REVIEW: “Professor Strong and the Brass Boys” by Amal Singh

Review of Amal Singh, “Professor Strong and the Brass Boys”, Apex Magazine 119 (2019): Read Online. Reviewed by Joanna Z. Weston.

Lispector Strong seems fairly content with ris life as a history professor, until one of ris students ask what rhe does for leisure. Under the rules of their society, droids like Professor Strong are not allowed leisure. This leads rhim to a lot of soul searching, and eventually to music, and an understanding that droids are perhaps not treated fairly under the current laws.

This story deals with art and justice, two concepts that the people within it would argue apply only to humans. It is a surprisingly gentle story, because Professor Strong is, at heart, a gentle being. Logical, kind, yet determined, rhe senses that there must be a better way, and is determined to do what rhe can to get humans to see the other droids as something other than servants. Rhe does not go about this through battle, either verbal or physical, but through music.

The end is more ambiguous than I would have preferred, but I don’t know that any other ending would have felt genuine. This story is asking big questions, and a neat ending might imply an easy solution. I respect the emotional honesty of the ending, which leaves the consequences of Professor Strong’s actions still unknown. What matters – what makes the ending work – is that Professor Strong acted. Rhe made a decision, and accepted the risks.

REVIEW: “For Whatever We Lose” by Jennifer R. Donohue

Review of Jennifer R. Donohue, “For Whatever We Lose”, Luna Station Quarterly 37 (2019): Read online. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman.

Ostensibly, this is a story of an astronaut orbiting one of Mars’s moons, who’s gotten into trouble and who knows how her ending will be. But, really, this is a story of reflection and contemplation, family bonds, and dreams, of courage in the face of impossibility, and how little moments — like a little lie, saying that Suzanne was eight when she was in fact only six — can shape and direct a person’s future profoundly.

Overall, I found this story well constructed and written with lovely language but I felt the ending was a bit abrupt, and would have liked to have seen more story, and less flashing back.

REVIEW: “Curse Like a Savior” by Russell Nichols

Review of Russell Nichols, “Curse Like a Savior”, Apex Magazine 118 (2019): Read Online. Reviewed by Joanna Z. Weston.

Junior thinks this is going to be a quick job – just slip, in repair Mrs. Layla Fisher’s Halogram (currently displaying a Jesus who cusses up a storm), and move on. He doesn’t care what anybody else believes, so long as they let him do his job in peace. Unfortunately for him, it seems that Mrs. Fisher has other ideas.

This does a great job of mixing light fun with some more serious themes. On the one hand, anybody who has ever worked a customer service job will recognize Junior’s struggle to do his job without getting drawn into a long, emotionally taxing conversation with the client. But then we have the Halograms that are at the center of this whole transaction, holograms of famous people, specifically of the sort who people idolize – religious figures and inspiration writers and politicians ranging from Jesus and Gandhi to Martin Luther King Jr. and Maya Angelou. As the conversation with Mrs. Fisher goes on, the subject of faith comes to the forefront, and the story transitions from an almost frivolous look at futuristic customer service, to something much deeper and more challenging.

The ending took me by surprise. It’s much more unsettling than I expected, and made me rethink everything that came before it. Fortunately, this is a short enough story that it’s not a hardship to reread it!

REVIEW: “Tenari” by Michael Merriam

Review of Michael Merriam, “Tenari”, in Catherine Lundoff, ed., Scourge of the Seas of Time (and Space) (Queen of Swords Press, 2018): 168-180 — Purchase here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology.)

Captain Reed’s ship, the Black Manta, hasn’t always been black. Decades ago, the ship was just the Manta, an attack ship in the Colonial Defense Forces. At the time, Captain Reed wasn’t captain, merely senior lieutenant, and her current XO, Roger Baldry, was navigator and second officer. But it’s been a long time since Reed and Baldry encountered the mythical alien race, the Tenari, and — when no one else did — lived to tell the tale. Now the Manta is a pirate ship, no longer a military ship, and Reed and Baldry are facing the Tenari again. They were lucky once to escape with their lives; will they be lucky enough to escape a second time?

