REVIEW: “Dead Katherine” by Victoria Zelvin

Review of Victoria Zelvin, “Dead Katherine”, Luna Station Quarterly 43 (2020): Read online. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman.

Everyone fears the mine-owner William Dawes but the only thing that Dawes fears is the outlaw Dead Katherine. Everyone, that is, but Dead Katherine herself, who has returned to the mine to exact her revenge.

But revenge for what? And why is she called Dead Katherine? These were the two questions that drove my reading of the story, but it took long enough for them to be answered that I read less in anticipation and more in frustration because I couldn’t understand how she had ended up where she was and doing what she was doing. When the answers did finally come (but only to the first question, not the second), it felt a bit too late.

REVIEW: “A Worship” by Andrea Goyan

Review of Andrea Goyan, “A Worship”, Luna Station Quarterly 43 (2020): Read online. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman.

Detective Angie Ferguson has been assigned to investigate the death of Henry Van Patten, a case in which “nothing in the account, detailed by an Officer Benton, appeared abnormal.” Except, of course, that would be too easy…

And so what we have here is a fun little mystery/SF story as Angie solves the farmer’s mysterious death. Goyan captured perfectly the way a mind can flit from one subject to another, seeing strange patterns, identifying connections (even if those connections aren’t really there) — it’s not often I read a character and think “oh, she thinks like I do”, so I really enjoyed this. But don’t read it if you’re squeamish about graphic descriptions of bugs.

REVIEW: “Per Aspera Ad Astra” by Katherine Locke

Review of Katherine Locke, “Per Aspera Ad Astra”, in Marieke Nijkamp, ed., Unbroken: 13 Stories Starring Disabled Teens (Farrar Straus Giroux, 2018): 61-89 — Purchase here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology).

Every morning Lizzie’s sister Darcy asks if she’ll be coming to school with them that day, and every morning, Lizzie says maybe tomorrow. Maybe tomorrow her anxiety won’t be so strong as to make it almost impossible to leave her room. But every morning it’s the same again. Except today. Today the shield that protects Amula, the shield that Liz herself helped programme, has been attacked, and both her city and potentially her planet are threatened.

In one of the longer stories in the collection, Locke takes up a thread similar to ones found in other stories in the anthology, of a teen who feels that her disability makes her worthless — “lazy, ineffectual, cowardly” (p. 72) — but finds out in the end she can overcome her disability and still be a valuable contributor. I have a lot of ambivalent feelings about stories like these, and this one in particular. On the one hand, Lizzie succeeded! And she learned that “she didn’t need to fight the war. She just needed to solve the next problem” (p. 88), a good lesson for any of us to learn. On the other hand, the idea that it took a handsome stranger to arrive unexpectedly to give Lizzie the support she needed to prove her utility to society, or that she even needed to prove this at all, sat a bit uncomfortably with me.

REVIEW: Unbroken edited by Marieke Nijkamp

Review of Marieke Nijkamp, ed., Unbroken: 13 Stories Starring Disabled Teens (Farrar Straus Giroux, 2018) — Purchase here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman.

This was one of my WorldCon ’19 recs — a book that was mentioned during one of the panels I attended, where I thought “I want to read that”. I especially wanted to read it to see if it would be something that I could recommend to one of my nieces, who I have a suspicious would be interested in SFF, but hasn’t yet gotten the right route in.

Not all the stories in this collection are speculative in nature — some of them are straight up realistic fiction (including some whose authors are best known for speculative fiction, which was a bit of a surprise!). Both queer and non-queer romance arcs were strongly represented across the anthology. It was this perhaps more than anything else that marked this book out as a collection of YA stories; whenever one of the romantic developments felt a bit too much, too fast, I had to remind myself that I’m not a teenager anymore and that if I’d read these stories as a teenager, they probably would’ve felt more real.

The stories don’t shy away from the difficult subjects. The range of disabilities represented was wide, from wheelchairs to anxiety to terminal illnesses. The characters are confronted with not only the ordinary vagaries of romance and other aspects of teenage life, but also with the worry of burdening others, the anguish of never being enough, the guilt of it all. One thing I really liked about this anthology as a collection was the way in which so many of the narrators voiced these sorts of internalised ableism, and the ways in which the stories themselves pushed back against those narratives, made it clear that they were not the right narratives. On the flip side, one of the things that made me uncomfortable was how some of the stories were variants on “even though a disabled person might think themselves unworthy, they can still do things that are valuable to society!” in a way that felt, to me, like it bordered on inspiration porn. Such stories were, however, the minority, and loaded towards the front of the book, so that by the end such early impressions were mostly memories.

