REVIEW: A Brilliant Void edited by Jack Fennell

Review of Jack Fennell, ed., A Brilliant Void: A Selection of Classic Irish Science Fiction (Tramp Press, 2018) — Purchase here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman.

A while back I had time to kill in Belfast airport so I ended up in WH Smith’s hoping to find the newest Rivers of London book. I failed at that, but what I did find was a book that touted itself as being “a selection of classic Irish science fiction”. Classic science fiction, you say? Some people might think that’s an oxymoron, that SF is an inherently modern genre. In his introduction to the collection, “The Green Lacuna”, the editor Jack Fennell addresses precisely the issue of genre, as well as whether it makes sense to speak of a specifically Irish tradition in SF.

Fennell kicks off his introduction with a brief rehearsal of the fantastical elements that can be found in the history of Irish storytelling, arguing that many of the recurring tropes in medieval Irish mythology and literature are the same tropes that one finds in contemporary science fiction — from Balor of the Evil Eye, villain of the 11th C Book of Invasions who “was basically a mutant with laser-vision” (p. vii) to stories in the “Christian fantasy-voyage” genre with encounters with creatures that should “be read as forerunners of modern sci-fi aliens and mutants” (p. viii). Now, these examples might seem a bit far stretched — more fantasy than sci fi as there isn’t any “science” that is being invoked to underpin or explain the fantastical elements of these medieval myths. But they are part of a continuous tradition that directly fed into modern sci fi, mediated by, among other things, the classic Gothic literature of the 19th century, of which “Ireland was home to one of the most celebrated varieties” (p. viii), Ascendancy Gothic, feature “paradigm-shifting encounters with the other” (p. viii). This strand of gothic literature, Fennell argues, combined with the scientific romances of Verne, Wells, and others to become the direct parents of pulp SF in the early 20th century. A second specifically Irish influence on the development of modern SF, Fennell argues, is the Irish “desire to see the future” (p. xi), which is manifest in the central role that prophecy has always played in Irish literary tradition, and in particular in the aisling or ‘dream vision’ poetry.

Despite this, Irish science fiction has often been relegated to the “marginalia” (p. x) of Irish literature, Fennell argues. This anthology is an attempt to right this, and to bring to light stories and authors that have been sidelined. Reading classic science fiction not only allows us to “look at the commonplace from a hypothetical remove” (p. ix), it allows us a glimpse into what people of the past thought their future would, or could, be like.

This focus on the future is the red thread that ties all the stories together, even more than the cultural background of the authors. The stories in the anthology cover the period 1837-1960, and are both standalone stories and excerpts from larger works. I was super pleased to see that more than half of the authors included were women (8 women, 6 men). (Wait, you didn’t know there were female SF writers before the 1960s? Now you know!) As is usual, we will review each story individually and link the reviews back to this post when they are posted:

There are so many things to love about this collection — Fennell’s lucid and informative introduction, the variety of the stories, the coherence of the whole. I highly recommend it for classic SF lovers, people with an interest in Irish literature, people who want to read more early SF by women, or those who just want to curl up with a good story. This collection has it all.

REVIEW: “Joinery” by Jennifer Lyn Parsons

Review of Jennifer Lyn Parsons, “Joinery”, Luna Station Quarterly 36 (2018): Read online. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman.

This entire issue of Luna Station Quarterly is filled with strong, confident, older women, which has made the entire collection of stories a joy to read. Regine, in Parsons’ “Joinery”, is no exception. I loved the care and dedication with which she approached not only her woodworking but also the other people who lived on the same technologically-backward planet, Diot. When an unexpected stranger arrived in her isolated village, Regine is wary but not suspicious. Grannie Hella knows more than she lets on, and lets on that she knows too much. She also brings with her more than Regine could ever imagine.

I love when a story sucks me into all its layers, and hints at all number of layers that can’t be reached in the course of a single short story but which are clearly there, touched on here and there. Who are the Bright Ones? What is their curse, and can it ever be broken? Why does Grannie Hella come to Regine? All these questions swirl around — some are answered, others, painfully, are not — and the end result is a story that’s both bittersweet and hopeful.

REVIEW: “A Handful of Mud” by Artyv K

Review of Artyv K, “A Handful of Mud”, Luna Station Quarterly 36 (2018): Read online. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman.

What can you do with a handful of mud? That’s what Dana and her sister Mtra ask their mipaati, their grandmother, when she brings home not food, not chocolate, but a handful of mud. Mipaati is a hoarder, and at first her granddaughters think this is just another part of her irrational behavior. But mipaati has a plan for her mud, one that Dana thinks cannot possibly work: She is going to grow food in it.

