REVIEW: “TheraBot” by Hannah Frankel

Review of Hannah Frankel, “TheraBot”, Luna Station Quarterly 42 (2020): Read online. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman.

Velma’s got a new task at work — to program her replacement, a TheraBot called JoyCE. Why have people administer therapy when a robot can be trained to do the same? Angie works in customer support at the same company, and she’s one of the first to receive therapy from JoyCE.

The story alternates between the two women, and collects together all sorts of present-day anxieties about the future of employment — how AIs will integrate into the job market, the damage caused by anti-absenteeism culture, the rise of workplace-caused depression and anxiety, the panacea of “wellness” — there’s something in it for everyone to identify with! Sometimes it hits a bit too close to home for comfort. 🙂 But rather than accept these things as merely inevitable, Velma and her partner Todd make a decision to pro-actively embrace the future, turning JoyCE to their own purposes, and affecting the course of Angie’s life. I really enjoyed the optimistic turn the story took at the end.

REVIEW: “And Never Mind the Watching Ones” by Keffy Kehrli

Review of Keffy Kehrli, “And Never Mind the Watching Ones “, Escape Pod Ep. 725– Listen online. Reviewed by Kat Samp.

This two-part story portrays a cast of teenagers dealing with bizarre alien frogs, on top of all the drama of their daily lives. Each character faces relatable problems with fitting in and forming relationships, and layered onto their stories are their encounters with the glitter frogs, colorful frogs that appeared out of nowhere one day and cover the world. It is one of those wonderful stories where the SFF elements illuminate and strengthen a powerful message about what it means to be human.

The stylistic quirks accompanying some of the perspectives made me prefer reading this story, rather than listening to the podcast. But both were excellent, and I highly recommend reading “And Never Mind the Watching Ones” for a lot of feels, as the teens might say.

REVIEW: “State of Trance” by Chen Qiufan

Review of Chen Qiufan, Josh Stenberg (trans.), “State of Trance”, in Jin Li and Dai Congrong, ed., The Book of Shanghai, (Comma Press, 2020): 147-160 — Purchase here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology).

The anthology closed with a bang, with this creepy futuristic science fiction story. Told in second-person (not normally my favorite), it quickly drew me in and forced me to wander through Shanghai “on the last day of the Anthropocene” (p. 151), to partake in a “world on the cups of disintegration” (p. 157). What I really enjoyed about this story was that not only was it science fiction in content, it was also science fiction in construction: Parts of the story were automatically generated by AI programmes “trained on deep learning of the author’s style, and […] not thereafter been subject to human editing” (p. 160). Wonderfully bizarre, and an excellent concluding piece.

(Originally published in Fiction World, 2018.)

REVIEW: “Calm Face of the Storm” by Ramona Louise Wheeler

Review of Ramona Louise Wheeler, “Calm Face of the Storm”, Analog Science Fiction and Fact May/June (2020): 119–131 (Kindle) – Purchase Here. Reviewed by John Atom.

Contains spoilers.

In a planet orbiting twin suns, Bret is a flying man that has strayed away from his home while chasing a strange looking lizard. On the way, a violent storm almost kills him, knocking him unconscious. Bret wakes up in one of the lighthouses that populate the edge of his people’s territory. There he finds out that the lighthouses are maintained by a set of “transparent” flying people, not as technologically advanced as his own culture, living a more natural way of life. Bret falls in love with Mornell, the daughter of the lighthouse keeper, and with her help, adopts their way of life. However, he soon realizes that he can’t stay with them forever and must return home.

I always try to not be a stickler about “genre purity,” but I was nevertheless surprised this story was included in Analog. While it has some elements of science fiction (twin suns, spaceports, possibly aliens, etc.) it reads a lot more like a fantasy story — or at the very least, a convoluted hybrid of the two (I could not stop thinking of Avatar). It doesn’t matter so much, since most of the story takes place inside the main character’s head, but it is nevertheless something that stood out to me.

Genre nitpicking aside, I was rather disappointed with the story. The world that the author creates, while rich in detail, is nothing new or original, drawing on many preexisting tropes. At times I was impressed with the author’s prose, but much of it felt padded with one unnecessary description after another, making the story rather painful to read. Similarly, the plot offers little more than a standard coming of age story with the addition of some serious holes in its logic. For example, Bret comes from a somewhat technologically advanced society, yet nobody knows what lies just a few miles outside their city. This sounds highly implausible to say the least.

Overall, I found very little to enjoy in “Calm Face of the Storm.”

REVIEW: “Reincarnation” by Suzanne Reynolds-Alpert

Review of Suzanne Reynolds-Alpert, “Reincarnation”, in David G. Clark, Callum Colback, Joe Butler, and Alex Hareland, eds., Beneath Strange Stars, (TL;DR Press, 2020): 377 — Purchase here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology.)

This spare, evocative poem makes for a wonderful closing piece to the volume, playing on the idea that we are all stardust, and stardust we will all become.

REVIEW: The Book of Shanghai edited by Jin Li and Dai Congrong

Review of Jin Li and Dai Congrong, ed., The Book of Shanghai, (Comma Press, 2020) — Purchase here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman.