As is usual, we’ll review the stories individually, and link the reviews below as they are published.

Having read all of them, yeah, I probably will get this book for my niece. They may not all be to her taste, as they weren’t all to mine, but if she derives joy from even one of them, it’ll be a worthwhile purchase. (And I really hope she likes Benwell’s and Duyvis’s, the two outstanding stories of the volume in my opinion.)

REVIEW: “Call Center Blues” by Carrie Cuinn

Review of Carrie Cuinn, “Call Center Blues”, Luna Station Quarterly 27 (2016): Read online. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman.

With just a few sentences Cuinn manages to capture the frenetic horror of modern-day multi-tasking life — IMing while sending an email while talking on the phone, all wrapped up in the horror that is working in a call center. Throw in some recalcitrant androids, and this story just seems to hit a lot of nails on the head. I thought this story was really well done — well written, snappy, nicely balanced with humor, and just good fun to read.

(Originally published in Daily Science Fiction, 2011.)

REVIEW: “True Colors” by Beth Goder

Review of Bethe Goder, “Rite of Passage”, Analog Science Fiction and Fact September/October (2020): 79–80 (Kindle) – Purchase Here. Reviewed by John Atom.

Julia visits an AI that can allegedly read a person’s brain patterns and produce their perfect version of a work of art. But when Julia goes through the process, all she gets is a blank painting with nothing but layers of white on it.

Reading “True Colors,” I got the impression that there’s a deeper meaning in the painting metaphor, but I’m not entirely sure I get it. Something about the “deeper layers” of Julia’s personality, perhaps. I don’t there’s enough there to really come to a conclusion. Still, it was an a neat story and I enjoyed the idea of the artistic AI using something akin to machine learning to generate someone’s “perfect” work of art.

REVIEW: “Attrition” by Leslie J. Anderson

Review of Leslie J. Anderson, “Attrition”, Luna Station Quarterly 27 (2016): Read online. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman.

This story had a lot of Neon Genesis Evangelion overtones — a motley collection of people and mechs they must control in order to save humanity. But since it was a short story rather than a drawn-out TV series, a proportionally higher percentage of story space was spent explaining what the mechs were and how they worked. At the end, I kind of wanted more story, and less explanation. (I also think there was a continuity error — pretty sure the two references to Mr. Hernandez were supposed to be to Mr. Henderson. Props for the character in the wheelchair, though.)

REVIEW: “Into the Starfish Heart” by J. M. Wetherell

Review of J. M. Wetherell, “Into the Starfish Heart”, Luna Station Quarterly 27 (2016): Read online. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman.

This one was a bit off the mark for me. I spent a lot of the story confused about chronology (partly, I think, because the initial paragraph set me up to think that Ledo the artist was dead, but then it turned out they weren’t? At least I don’t think so? Like I said: Confusion.), and despite the fact that at times it felt like there was a lot of back-story being dumped in a bit clumsily, I still never felt like I got a good picture of just what, exactly, the setting was. It was frustrating, because I wanted to understand what was going on, but never quite did.

REVIEW: “Cara’s Heartsong” by Dawn Bonanno

Review of Dawn Bonanno, “Cara’s Heartsong”, Luna Station Quarterly 28 (2016): Read online. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman.

Wow, this story, published four years ago, was surprisingly difficult to read in the current climes of mass protests and riots, and a lingering insidious disease. Bonanno I’m sure had no idea what 2020 would bring, but her story reads very much like a picture of our near future. Except for the bit where physiology doesn’t work the same way in Bonanno’s world as it does in ours — a very pleasant little bit of world-building that I enjoyed.

REVIEW: “Scrap Metal” by Tara Calaby

Review of Tara Calaby, “Scrap Metal”, Luna Station Quarterly 28 (2016): Read online. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman.

Content warning:Traumatic injury, death.

It’s always risky opening a story with a character waking up — perhaps even more risky to start not only the first scene but the second scene as well that way!

Mae’s been in a bad car accident, but she is “a very lucky girl”; after all, she’s now kitted out with the best cybernetic prosthetics available. With this, Calaby takes what could’ve been a rather pedestrian premise and threads it with through with the uncomfortable side of Mae’s luck: the way in which wealth rather than need or desert determines who gets the best of care after a traumatic accident, the gaslighting of a patient by their doctor, the fact that her new limbs might not be all they seem on the surface.

Quality SF with a hint of horror towards the end. Nicely done.