REVIEW: “The End of the World on the Cutting Room Floor” by Fraser Sherman

Review of Fraser Sherman, “The End of the World on the Cutting Room Floor”, Space and Time #130 Winter 2017 pp. 17-23. Purchase here. Review by Ben Serna-Grey.

Remember Who Framed Roger Rabbit? or that one movie with Brad Pitt and the cartoon cat. This story is a lot like that, though definitely better than the Brad Pitt movie. The world has ended and everyone seems to have “come back” as movie characters of some sort or another. There’s some cheesiness involved, but it comes with the territory when some of these realms are straight out of B-movie schlock.

There are black and white B-movie horror characters, blacksploitation nods, film noire, but not so much by way of “modern” cinema nods other than a few name drops. Still if you grew up watching schlocky films, especially if you watched some of those by way of Mystery Science Theater 3000, then you’ll get a few chuckles out of this.

The story is fairly clever and tongue in cheek, though for me personally it doesn’t stand out as much as other Space and Time Magazine stories I’ve read before. However, like everything else put out by this publication, it’s still an interesting and well-written story and I’d still recommend giving it a read.

REVIEW: “The Utmost Bound” by Vivian Shaw

Review of Vivian Shaw’s, “The Utmost Bound”, Uncanny Magazine Volume, 20 (2018): Read Online. Reviewed by Jodie Baker.

In “The Utmost Bound” Vivian Shaw uses the routine of everyday life in space to ease the reader into her story. There is much ordinary dialogue, chatter about conditions, and thoughts about the dreary on-board food. It’s clear that the story’s protagonist, Commander McBride, has become accustomed to his life in space. Everything that might stand out as new and strange to the reader is old and familiar to him; even annoying. The view is ‘predictable’ the sky is ‘Yellow sky. Ugly as shit.’

His colleague Artanian also finds that space holds few terrors, and is just a series of regular, fact-finding missions passed down to them by their reliable connection in Hawaii, on Earth. In a way, maintaining the ordinariness of the experience is how they cope with the fact that they are working in extraordinary conditions – ‘The conversation between them was part of the morning ritual: the conversation meant they were still people, out here in the black.’

Of course, this is how many horror movies start – with quite ordinary people, going about their regular lives, until something terrifying subverts all that normality. Often the destruction of all that normal stuff emphasises the horror that comes after. And I think that’s the structure “The Utmost Bound” is playing with, as it builds its own story of space terror. However, this story is more about the cerebral terror of discovering the limits of humanity than about the terror or finding alien monsters in space.

While the story certainly brings some political horror to the surface, it loses some of its impact because the main characters are physically safe (although mentally shocked). It lacks the immediacy of media like David Bowie’s “Space Oddity” (which it references), because its characters are removed and reporting rather than directly involved. And, while the monstrosity of what they have seen brings a vivid depiction of governmental disdain into the story, it is perhaps too easy for the reader to shuck off their feelings at the end of this story. At least, while McBride remains haunted, and concerned about the scale of what may have happened, these feelings didn’t quite stick with me as I exited the story.

REVIEW: “Cold Blue Sky” by J. E. Bates

Review of J. E. Bates, “Cold Blue Sky”, Apex Magazine 108 (2018): Read Online. Reviewed by Joanna Z. Weston.

A robotic AI was used to commit a felony. Her memory has been wiped, but the police bring her chasis in to see if they can find any scraps that might help. The twist? She remembers everything. The narrative switches back and forth between her present day observations of the police, and her memories of the crime.

The most interesting part of this story is probably the choice of protagonist. The story is told from the point of view of the AI, who has very little idea of what is going on. She has almost no experience beyond her programming, and is not depicted as particularly intelligent. In fact, the AI’s are repeated described as “nascent sentience” and “below legal limits,” implying that they are not quite smart enough to quality as truly sentient. It bring up questions about what makes a being self-aware, a person, without really dwelling on the matter. The fact that she can narrate a story and be a point-of-view character answers the question by itself.

The world could be a near-future of our own, but the themes of AI exploitation and the sabotage of a huge corporation strongly suggest a cyberpunk influence, which I quite enjoyed. The caper itself seemed unique, relying entirely on her use as a computer. It’s more common to see AI robots interacting like humans, whether they are our equals, superiors, or slaves. Here, she is clearly something other, and that makes for an interesting dynamic and point-of-view.

REVIEW: “Vanguard 2.0” by Carter Scholz

Review of Carter Scholz, “Vanguard 2.0”, 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): 5-21 — Download here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology).