See, Dana, Mtra, and mipaati all live underground; it’s not entirely clear why, but hints are dropped — capitalism, poisoned soil in the land above, a land destroyed by industrialist greed. But it’s not just that it’s hard to grow plants underground that makes Dana think this cannot possibly work; it’s all the restrictions against hazardous, toxic materials that govern their underground compound. If anyone finds out what mipaati is doing, they are all in trouble…

REVIEW: “Cry Sanctuary” by Anna Catalano

Review of Anna Catalano, “Cry Sanctuary”, Luna Station Quarterly 36 (2018): Read online. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman.

Content warning: Domestic violence, alcoholism, death in childbirth.

Tuppy has been trapped in her marriage to Josiah for more than twenty years, for more than half of it she’s been trying to figure out how to escape. Tonight is her night, if only she can get out of the house without waking him, out of the house and to the bus stop.

After that, she doesn’t know what next, can’t even think beyond the first step to freedom. What she finds at the bus stop is nothing she could ever have planned on, but her silent cry for sanctuary was heard and listened to.

Despite the (relatively) optimistic note that things started off moving towards, this was a hard, harsh story. The route to the ending is not a happy one, and the ending, while victorious, is also not happy. But there is something hopeful about the story of one woman’s escape from violence, and the way in which it sets the scene for her to help others escape.

REVIEW: “Under Her White Stars” by Jacob Budenz

Review of Jacob Budenz, “Under Her White Stars”, in Broken Metropolis: Queer Tales of the City That Never Was, edited by Dave Ring, (Mason Jar Press, 2018): 106-126 — Purchase here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology).

I was very glad that this, the final story in the anthology, was one of the longer ones, because it meant that the time I’d be finished with the anthology would be put off. All of the stories in this book have captured so well the desired goal/theme of the anthology, and this capping story didn’t disappoint either.

I loved this story of a freelance witch who cobbles together his living by sometimes working as a healer, sometimes as a seller of spells, and sometimes a witch-hunter. We never learn his name, but his target is Amarande, a witch down south who runs a convenience store and is conning his customers into giving them their souls so that he can be immortal, and he’s got it all planned out…except what he didn’t plan for was his fiancé Lionel coming along with him.

As soon as Lionel wormed his way into the plan, ready to play the role of bait so that the witch could capture Amarande, I read the rest of the story on tenterhooks: Would it have a happy ending? Would it have a sad ending?

It’d be spoilers to tell you, so I’ll just say this: It had exactly the right ending that both the story and the anthology needed.

REVIEW: “Dissonance, Part I” by D. M. Rice

Review of D. M. Rice, “Dissonance, Part I”, in Broken Metropolis: Queer Tales of the City That Never Was, edited by Dave Ring, (Mason Jar Press, 2018): 94-105 — Purchase here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology).

What a strange story! Rice’s piece straddles the boundary between experimental prose and long-form poetry, combining non-standard typesetting, plenty of capitals, italics, and bold, broken and incomplete words, and disjointed/uncertain narration and yet still ending up with a clear voice and distinctive characters — Sir Talon, the narrator; Alfa Behn, whom he asks out on a date; Maestro Belfast, Ezra Gentle, the Elemental Countess of Norwooq, others.

Because of the presentation of the story, it was hard work to read; I had to concentrate on every single individual word, in a way that I don’t ordinarily when reading blocks of prose, when I can take in phrases at a time. I’m still uncertain whether I think the experimental format benefited the story or detracted from it; I suspect that’s something best left to each reader to decide for themself! But if this is Part I, I definitely want to read Part II!

REVIEW: “Your Heart in My Teeth” by V. Medina

Review of V. Medina, “Your Heart in My Teeth”, in Broken Metropolis: Queer Tales of the City That Never Was, edited by Dave Ring, (Mason Jar Press, 2018): 82-93 — Purchase here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology).

A city is made of its people. It only make sense that [its heart] would be human (p. 92)

“You,” we are told in the opening sentence, “find yourself going to the street corner where he died” (p. 82). And yet, though the whole story is told in 2nd person POV, it doesn’t feel — like so many 2nd person POV stories do — to me like some external/omniscient narrator is telling me what I am doing, thinking, feeling. Instead, it feels much more like the narrator is narrating the story to himself, that he is trying to fit the broken pieces of his life back together into a pattern that makes sense.

There’s really no cues indicating how this POV should be read here, but it’s certainly possible to read the story this way, and that’s how I read it, as a story between a narrator and his dead lover, who died in a car crash on that corner, where a little grocer sits. This is the first of the stories in this anthology that has a rather creepy undertone of horror to it, and there is an ambiguity to the ending that I liked a lot. I am also continually impressed at how each of the stories fits into the theme of the anthology as a whole, even when they contain grand statements about the nature of the city itself.