REVIEW: Flash Fiction Online, September 2017, edited by Suzanne W. Vincent

Review of Flash Fiction Online, ed. Suzanne W. Vincent, September 2017 [Read Here / Purchase Here]. Reviewed by Meryl Stenhouse.

Stories in this issue:

“Listen and You Will Hear Us Speak” by A.T. Greenblatt

“The Last Man on Earth Crawls Back to Life – A Mini-Novel Sequel” by John Guzlowski

“What Lasts” by Jared W. Cooper

“And All Our Bones Were Dust” by Steven Fischer

Editorial by Suzanne W. Vincent

Vincent quotes Ray Bradbury in her editorial, to point out that a science fiction story is any story about an idea that changes the world. It is the art of the possible, not the impossible, says Bradbury. Three of the four stories in this issue touch on the impossible, one of them blatantly, so my acceptance of them as science fiction is incomplete.

That said, if the stories were presented without genre boundaries, I would have enjoyed them unreservedly. A well-curated collection.

Listen and You Will Hear Us Speak by A.T. Greenblatt

Being the science fiction pedant that I am, I will say straight out that this is science fantasy; there’s no scientific method to remove voices the way they are removed in the story. It’s a magical box. Let’s move on.

There are layers to this story, which is an achievement in so few words. The unnamed narrator is one of the voiceless – people stolen from their home, their voices taken away from them, sold into indentured servitude from which they cannot escape – because how can the voiceless have a say in their fate?

I won’t ruin the ending for you, but I do like the way that Greenblatt’s victims win by embracing their difference and finding the power to control their fates, and their oppressors. The parallels to the voiceless in our current society can’t be ignored. Uplifting, tightly written, delicious rebellion story.

The Last Man on Earth Crawls Back to Life – A Mini-Novel Sequel by John Guzlowski

The concept of this piece appealed to me. The last man on Earth chooses suicide, but then finds himself unable to follow through. The rest of the story answers the question of why.

I winced at the recitation of his bird list. I doubt very much that, at any stage in history, this observation: “they were everywhere: In the trees and on the sidewalks, between houses and abandoned cars, on the empty roads…” would include birds such as “emus and antbirds, cassowaries and penguins”, especially not in the middle of the USA. Besides, a cassowary on the footpath is a suggestion that you should find another road to walk down, mate. The comment that the narrator had seen Mousebirds (denizens of sub-Saharan Africa) hints that he had travelled widely before deciding to kill himself, and this raises other questions that, on close examination (food, fuel, ocean crossings), start to unravel the worldbuilding.

Best to stick with your local birds.

The rest of the story is beautiful. It’s about loneliness, and a personal concept of God, and the recognition that humans, social animals, start to unravel when left alone. It’s a sadness reminiscent of the death of the last of any species; the endling (a name coined by Robert Webster in 2004 to denote the last member of a species). The thylacine, the passenger pigeon, soon the white rhino. To consider a human to be one of these lonely beings is humbling. The fact that the author doesn’t give this endling a name says everything. It could be any one of us.

What Lasts by Jared W. Cooper

This is a love story.

It’s also a story about pain that won’t go away, that you wish you could excise from your body and throw away.

It’s a story about loss, and a story about gain. Losing your old self, finding someone knew in the ashes, someone stronger.

It’s beautiful.

Well played, Mr. Cooper.

And All Our Bones Were Dust by Steven Fischer

This story is the opposite in so many ways to What Lasts, and reading them one after the other felt like two halves of the same symphony. It’s a love that crumbles, rather than a love that builds.

I’m going to comment on the visions, because I have opinions on what makes a story science fiction, and this one edges into science fantasy again. Not only for the visions, which have no explanation, but for the use the narrator makes of those visions.

In her editorial Vincent considers this story heartwarming, but I would call it frustrating. It’s a classic case of seeing the disaster coming but being unable to change it. The frustration comes with the narrator not even trying to save both of them; he follows the path set out for him, right to the final moment, with no attempt to reclaim or understand.

The story is beautifully executed, but not for me. I don’t like watching the axe fall. The joy in a story comes from the struggle, not the chop.

REVIEW: “Little /^^^\&-” by Eric Schwitzgebel

Review of Eric Schwitzgebel, “Little /^^^\&-” , Clarkesworld 132: Read online. Reviewed by Kerstin Hall.

Works of science fiction and fantasy produce an inordinate amount of unpronounceable names. Say, for example, Kvothe (Cough? Voth? K-Voth-ee?). Or, in the pre-HBO days, Daenerys Targaryen (Day-ne-rice?).

Or /^^^\&-. On reading this story, my first thought went out to whoever was responsible for the podcast. It transpired that Clarkesworld’s Kate Baker opted to use musical tones to represent the names of the entities in this story, which I found to be an elegant solution. More so than, say, ‘slash-up-up-up-slash-ampersand-minus’.