The hero of this story, Sergei Sergeiivitch Ivashchenko, taps in to all sorts of “lone troubled male genius” stereotypes — his parents divorced when he was young; his father died of cancer soon after; his mother didn’t love him; he spent his late teen years in a drunken haze and yet still managed to get a scholarship and then “blazed almost contemptuously through math, compsci, and astrodynamics” (p. 5). Of course, all the genius in the world isn’t going to get you a job in a bad economy, so after graduating Sergei was lucky to be doing menial work off-Earth at Uber’s “Near Space Logistics and Asset Management” division, with the job title “Orbital Supervisor”.

Despite my initial ambivalence to Sergei, the story drew me in. Scholz uses his economy with words to great effect, using only a few phrases here and there to paint detailed pictures, of the earth sprawling below, of the colleagues Sergei shares his space and his life with, of the way the future could be just a few decades from now. There is nothing about the story that seems unrealistic — although I’m not a specialist in astro-mechanics or related fields so maybe to an expert things would look different — even though it is fictional.

Two things did let it down. First, Scholz does not mark direct speech with quotation marks, which along with often not tagging speech with the speaker makes it hard to keep track of what is being spoken, and by whom. I do not think the story benefited from the adoption of these techniques. Second, throughout Scholz uses words like “crazy” quite cavalierly — “Pace was crazy, but that didn’t bother him. Everyone in the world was crazy, no exceptions” or “To Sergei that [Pace’s belief in the Singularity] was bonus crazy” (p. 10). The casualness of this use makes it hard to ascertain whether Scholz is cognisant of this terms use as a slur, and that reinforcing this sort of usage is problematic.

On the whole, though, I found Scholz to be a very competent writer; I’d like to read a novel by him.

REVIEW: “The Spider and the Stars” by D. K. Mok

Review of D. K. Mok, “The Spider and the Stars”, in Glass and Gardens: Solar Punk Summers, edited by Sarena Ulibarri, (World Weaver Press, 2018): 8-28 — Purchase here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology).

This is a story about telling stories, the stories our parents tell us, the stories we tell others — not the “stories” that are lies, but the stories that provide us with a glimpse of truth that can only be reached through fiction.

Mok’s tale traces Del’s life through snapshots, every few decades or so, from when Del is five and her mother tells her a bedtime story that causes her to decide the course of her destiny, to when she is fifteen and experimenting with a local boy — experimenting with modifying the genes of insects, arachnids, and plants, that is — through her adulthood and all the steps along the way to achieving that destiny.

In concept, the story reminds me of Adrian Tchaikovsky’s Children of Time, a book which impressed me quite a bit. In its essence, though, it stands apart from ordinary tales of space-faring through the inclusion of something that is lacking in so many speculative-fic hero-quest stories: Loving and supportive parents. The story is dotted through with moments where a character was uncertain or apprehensive, and a parent stood by their side and gave them the strength to do what they needed to do. What small moments they were, but what important consequences they had. It made me thoroughly love reading this story.

REVIEW: Visions, Ventures, Escape Velocities edited by Ed Finn and Joey Eschrich

Review of Ed Finn and Joey Eschrich, eds., Visions, Ventures, Escape Velocities: A Collection of Space Futures (Center for Science and Imagination, Arizona State University, 2017) — Download here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman.

When I’m not reading and reviewing speculative fiction, I can be found writing it. But that’s only at night — by day, I am an academic logician, devoting my time to research and teaching. When I took the step a few years ago to start devoting serious time to my fiction writing, I found myself in a bit of a vocabularistic bind: If I distinguish my writing between “fiction” and “not fiction”, that’s as if I’m distinguishing it into “fiction” and “fact”, and if there is one thing any good scientist knows, it’s that today’s “facts” are tomorrow’s “fictions” — and “today’s fictions” are tomorrow’s “facts”. (So instead I try to contrast my fiction writing with my academic writing, which hopefully doesn’t carry the connotation that everything I say in my academic work is true. I try. I regularly fail.)

It is from this position that I find the present anthology, funded by NASA, so fascinating. The spring point of the anthology is Kim Stanley Robinson’s 1992 novel Red Mars, because Robinson’s “visions of the future…have helped to shape our broader cultural imaginary for human endeavors in space, both in science fiction and technical communities” (p. xv). In their editorial, “The Flag and the Garden”, Finn and Eschrich ask “Why should we go to space?” It’s a question whose answers have changed significantly over the past 70 years, as both the methods of space-travel and the means for funding those methods have changed. It would be to quick and facile to say that two generations ago our reaching for the stars was a cultural goal that we reached for collectively and that now, with the fragmentation of space-travel funding devolving from government bodies to private corporations, it is an individualistic pursuit, but this the former is the “flag” and the latter is the “garden” of the editorial’s title. What Finn and Eschrich argue is that we need to incorporate both the public and the private aspects of space travel into a “new collective understanding” (p. xx) of why we should go to space:

Until enough people buy into a public and private narrative of space, commerce can only take place in a very limited way (p. xx).