Merriam’s story is filled with rich detail and a panoply of characters, which I liked. However, two things about this story bothered or confused me. First, half the time the captain was named Kathleen Reed, the other half she was Katherine Reed, and I was never sure if this was intentional or just something that slipped past proofreading. Second, with almost no exception, the female characters were referred to solely by their given name, while the male characters were referred to by either their surname or surname + title. It’s such a small thing, but to see “Janet” (Sobrinski) working side by side (Roger) “Baldry”, “Mr. Roberts” the helmsman working with crewmember “Tilly” (no surname), was a constant reminder of how even when female characters are given equal screen time with male in a story, they are still treated unequally. We’ve come so far in terms of representation in SFF stories; but there is still so much further left to go.

REVIEW: “A Crooked Road Home” by Caroline Sciriha

Review of Caroline Sciriha, “A Crooked Road Home”, in Catherine Lundoff, ed., Scourge of the Seas of Time (and Space) (Queen of Swords Press, 2018): 144-155 — Purchase here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology.)

This story caught me by surprise. It started off being a relatively ordinary story about space pirates and organised crime and smuggling — the sort of thing you’d find in a typical B-grade SF flick — and ended up turning much deeper and sharper and harsher and more beautiful. This isn’t merely the story of space pirate Captain Jesson out to win his freedom from his mob-boss father to secure a future for himself; it’s the story of how he must face the ugly aspects of his past, the parts he had no control over then but maybe can make restitution for how.

Sciriha tangles together threads of child trafficking, parental loss, and the displacement that comes from being a member of a minority culture in such a way that I was left with a lump in my throat and a lingering sadness for Jesson’s past and hope for his future.

REVIEW: “Rosa, the Dimension Pirate” by Matisse Mozer

Review of Matisse Mozer, “Rosa, the Dimension Pirate”, in Catherine Lundoff, ed., Scourge of the Seas of Time (and Space) (Queen of Swords Press, 2018): 128-143 — Purchase here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology.)

Jack Hurwitz’s life is boring. He still lives with his dad and step-mom. He doesn’t have a job. He’s failed his classes and won’t be going to community college. There is basically nothing in his life to redeem it.

That is, before an alien satellite lands in his backyard, complete with a refugee alien pirate girl who is the only thing that stands between the earth and its destruction. Suddenly, Jack’s life is anything but boring.

A fun swashbuckling-in-space story with so many double-crossings and double-bluffs that I could hardly keep track of who was a good guy and who was a bad guy, Mozer’s tale was lighthearted and fun to read.

REVIEW: “The Prison-house of Language” by Elana Gomel

Review of Elana Gomel, “The Prison-house of Language”, Apex Magazine 118 (2019): Read Online. Reviewed by Joanna Z. Weston.

Dr. Sophia Abdoul is unique, as a linguist who finds human language painful to speak. That condition has driven her to study as many languages as she can, both modern and ancient, in a search for the mythical ur-language that pre-dated them all. This makes her the perfect person for the army to ask to help with an experiment that has gone awry – the subjects have begun speaking in tongues.

Sophia is a wonderful example of a protagonist who is not traditionally “likable,” but who is still sympathetic and enjoyable to read about. Because of her unique condition, she has trouble connecting with people, who all seem to constantly want to talk. She is acerbic and utterly certain that she is smarter than everyone around her. She’s also perceptive and witty and a wonderful narrator, reflecting both on what is happening around her in the present, and some traumatic experiences from her past.

At its heart, I believe this is a story about language and how it both divides and connects us. It connects us to each other, but divides us from the rest of the world. It divides Sophia from the rest of humanity in much the same way. The mysterious experiment that she is drawn in to help repair and explain takes it a step further, showing her exactly why she is the way she is, and what she can do that others can not. It’s a good ending, that doesn’t wrap things up too neatly.