REVIEW: “The Worker” by Diaa Jubaili

Review of Diaa Jubaili, Andrew Leber (trans.), “The Worker”, Iraq+100, edited by Hassan Blasim (Comma Press, 2016): 61-80 — Purchase here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology.)

This story is two distinct halves stitched together into one story by their shared narrator. In the first half, our unidentified narrator tells us about what life is like, 100 years into the future, and it is a strange collection of facts. Measles has not yet been eradicated, and AIDS is still prevalent — but antibiotics are still viable. At some point in the past automata replaced many ordinary workers, but these automata are now broken and nonviable. World War Three happened about 20 years previously, and the fall-out of climate change and war has wreaked havoc on society. There is slavery. There is cannibalism. But there is also the Governor, who employs clerks to search through history to provide him with examples of calamaties, atrocities, horrors, tragedies, and catastrophes. From these he composes his sermons which indulge in the very strange sort of reasoning that is often known as the ‘Pain Olympics’ — surely his people cannot be that badly off, since many other people in history have had it much, much worse.

In this first half, we have no idea who the narrator is, nor who the titular worker is. This is addressed in the second half, where it turns out that they are one and the same. But the worker is no ordinary worker, and it is only towards the end of the story that we find out that he is not just a worker but The Worker, the essence of the ordinary every day working man captures in concrete and made into a statue. His history is recounted, as well as his present context, until the story ends, quite abruptly, without any clear resolution.

Tales told from the point of view inanimate objects are often listed on journal wish-lists. But they are hard to write without unduly anthropomorphising the object, or having to tell some tortuous story about how it is this unconscious, inanimate thing can even have a point of view. This story simply entirely ignores the question of how the statue is a position to be able to tell us a story, and also simply cares nothing at all about whether it is being too anthropomorphic. This blithe disregard is noteworthy because it is perhaps the clearest speculative element of the story: It is just taken for granted that this type of narrator and narration is possible without feeling any need to explain or justify this possibility.

The story is well-populated with informative footnotes (you know how much I love an informative footnote — especially when one of them is such that I can feel very smug because I didn’t need it, I know who ibn Khaldun is, thank you very much). There was one moment of frustration though: Footnote 5 appears on p. 65. Footnote 7 appears on p. 72. When one flips to the end of the story, one finds that there are only 6 footnotes: And the content of footnote 6 does not match the sentence footnoted 7. Footnote 6 actually turns up on p. 77, but we are left forever in the dark as to what footnote 7 was intended to be.

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: “The Drover’s Ghost” by Melanie Rees

Review of Melanie Rees’s “The Drover’s Ghost.” Persistent Visions (21 July 2017) Read online. Reviewed by Essence B. Scott.

“The Drover’s Ghost” by Melanie Rees confused me. I had a hard time differentiating between the two protagonists, Stewie and Mutton; their voices sounded too much alike in my head. I didn’t feel drawn into the story or the setting. The story also seemed like it wandered a bit, much like the main characters in the story.

Everything in this story felt flat, from the characters to the world. Honestly, this story could have been better had Rees just sat with it a little more. Generally, I am intrigued by ghosts that haunt; however, the ghosts here seem overzealous to keep the peace. I wonder what would have happened if the ghosts had awareness. These ghosts that haunt only know bloodshed, and one seems attracted to Mutton.

The dream sequence in this story feels obviously like a surprise. One minute I’m reading about the ghosts that come because of bloodshed (even accidental bloodshed) and the next minute I’m in a sequence about Mutton’s past with a guy named Philip (we learn that Mutton’s real name is also Philip, only adding to my confusion).

Overall, this story was not one of Persistent Visions’ best and felt that they could have chosen another story.

REVIEW: “Bad Penny” by Carrie Laben

Review of Carrie Laben, “Bad Penny”, Apex Magazine 100: Read Online. Reviewed by Joanna Z. Weston.

If there’s one thing that irks me (and there are many things that irk me), it’s making history too tidy. I hate it when people assume that any one group or country was a monolithic entity with everyone in agreement. No, people of the past were as fractured and contentious as we are today. Which is one of the reasons why I so enjoyed reading “Bad Penny” – the whole story is about a town in western New York that ceded from the Union to support the Confederacy during the Civil War. Enough Northerners supported the Confederacy (or at least objected to the war) that there was a derogatory nickname for them: Copperheads. Real life details about the nickname and its overlap with the name of a poisonous snake not native to the region are both used to excellent effect in this story.

You’re going to want to pay attention to names and family relationships as you read, because this story takes place in 1946, but deals with the aftermath of a decision made in 1861. I didn’t play close enough attention to the third paragraph, leading to confusion until I started again from the beginning. This was my fault, and not a flaw in the storytelling.

This is a ghost story, but it’s the most complex ghost story I can remember reading. It’s about history and family and the difficulties of righting a wrong decision, how people get swept up in romantic notions and what that can lead to. It’s a story that rewards rereading; there’s too much nuance and foreshadowing and layers of detail to pick up in one go.

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: “As Tender Feet of Cretan Girls Once Danced Around An Altar of Love” by Julian Jarboe

Review of Julian Jarboe, “As Tender Feet of Cretan Girls Once Danced Around An Altar of Love”, Strange Horizons 16 Oct. 2017: Read Online. Reviewed by Danielle Maurer.

The title is a mouthful and more than a little pretentious-sounding, but this captivating short story based on Minoan civilization is well worth the read. Organized as a series of letters from the protagonist, a snake woman, to Ariadne (yes, that Ariadne), the story focuses on the snake woman as she prepares for her next reincarnation and laments the loss of her world and her love.

Jarboe’s prose is lush with description, painting breathtaking pictures of the scenery and rendering the protagonist’s loss with heart-breaking details. Occasionally, the sentences run a little too verbose, causing confusion until the reader takes the time to go back and re-read, but these small offenses are forgivable for the beauty of the words.

Beyond just superb prose, Jarboe tells a story that delves into deep themes, ranging from the weariness of eternal life to cultural appropriation. There’s so much to unpack in each “letter,” and readers will find new layers of meaning with each new read-through. This story is a rich, thoughtful meditation on all the shades of lost love, and I would highly recommend it.