The goal of the collection is to rise to that challenge of melding the public and the private. As the editors describe it, the anthology is the result of “the act of putting writers, natural scientists, engineers, and social scientists into dialogue around the near future of space”, an act which “has effects on those collaborators themselves, who have grappled with—and we hope, learned something useful from—the exercise of working across disciplinary and creative boundaries” (p. xxi). This is not so much a book of authors trying to imagine future science but of scientists trying to imagine the future. The result integrates narratives and nonfiction, so that science and fiction are so closely blended that it’s hard to see where one begins and the other stops. While ordinarily the focus of this site is on reviewing SFF fiction, we don’t feel we’re going out on too much of a limb when we assume that readers of SFF fiction are also interested in SFF fact. As a result, I will be reviewing all the chapters of this anthology, both the narrative ones and the science ones.

It’s not clear from the editorial introduction how stories were solicited for this collection, but whatever method they used, they ended up with a disappointingly low score on the “non-male author” metric. (At least the collection does better on the “non-white” metric.) The book is divided into six sections: The editorial frontmatter, which includes an editorial as well as a non-fiction piece “Human Exploration of Mars: Fact from Fiction?” by Jim Bell (which we review in a post of its own), and then stories grouped under the headings of “Low Earth Orbit”, “Mars”, “Asteroids”, “Exoplanets”, and “Concluding Thoughts”, which includes an interview with Robinson. (There is also an 8 page bibliography, and if there is one thing that I love more than an informative footnote, it’s a bibliography.) Each section is prefaced by a brief excerpt from Red Mars, providing a framework for the entire book. The book is beautifully illustrated throughout by Maciej Rebisz.

Below is the table of contents; each chapter will be reviewed individually, with links added to this post as the individual reviews are published.

  • Editorial frontmatter
  • Low Earth Orbit
  • Mars
    • “The Baker of Mars” by Karl Schroeder
    • “Exploration Fact and Exploration Fiction” by Lawrence Dritsas
    • “Death on Mars” by Madeline Ashby
    • “Life on Mars?” by Steve Ruff
  • Asteroids
    • “The Use of Things” by Ramez Naam
    • “Toward Asteroid Exploration” by Roland Lehoucq
    • “Night Shift” by Eileen Gunn
    • “Rethinking Risk” by Andrew D. Maynard
  • Exoplanets
    • “Shikasta” by Vandana Singh
    • “The New Science of Astrobiology” by Sara Imari Walker
    • “Negotiating the Values of Space Exploration” by Emma Frow
  • Concluding Thoughts
    • The Luxury Problem: Space Exploration in the ‘Emergency Century’ by Kim Stanley Robinson, in conversation with Jim Bell
    • “The Practical Economics of Space” by Clark A. Miller
    • “High Hedonistic and Low Fatalistic” by Linda T. Elkins-Tanton

REVIEW: “Amber Waves” by Sam S. Kepfield

Review of Sam S. Kepfield, “Amber Waves”, in Glass and Gardens: Solar Punk Summers, edited by Sarena Ulibarri, (World Weaver Press, 2018): 184-198 — Purchase here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology).

The stories in this anthology are all set in the future — maybe not in our future, per se, but definitely not in our now. The future of this story feels like it isn’t all that far away from our now; Kansas still grows wheat, global warming is still a problem, there’s still the FAA and Gatorade. In this future, Ryan and Sadie are attempting to grow their wheat green — and keep out the invading corporations who want to take them over.

Unfortunately, there were parts about this story that kept tripping me up — well, nothing about the story per se, but the way in which the characters were presented. The male gaze lies heavily upon Sadie, who ends up being both Mary-Sue and stereotypical. She had “no makeup today, but she didn’t need it” (p. 186), and Ryan has to “swallow some pride” to admit that “she was far better at [finances] than he was” (p. 187). But despite her skills in running the farm, what is it that she’s always ragging Ryan about? Having children — Ryan “knew she was feeling a deadline looming” (p. 188). There isn’t anything about what Ryan does that is problematic, but simply the way that he views Sadie — his “build-in conservatism” (p. 188), perhaps — or rather the way we are encouraged to view her as readers, I found increasingly problematic the longer I read. When we are giving contrasting views of Sadie on the same page — on the one hand, “they’d both grown up on farms in this area” (p. 189), while on the other hand, “Sadie had adjusted to rural life, especially making love under the stars” — it begins to feel like she is not a fully developed characters, but simply a ploy for Ryan, and unfortunately the end does nothing to counteract this.