The Book of Shanghai is part of a series of books which pick a city and then collect stories from/of that city. In the introduction to this volume, Jin Li provides a nine page overview of the history of literature and authors from Shanghai, from the late 19th century to the early 21st century, charting the evolution of the modern period of Shanghainese literature and the influence of western culture upon its development. It was fascinating and accessible and I learned a lot about a topic I had previously known very little. Thumbs up for that alone.

This isn’t the sort of collection that we normally review here, as most of the stories in it are of a more straight-up literary flavor, with little to no speculative elements in them; only a few stories fall under the spec-fic umbrella, to a greater or lesser degree, despite the blurb on the back making the stories sound much more fantastical than some of them are. Nevertheless, when I was offered a review copy, I jumped at the opportunity, having previously read and deeply appreciated two of Comma Press’s spec fic/SFF anthologies. This volume also didn’t disappoint. As usual, we’ll review each story separately and link to the reviews below as they are published. As is not usual, however, we’ve put an asterisk (*) next to the stories that do fall in the SFF/spec fic remit of this blog, so that if for whatever reason you wish to avoid the non-speculative stories, you can (though we don’t recommend that — they’re all good).

REVIEW: “Candida Eve” by Dominica Phetteplace

Review of Dominica Phetteplace, “Candida Eve”, Analog Science Fiction and Fact May/June (2020): 96–101 (Kindle) – Purchase Here. Reviewed by John Atom.

Contains spoilers.

Susana is the last surviving member of a terraforming expedition to Mars. An unexpected fungal pandemic claimed the rest of the crew while on flight, in addition to claiming millions of lives back on Earth. Despite the tragedy, Susana must find the courage and will to carry out her mission and create a new home for the future of humanity.

The story’s subject matter — i.e. a deadly pandemic — certainly makes it a relevant read at the time of publication (I’m guessing that is why it was included in this issue). There are startling similarities between the plague in Candida Eve and Covid-19. I’d be very surprised if all of it was just a coincidence.

Aside from that initial impact, however, “Candida Eve” leaves a lot to be desired. The prose is clear but relatively dry, making for a less than engaging read. Almost half the story consists of info-dumping about the details of Susana’s mission and the unexpected pandemic that devastated humanity. There’s little that actually happens in the story, and by the end, little gets resolved in a satisfying manners. There’s little sense that Susana overcame any of the challenges of her mission as she displays very little agency throughout the story.

REVIEW: “To Persist, However Changed” by Aimee Ogden

Review of Aimee Ogden, “To Persist, However Changed”, Analog Science Fiction and Fact May/June (2020): 105–106(Kindle) – Purchase Here. Reviewed by John Atom.

Contains spoilers.

A sentient moon crashes into a planet and discovers another sentient form of life there. The story is told from the perspective of the moon-consciousness as it prepares for the crash.

Billions of light-sensitive organelles orient to the brilliant patch of sky, and magnetosomes orient along familiar field lines. The diffuse awareness of the Moonmind comes to an agreement: Soon.

I must confess, I’ve never been keen on stories that describe an alien consciousness through the physical and chemical interactions that make it up — which seem to be popping up rather often lately. They always strike me as rather contrived. After all, consciousness is an emerging quality. Human thought-processes do not involve moving ions and chemical imbalances, even though it is such events in our brains that make thought possible.

From a fictional standpoint, however, it is a rather effective tool at conveying the “otherworldliness” of an alien mind. The author manages to successfully filter a different kind of consciousness through familiar scientific concepts, and does so clearly and concisely. Moreover, the author did a relatively decent job at maintaining a clear and readable prose, which is crucial for these kinds of stories.

Ultimately, I still don’t think it works, but I can appreciate the effort.

REVIEW: “A Compass in the Dark” by Phoebe Barton

Review of Phoebe Barton, “A Compass in the Dark”, Analog Science Fiction and Fact May/June (2020): 109–112 (Kindle) – Purchase Here. Reviewed by John Atom.

Contains spoilers.

In a Lunar colony, a young woman moves away from her family to a geological station on the far side of the moon. She is embarrassed by her father’s belief that dead soul are guided by electromagnetic fields and does not want to maintain his “compass towers.” When her father dies, she comes to regret her hostility towards him and reconsiders her attitude towards his beliefs.

I think the author has a great talent for prose as I was really drawn in by some of the descriptions in this piece. However, the plot did not do it for me. The father-daughter relationship could have been fleshed out more to give the story a better grounding for what happens when the father dies. All we have of their background is their respective beliefs towards “magnetic spirit guidance,” which in my opinion is not enough to understand why the characters act and feel the way they do. The ending does not work for the same reason.

Overall, I did not care much for this piece, even though I did enjoy the author’s writing style.

REVIEW: “A Life in Six Feathers” by Kathryn Yelinek

Review of Kathryn Yelinek, “A Life in Six Feathers”, Luna Station Quarterly 41 (2020): Read online. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman.

Oh, I loved this story. It combined intriguing and realistic science with a depth of character and a sweet thread of love and romance, and hope — so much hope. Beautifully constructed, a real joy to read. If you are looking for a “cosy SF” story, this is one for you.