REVIEW: “All Clear” by Hao He

Review of Hao He, “All Clear”, Apex Magazine 110 (2018): Read Online. Reviewed by Joanna Z. Weston.

In the near future, the world has fragmented from what we know. Zhang Dong’s father blames technology and change, and has founded a village that rests on family and tradition, a culture that Zhang Dong chafes against, at the same time that he struggles to communicate with his own son. All of this comes to a head when members of several other villages or enclaves come together to attack.

This story has it all – fear and rejection of technology, psychic powers, the collapse of our current world-order, inter-generational conflict, and of course, fighting and intrigue. It’s a lot, but the story carries it well, balancing world-building with plot and character to create a harmonious whole.

Zhang Dong is a truly sympathetic protagonist. He wants to be a good person, a good son, a good father, but he also wants to happy, and he senses that these things may be mutually antagonistic. I suspect that many people know that feeling. He has been toying with the notion of moving away and founding his own village, a concept he returns to a handful of times during the narrative. Again, many people today daydream about running away from their lives (often to start a goat farm, but that may just be the people I know). By the end of the story, Zhang Dong comes to believe that maybe he can shift his current circumstances to both facilitate communication and maybe better line up with his moral compass, which is a hopeful note for all of us.

For all that the conflict is fairly action-oriented, this story felt like a slow build, once the initial action-scene wraps up. And that’s a good thing! It gives the reader time to get to know the characters and the world and the background up until this moment. I would recommend this for anyone who likes human-centered near-future science fiction with subtle themes.

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: “Kerouac’s Renascence” by Tal M. Klein

Review of Tal M. Klein, “Kerouac’s Renascence”, Apex Magazine 110 (2018): Read Online. Reviewed by Joanna Z. Weston.

Kerouac is living in Japan, so that his sister will not see his declining health. Now that his illness has reached its final stage, he plans to go to California to grant himself a dignified death, aka euthanasia. Selling all his possessions leaves him with more money than anticipated, so he chooses to travel there by way of a 22 day cruise, as a final treat. Against his better judgment, he makes friends and falls in love. Then things get weird, and we as readers remember that we are reading a piece of speculative fiction.

I did not find Kerouac to be the most likable narrator, but he is engaging and sympathetic. His choice to isolate himself from the people who care about him – a choice made repeatedly during this story – is frustrating to read simply because it is so realistic. It’s such a common (if hurtful) human coping mechanism that I would not be surprised to learn that psychologists have a special term for it. And that’s really where this story shines, in the ordinary. Most of the story takes place in the “real” world, with speculative elements appearing around three quarters of the way through, and Klein captured my attention and my interest without them.

This story is on the longer end of what Apex publishes, which means that it has plenty of time to delve into smaller moments and build itself, yet it never felt meandering. The story is tight.

This piece deals with some heavy topics – chronic illness, assisted suicide, fear of death and pain – without becoming maudlin. It’s not a light piece, but neither would I describe it as ponderous. For all that Kerouac’s life has been consumed by these topics, his conscious thoughts tend to push them aside, which lets the story breath without ever letting us get distracted from the stakes.

The ending surprised me, so I don’t want to spoil it for anyone else, but I will say that the title is a bit of a clue. This is a strong story on a dark topic, but there is hope.

REVIEW: Darkest Hours by Mike Thorn

Review of Mike Thorn, Darkest Hours (Unnerving, 2017) — Purchase here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman.

One of the perks of reviews is discovering new stories and new others that one would not otherwise have ever come across — this goes both for reading reviews and writing them! Were it not for running this site, I doubt I would have come across this collection of short stories (mostly horror, but some have a stronger SFF element or slant). This is also the first time we’ve reviewed a collection of short stories all written by the same author, instead of an edited anthology, which is itself a treat: A single story never can display all facets of a single author.

The stories in this collection display many facets: Creepy, disturbing, but also skilled and precise. The overall tenor is a gory, sordid one — not really up my alley, unfortunately. In the end, I found I came away from too many of the stories feeling vaguely unclean from having read them, and I also found the glorification of male violence and the centering of the male characters rather depressing.