/^^^\&- is by no means little. She is a planet-sized consciousness, or perhaps a planet with a consciousness. For the purposes of this review, she can be seen as a bored computer intelligence powered by ‘chambersful of monkeys’. She’s serving out a jail sentence in our solar system, and the place is a dump.

The monkeys are biological humanoids living within /^^^\&-, a fact which becomes apparent later. She is both their home and their creation; their work powers her thoughts and actions. Without diverging too far into the realm of interpretation, through /^^^\&-, the monkeys are collectively their own god, a point which becomes increasingly thematically resonant.

With little else to do, /^^^\&- decides to teach Earth how to speak. This takes a while, and the narrative strays from /^^^\&-’s perspective while Earth reconfigure itself into ^Rth^. I found this to be a weaker section of the story, and preferred the scenes that were more firmly rooted in character.

/^^^\&- is a funny and likable protagonist. Both she and the narrative tone sober as the story progresses, and she grows increasingly attached to ^Rth^ and her own monkeys. She affirms the value of the small and powerless, particularly after an incident of carelessness renders their fragility apparent.

The story juxtaposes the colossal and the minute in touching ways, and ultimately builds to a conclusion that is tragic and uplifting.

REVIEW: “Bonding with Morry” by Tom Purdom

Review of Tom Purdom, “Bonding with Morry”, Clarkesworld 132: Read Online. Reviewed by Kerstin Hall.

Morry Largen is a retired professor with a very pragmatic attitude towards artificial intelligence. He wants robots to look like robots – metal, boxy and functional. As he lives alone and has health concerns, he purchases the ugliest robot possible to assist him around the house. He names it Clank.

This story was originally published in Asimov’s Science Fiction. It’s a subtle, thought-provoking and satisfying read, and Morry’s grumpy reluctance to have Clank in his life is endearing. He is clear-eyed in his understanding of what Clank is and isn’t. As time progresses, it becomes increasingly apparent that other people lack his insight.

For me, a highlight was his wry discussion with his daughter regarding his reluctance to make Clank prettier.

It’s the emotional bonding I object to. Pretending a machine is a person.”

“I understand that. But do you have to go to extremes?”

“I’m a sentimental creature, daughter. Who knows what I’d do if I had a thing that looked like a cute pet? There were times when I even felt sorry for some of my students.”

“So you’re living with a metal monster just because you’re worried about your own feelings?”

I felt that was incisive. The same gentle humour pervades the story as a whole. Morry’s refusal to pretend a computer program is equivalent to a human mind serves as a kind of tragic affirmation of the worth of humanity – for genuine feelings, for our fragile animal lives.

A lot of the sadness of this story is unspoken, but remains compelling: Morry repeatedly insists that he has friends and has no need for a companion, he plays video games intended for his granddaughter’s entertainment. “Bonding with Morry” never comes across as morose, however. It maintains a kind of charming lightness throughout, and the prose is clean and pleasant.

I also think that the title is excellent.

REVIEW: Stories from Daily Science Fiction, September 18-22, 2017

Reviews of stories published in Daily Science Fiction from September 18 through 22, 2017. Reviewed by Caitlin Levine.

“The City’s Gratitude” by Meg Candelaria, Sept 18, 2017: Read Online.

The narrator of this story is a great cop, but she’s been stuck behind a desk dealing with crazies. The latest one thinks he’s a time traveler. Candelaria keeps us focused on the world of the cop, telling us the story of the time traveler between the lines. What comes out is a sideways look at sexism in the police force interwoven with the uncertainties of time travel.

This story comes with a trigger warning, which Daily SF is understandably coy about since it concerns major spoilers. For those who prefer to know the sensitive material before reading, I have included a more detailed trigger warning below. If you don’t want any spoilers, skip over the paragraph between the bold tags, and check out the next review.

Ready? Here it is:

***SPOILERS AHEAD!*** Trigger Warning:The time traveler fails to stop nine-eleven, and the cop makes disparaging and cruelly ironic remarks about taking down the twin towers.***END OF SPOILERS***

“MAD Men” by Corey Ethan Sutch, Sept 19, 2017: Read Online.

A humorous, satirical look at the concepts of nuclear mutually assured destruction and personal self-defense armaments. Sutch asks us to consider not current situations but an extreme world populated by two companionable and argumentative neighbors. This story is worth a laugh on the first read and some deep thought on the second.

“Farewell, Amanda” by Buzz Dixon, Sept 20, 2017: Read Online.

My favorite story from this week! Check out the full review here.

“Maybe Next Time” by E.O. Hargreaves, Sept 21, 2017: Read Online.

This week’s super-short story about aliens and the nature of civilization, featuring a beautiful mountain backdrop.

