REVIEW: “The Rocket Farmer” by Julie C. Day

Review of Julie C. Day, “The Rocket Farmer”, Podcastle: 507 — Listen Online. Reviewed by Heather Rose Jones

What raises a story above simply being entertaining to being a “good story” is often the layering in of multiple themes or meanings. On its surface, “The Rocket Farmer” is a fantasy about rocket ships as an agricultural crop: their natural history, the complexities of crop management, the inevitable tragedies of failure. But on a different level, the story concerns the more mundane and eternal struggle of one generation to understand and communicate with another. Sarnai is pulled between the bottomless pit of neediness that is her father’s struggling rocket farm, and the growing suspicion that she has failed to protect her daughter from the lure of the family profession.

The story is told in three voices: Sarnai, her daughter Sophie, and one of the rockets, waiting to fulfil its destiny. The result is a delightfully unexpected and–dare I say heartwarming?–tale of communication failures and eventual success. If the story had focused only on the clever conceit of rocket farming, it would have fallen flat for me, mired in a vast array of technical detail. But as a medium for a story of human interactions, it worked beyond any of my initial expectations.

(Originally published in Interzone #271)

REVIEW: “The Ghost Stories We Tell Around Photon Fires” by Cassandra Khaw

Review of Cassandra Khaw, “The Ghost Stories We Tell Around Photon Fires”, Apex Magazine 104 (2018): Read Online. Reviewed by Joanna Z. Weston.

This is a ghost story in space, a ghost story done up with all the creepiness and ambiguity the genre demands. It is also a love story, which seemed surprising to me until I thought about it. But what makes us want to bend the rules of death like love does? To say more – to try to tell you the plot – would require spoilers, and I would hate to deprive you of the experience of putting the pieces together. In the end, this is another story where the plot isn’t the important thing. The mystery, the meditation on love and loss and living, the lyrically sharp language: those were enough to draw me in and keep me hanging on Khaw’s every word.

This is a very human story, despite being set in space. I think the setting serves to highlight how universal the experience of loss and inability to let go really is. It also provides the a way for the main character to escape the inevitability of loss, but I think it’s contribution to the tone is actually more important.

I’ll admit that, when reading this the first time, I worried about how it would end. Would it dissolve into chaos and vagueness? Would the ending be either too firm or too soft to satisfy, after the beautiful mystery that came before? I should have had more faith. The ending delivers exactly what the story needs, not a drop more or a sentence less.

 

REVIEW: “The Best Friend We Never Had” by Nisi Shawl

Review of Nisi Shawl, “The Best Friend We Never Had”, Apex Magazine 104 (2018): Read Online. Reviewed by Joanna Z. Weston.

The story starts with a woman named Josie returning to the space station where she grew up, seeking to recruit her friends for a hazy project on behalf of her employers, ARPA. Josie, is a conflicted, complex woman. She seems to have left home for a reason, after getting into some sort of trouble (though we don’t know what it is), yet here she is coming home. She wants to recruit her friends for this job that she clearly thinks will better their lives economically and socially, but she can’t directly tell them about it. The title itself suggests that she isn’t quite who the people from the past think she is, but that doesn’t make her unsympathetic. She keeps herself at a distance, maybe due to the secrets of her mission, but maybe out of habit. That distance made it difficult for me to get as emotionally invested as a prefer, but also suits her character.

I loved the world-building here. The slang is just different enough from our own to suggest linguistic drift, but rooted enough in current language that it was easy to understand. The important things – the hierarchy of haves and have-not’s, the general social order of the habitat (“hab”) – are well developed, while everything not critical to the plot is simply described for us to accept and get on with the story.

The end is not easy. The future world of this story is rife with capitalism and corporate greed (sound familiar?), and that rarely ends well for the lower classes to which these characters belong. Yet it isn’t without hope. I wouldn’t say that it offer any answers to the present-day issues it explores, but it also doesn’t consign them to inevitability – there is a sense that the struggle against them might someday bear fruit, even if we don’t see it today.

This is a long story. Apex didn’t include a word-count this time, but it took me over half an hour to read it. That isn’t a criticism, simply a warning so that you can give yourself enough time to get through it in one sitting.

REVIEW: “Symphony to a City under the Stars” by Armando Saldaña

Review of Armando Saldaña, “Symphony to a city under the stars”, Apex Magazine 104 (2018): Read Online. Reviewed by Joanna Z. Weston.

