns was. Do they carry with them some subtle distinction? I don’t know, but while I feel like I should know, I don’t know how to find out. It’s quite a minor point, but it made me feel I was missing out on an aspect of the story and had no way to reach it.

On second attempt, I found it easier to read the pronouns, though occasionally my brain still wanted to supply ‘nee’s’ as the possessive of ‘nee’ rather than ‘ner’. This time, though, I kept being distracted from the story by all the world-building I was being fed. I felt that the story read more like notes for a novel (and what a glorious novel it would be!), for the author’s own consumption, than something that we, external readers, were meant to be reading.

All the same, these “notes for a novel” were more enjoyable and more satisfying to read than many short stories I’ve reviewed for this site, and the ending made me smile. I also found that the story forced me to push back against the limits of my own authorial imagination — something which is unfortunately still all to parochial for my liking sometimes — and make me grapple with why I, as an author, still find it a struggle to move beyond centering my own cisness. I want to read stories like this, even if I find them a struggle, because I learn something from doing so and come away from them just a little bit edified, as both a writer and a person.

REVIEW: “Toward Asteroid Exploration” by Roland Lehoucq

Review of Roland Lehoucq, “Toward Asteroid Exploration”, in Visions, Ventures, Escape Velocities: A Collection of Space Futures, edited by Ed Finn and Joey Eschrich, (Center for Science and Imagination, Arizona State University, 2017): 165-172 — Download here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology).

Mars is usually the destination that captures our collective imagination in the context of human-possible space exploration. Asteroids are, if anything, objects of destruction of humanity, not objects of their preservation. And yet, as Ramez Naam explored in his story “The Use of Things” (read the review), asteroids may in fact provide us with the crucial stepping stones humanity needs. In the nonfiction companion piece to Naam’s story, Lehoucq explores the conditions under which asteroid exploration can be undertaken.

First, there is the paradox that any asteroid to be close enough to be of use may also be, potentially, close enough to be of danger. To determine which are threats and which are not, we “must be able to…accurately predict their flight path” (p. 165). Only the “near-earth asteroids” (NEA) are suitable for the type of exploration that Naam writes about; but there are plenty of options within that subset: “As of 2016, around 15,000 NEAs are known” (p. 166), and it is quite likely that there are many, many more, especially ones of smaller size which are harder to detect.

In addition to knowing where they are and how big they are (and how fast they are rotating!) we also need to know their geological make-up — what kinds of minerals are present, how dense is the asteroid, how porous, how much water does it (possibly) contain? The difficulty here is that “this kind of information is very difficult to accurately determine using Earth-based surveys; it will require physical sampling” (p. 166). Because of their near-earth status, however, it is possible to send surveying equipment to the asteroids and back, and a handful of such missions have already been successful.

Once the likely candidates have been identified, they must in fact be mined — for water, for gold, for nickel-iron alloys. Lehoucq is optimistic about the technological possibilities here:

Such ambitious plans may seem like the mirage of a far-distant future, but the groundwork for a realistic implementation of asteroid mining is already being laid. In 2012, NASA’s Institute for Advanced Concepts announced the Robotic Asteroid Prospector project, which will examine and evaluate the feasibility of asteroid mining in terms of means, methods, and systems (p. 168).

The mining activity will have to be run by robots, programmed not only to run the mining equipment but also to separate the output, and to box it up for use elsewhere. All of this activity requires energy, which raises the next issue: How to provide that energy. Lehoucq offers two feasible options: solar power, for below 100 kilowatts (p. 170), and small fission nuclear reactors, for more efficient energy production (p. 170).

The remaining question, then, is what to do with the materials once mined: Do they get sent back to earth (probably the more likely, at least in initial stages), or are they processed on the asteroid to provide the materials for further space exploration (as in Naam’s story)? That question is one only the future can answer.

This may seem a tall task: But the point of Lehoucq’s article is that each individual step is not only feasible, but we already have been taking steps towards achieving it. When it comes to asteroids, mankind needn’t make one giant leap all in one go, but can many small steps, one by one.

REVIEW: “The Auteur” by Mike Thorn

Review of Mike Thorn, “The Auteur”, Darkest Hours (Unnerving, 2017): 98-115 — Purchase here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology).

Simon, Cate, and Edwin all work in a movie rental place, and Cate — self-described “in-house horror specialist” (p. 99) — spends a lot of time rehearsing the merits and demerits of various horror movies to her co-worker Simon. None of them are what he really wants to watch: What he wants access to are the movies Cate, “world-changing auteur of pure horror” (also self-described, p. 101), makes.