“Head Full of Posies” by Melanie Rees, Sept 22, 2017: Read Online.

Steer clear of this one if discussion of Alzheimer’s or Dementia bothers you. This sad slipstream story follows an aging woman and the talking flowers who steal her memories. It is a coldly realistic look at the progression of these diseases, with just a hint at the possibility of dark magic. Rees’s writing is powerful and devastating.

REVIEW: “Farewell, Amanda” by Buzz Dixon

Review of Buzz Dixon, “Farewell, Amanda”, Daily Science Fiction, Sept 20, 2017: Read Online. Reviewed by Caitlin Levine.

I used to get recurring calls from a certain telemarketer. After saying “no thank you” and hanging up a few days in a row, I asked her to take me off her call list. It was quickly apparent that I was being called by a recording. “She” would respond when I said “yes” or “no,” but not when I said “take me off your call list” or “customer service” or “are you a recording?” These days it’s still fairly easy to tell when you are talking to a program. But…what if it wasn’t?

In this slightly chilling tale, telemarketer Amanda starts to wonder if she is a real person or if she is just a self-aware AI. Can memories be programmed? How far would someone go to gaslight a robot? The story is told from the point of view of Amanda’s supervisor, Turing, who assures her that “You’re as real as I am.”

Turing is a reference to Alan Turing and the Turing Test, which brings a whole other element to this story: Can you, the observer, tell which characters might be machine or human?

The writing style changes in the last section of this story in a way I found jarring; but at that point it is a short trip to the end, and the style change makes sense once you’ve read it. Throughout the piece Dixon creates a consistent mood which, together with excellently woven emotions, is why this is my favorite Daily SF story from this week.

REVIEW: “In the Frozen, Ancient City” by Sarah E. Donnelly

Review of Sarah E. Donnelly, “In the Frozen, Ancient City”, Luna Station Quarterly 31: Read online. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman.

The short story is a hard length to pull off sometimes. The author has to give the characters enough life and depth for them to be worth the reader investing in them. There has to be enough background to give the illusion of an entire world sprawling out in front of the reader, but not so much that the story is bogged down by information rather than story. There has to something that answers the question “Why this story? Why this narrator?” — there are so many stories that can be told, why was this one chosen? And there has to be some sort of resolution, something that makes the reader feel it was worth their while to have read the story. It’s tough to pull all of these off in one and the same piece.

What this story does well is the characters. Both Nerys and Seika are rounded characters with distinct personalities, and any SFF story where the central characters are women will always get a thumbs up from me. There is also a lot of details about the geography, both natural and artificial, which helps to set the story. However, at times I was left with a desire to have more setting; the little hints that are dropped here and there provide a sketch of the scene but leave more questions than they answer. Where is home? What is the ancient city? Why is it frozen? Is home also frozen? Why are they in the ancient city? Why is it there? None of the answers to these questions is necessary to understand the story, but they do linger and niggle.

Another niggle comes from the resolution. So many short stories end in or involve death, in part because death provides a good resolution; it is, in many ways, easy. It is easier to die than to live. It is easier to tell a story of death than a story of life, because death is neat and simple and final, and life is messy and complex and unbounded. This observation should not be taken as a criticism of this story; but it is perhaps a criticism of the genre and length in general: Why aren’t there more happy endings?

REVIEW: “The Gardens of Babylon” by Hassan Blasim

Review of Hassan Blasim, Jonathan Wright (trans.), “The Gardens of Babylon”, Iraq+100, edited by Hassan Blasim (Comma Press, 2016): 11-33 — Purchase here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology.)

For a speculative story about how the world will be in the future, “The Gardens of Babylon” spends a lot of time looking back to the past, with the speculative (or in this case, properly science fiction) elements primarily a means of allowing the characters to not just look backwards but also experience what life then/now was like. The title itself is intended to invoke a memory of the historic wonder of the ancient world; the titular gardens in this story are very clearly presented as a new vision and interpretation of paradise.

The story is woven out of two threads: One is the story of a present-day man who worked as a translator, translating Raymond Carver stories, and the other is the story of the narrator, in the future, who is tasked with converting the stories of the past — include the tale of the translator — into an interactive game for people to enjoy in paradise. Both the narrator and the translator have similar narrative voices and styles, as well as similar goals — the narrator to preserve history through retelling it, the translator to preserve it through translating it. At times, it is difficult to keep the two speakers and the their two tales distinct; but this confusion ends up being exploited in the resolution of the story.

Two things struck me about Blasim’s vision of the future as depicted in this story:

  • First, this is the second story in the anthology wherein the dominant power is the Chinese.
  • Second, the biggest influence on the future was not the war or the fall-out from war, but rather climate change. The war is basically an afterthought, a nonevent.

This is part of what I have enjoyed so much about this collection — the sheer diversity of imagined futures.