This is a richly layered world, where dimensions and universes unfurl from the sky, and you can travel through them by song and ships, and where virtual reality has almost eclipsed physical life, at least on earth. The plot is simple enough: boy loves girl, girl travels the stars, girl returns. But the strangeness of the world, the structure, and the deftly lyrical language elevate it to something more.

The plot is a little hazy at times, but not unpleasantly so. I don’t think that precise details are the point of this piece, anyway. Like music itself, this story is more emotion than plot. Love and longing, the yearning to be with someone, but the equally strong need to explore the world and see distant sights, suffuse this piece with all the beautiful sorrow of a minor chord. The music of the language carries you through to the other side, and the neat echoes between the opening and closing images serve as prelude and finale.

Strongly recommended for anyone who loves rich imagery and lyrical language.

REVIEW: “Sea of Dreams” by Cixin Liu

Review of Cixin Liu (Translated by John Chu), “Sea of Dreams”, Asimov’s Science Fiction January/February (2018): 75-93 — Purchase Here. Reviewed by Kiera Lesley.

This is a beautiful, strange story.

An alien being interrupts an ice and snow art exhibition and wants to create its own work on earth, using the earth’s seas as its medium. Yan Dong, the artist whose work the alien liked most out of the exhibition, strikes up a connection with the alien which changes as the alien’s artistic vision is realised and the earth has to live with the aftermath of its creation.

This is really a story about art and the place art has in a society. Through conversations between the alien and Yan Dong, Cixin Liu considers whether art is the most important thing for a society to be doing, whether society exists solely for the purposes of allowing art to be created, and whether sometimes there are more important things than art.

The alien’s artwork and the challenges it poses for the earth are original and compelling. This novelette covers a lot of ground in the short amount of words it’s working with – space travel, planet-wide experiences, and events that take place over decades. I liked Yan Dong as an emotional voice for humanity, too – his reactions and decisions felt satisfying and correct and happened in the right way at the right times. The science elements of the story are smart, too, and support the fictional story rather than driving it.

There’s a lot to think about here and it’s wonderfully told with images I’m certain will stick with me.

REVIEW: “The Heaven-Moving Way” by Chi Hui

Review of Chi Hui, “The Heaven-Moving Way”, Apex Magazine 104: Read Online. Reviewed by Joanna Z. Weston.

This gem of a story starts with Zhang Xuan stealing a spaceship to track down her missing twin brother. Her quest to find him is interspersed with scenes from their childhood, adolescence, and adulthood – right up to the circumstances that led to his disappearance – and the sibling relationship is lovingly and realistically written, neither too perfect nor too fraught. If this had been a simple quest to find a missing loved one, it would have been a fine story. But Hui didn’t stop there; this is a story about the limits of human dreaming and exploration, one of my personal favorite modes of science fiction.

To me, this feels like a fresh take on that classic SF theme: humans exploring space and figuring out their place in the galaxy. It’s good to see characters of color, hailing from a non-Western culture, getting to star in that tale.

There are some stories that make me want to just pack up my word processor and give up, because I will surely never write something as exquisite, as original, as human, as the story I just read. This is one of those stories. The characters, the world, and the story that results from the combination of the two hit all the right notes for me.

If you like your science fiction with well-drawn characters and hope for an expansive future, then I highly recommend checking this out!

REVIEW: “Katabasis” by Petter Skult

Review of Petter Skult, “Katabasis”, in Myths, Monsters, and Mutations, edited by Jessica Augustsson (JayHenge Publications, 2017): 120-121. — Purchase here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology.)

The story is a mishmash of elements from a variety of sources — Biblical references to Lazarus, contemporary SF in the form of integrated human-machines, a sprinkling of Greek gods — providing a sense of familiarity and also a sense of a much wider scope than can actually be given in a two page story. This is generally quite an effective technique to use in flash fic, in that one can omit many details knowing that the reader will be able to fill them in themselves from other stories they have read. (This is what the philosopher David Lewis calls `interfictional carryover’. Interfictional carry-over occurs when readers import knowledge of certain types of tropes into a story where those tropes are not explicitly mentioned. [1, p. 45]) But predicating a story on the assumption that readers can all fill in certain gaps is a dangerous gamble to take; for if you’ve got a reader who, like me, doesn’t know who Adrestia is, all the import of the ending is lost.

Note

[1] Lewis, David. 1978. “Truth in Fiction”, American Philosophical Quarterly 15, no. 1: 37–46.