Nine of the stories in this collection have been previous published, but the remaining seven are new. As is usual on this site, we’ll review each of the stories in turn, and link the reviews to the list below:

If horror is your thing, you’ll probably find a story for you in this collection. If horror isn’t your thing, you may still yet find a story for you in this collection. Or you might be better off avoiding it.

REVIEW: “When You’re Ready” by M. Ian Bell

Review of M. Ian Bell, “When You’re Ready”, Apex Magazine 110 (2018): Read Online. Reviewed by Joanna Z. Weston.

A scientist is hard at work, modeling a human life from conception, tweaking variables of upbringing, trying to guide the simulant to a specific outcome. He’s done this many times before, but never gets the results he is looking for. The story follows his current attempt, with reflections on what has gone wrong before.

I enjoyed the way this story plays with memory and experience, and how people are hurt, supported, and otherwise influenced by the people around them and by their own choices. The way it engages with the nature versus nurture question is hardly unique – I think it’s pretty well accepted at this point that both factor into the people we become – but the depth of the reflection is rare, and I found it rewarding. I feel like this mirrors how many of us reflect on our lives, endlessly imagining how different circumstances might have brought us closer to the person we wish we were.

The story deals with so many interesting questions. How much can you change a person before they become unrecognizable to the people who know them? Can undesirable events lead to desirable results? What about an individual is inborn, and how much can be changed through experience? And most importantly, how much can a person will themselves to change, given a set past?

This doesn’t have what I would consider a twist ending, but the ending does color the story that came before, once you get to it. The pieces of the past slowly come together to create a satisfying conclusion. I highly recommend this for anyone who likes reflective, essentially psychological science fiction.

REVIEW: “The Baker of Mars” by Karl Schroeder

Review of Karl Schroeder, “The Baker of Mars”, 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): 83-102 — Download here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology).

The story starts of juxtaposing the wild strangeness that must accompany colonising Mars with the quiet ordinariness of a Tampa diner. Myrna runs the diner as a sideline business, with most of her time taken up by catering to those who colonise Mars from afar — telecommuters who live on earth but function according to Martian days, Martian hours (forty minutes longer than our own), Martian timezones. It’s a trick balancing act, to live in one timeline but work in another, and Myrna’s catering service helps people live according to the timeline that they work in.

Schroeder’s story takes up the “public/private” matter that we’ve already seen in earlier stories in this anthology, because it is only through such ventures that such telecommuting colonisation can take place. The infrastructure is publicly supported, but much of what goes in to it is privately funded, by people like Wekesa Ballo, who had “sunk all his money into buying [a] bot and getting it transported to another planet, in the hope that what they build there will someday attract clients and customers beyond the launch companies and speculators” (p. 86).

It’s a story of many layers, though, not just this one, with ordinary humans living ordinary human lives while at the same time living lives upon Mars both virtual and real. The presence of these layers allows Schroeder to play with fact and fiction in a way that makes for a satisfying read.

REVIEW: “Grover: Case #C09 920, ‘The Most Dangerous Blend'” by Edward Edmonds

Review of Edward Edmonds, “Grover: Case #C09 920, ‘The Most Dangerous Blend'”, in Glass and Gardens: Solar Punk Summers, edited by Sarena Ulibarri, (World Weaver Press, 2018): 159-183 — Purchase here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology).

A gory opening scene (don’t read if you’re squeamish) segues into what would be a pretty typical detective/mystery story except that within a page we’ve got a suspect and a confession and the only uncertainty left is whether the suspect is telling the truth — and what reason would someone have to lie about negligence-leading-to-death? But Detective Ishani Grover isn’t one to assume the easy answer is the right one, and her investigations continue…until someone else dies.

Detective/mystery stories aren’t really my type, but this one was solid enough to keep me reading, with a plausible resolution and a few twists along the way to it.