It’s difficult to describe a movie in words, and even more difficult with a movie that relies so much on timing, pacing, angles, and sounds, as horror movies do. But that’s what we get in this story when Simon finally gets a chance to see one of Cate’s movies, alternating description of the movie, recounting of dialogue in the movie, and Simon’s reactions to it. In the end, this story felt much more like a clinical description of horror than actually horror itself.

(Originally published in Turn to Ash, 2016).

REVIEW: “Mired” by Mike Thorn

Review of Mike Thorn, “Mired”, Darkest Hours (Unnerving, 2017): 82-96 — Purchase here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology).

Unlike some of the other stories in this collection, which go more for the grisly and the gory, this story opens with a nightmare scenario so parody-like it’s more amusing than horrifying: A researcher confronts a neon green blob in his closet, while the blob eats his research. (What kind of research? you might ask. Apparently Randolph is the type of pretentious guy who reads Derrida, Hegel, and Nietzsche. He is also the type of guy who when confronted with a neon green blob panics and calls a woman (whose name he doesn’t even remember correctly) to come and sort things out for him — but he’s not even got enough courage to go through with that!)

I sort of feel like I should’ve come away from this story with some great weighty reflections about man’s relationship to his work, and the weight of ideas that are never read or grappled with, or even some sort of sense of kinship to Randolph, an academic philosopher like myself; but he was never really sympathetic enough for me to be all that bothered by what ended up happening to him.

(Originally published in Double Feature Magazine 2016).

REVIEW: “The Use of Things” by Ramez Naam

Review of Ramez Naam, “The Use of Things”, in Visions, Ventures, Escape Velocities: A Collection of Space Futures, edited by Ed Finn and Joey Eschrich, (Center for Science and Imagination, Arizona State University, 2017): 151-163 — Download here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology).

[Ryan] was going to die in this ripped space suit, die thinking of Beth Wu, a hundred million miles away, and how right she’d been (p. 151).

I’ve never wanted to be an astronaut. The combination of a space suit and the expanse of space was both too claustrophobic and too agoraphobic for me to ever comfortably consider this as an option. Everything that I find scary about this is encapsulated in the opening scene of Naam’s story. Nevertheless, there is still a fascination about what would it be like, and Naam taps into that as well: The very different physical experience of being in space comes across clearly in this story, and even though I wouldn’t want to be in Ryan’s shoes myself, I really enjoyed reading about him being in them.

I also enjoyed the more theoretical thread of the story, which explores what use human beings are, or can be, in a future of increasing automation. We aim for the stars because it is human nature to explore — but increasingly our best means of exploration involve leaving ourselves behind on earth and sending automated explorers out instead. As Naam points out in the story, it’s just too expensive to send out the humans: “Humans have to go quickly, or not at all” (p. 159), and quickly means expensively. So where does that leave us? Building better and better means of exploration to satisfy a specifically human need and in doing so making it increasingly impossible that we will ever get to explore ourselves.

You might think, given all this, that this is a depressing story. It isn’t. It’s a hopeful, happy one.

REVIEW: “Tangled Nets” by Ana Mardoll

Review of Ana Mardoll, “Tangled Nets”, in No Man of Woman Born (Acacia Moon Publishing, 2018): 1-21 — Purchase here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology).

Content note: Violence, bloodshed, community ableism, sacrificial victims, self-sacrifice

The life of a fisher is a life of routine and ritual — mending the nets, catching the fish, sorting the fish: “the routine was comforting in its familiarity” (p. 2). But the routine of Wren the fisher is broken when xer sister Dwynwen dies and xie must continue to care for their mother Eirlys, never strong and frailer now after the death of her daughter. It was no accidental death or sickness that took Dwynwen, and Wren’s quest is to prevent anyone else from ever dying that way again. But the witch had prophesied that “no man or woman” could ever defeat the dragon…

Mardoll gives us history and detail without overburderning us with information, and every step along the way we are rooting for Wren’s success. Sometimes the most satisfying of stories are ones that set up expectations — or play directly into expectations grounded in a shared literary culture (in this case, western fairy tales) — precisely so that they are met. There is nothing unexpected, there is no surprising twist, everything in this story works the way it should and it is so satisfying.

REVIEW: “Party Time” by Mike Thorn

Review of Mike Thorn, “Party Time”, Darkest Hours (Unnerving, 2017): 68-79 — Purchase here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology).

Content note: Gory violence

This is the story of Steve. Steve is a drunken asshole with a tendency to violence, and an overdeveloped sense of possession when it comes to women. Steve is not a likeable person — this is made utterly clear from the very first paragraph. The question that kept me reading was: Does Steve have any redeeming qualities? Does he have any redemption at all?

Unfortunately, no, not really. He gets a comeuppance, but it’s not in any sort of poetic-justic way. Instead, it’s just a successively violent stream of gore.