REVIEW: Settling the World: Selected Stories 1970-2020 by M. John Harrison

Review of M. John Harrison, Settling the World: Selected Stories 1970-2020, with a foreword by Jennifer Hodgson (Comma Press, 2020) — Purchase here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman.

I’ll admit: Prior to receiving a request from the press to review this collection, I had not heard of M. John Harrison. My personal route through SFF has been rather idiosyncratic, and has missed out pretty much all of the “classic” SF authors. This made the opportunity to read a retrospective collection of Harrison’s stories — spanning 50 years — rather more desirable, not less, because it gave me an opportunity to fill a gap in my education. For that, I must comment on how useful I found Jennifer Hodgson’s interesting foreword to the collection; it says almost nothing of Harrison’s biography or history, but focuses more on the experience of reading his stories, and the way in which they reflect the world we inhabit and our experiences within it. Coming ignorant to Harrison and his work, Hodgson’s foreword piqued my interest and whetted my appetite, and set the stage for reading this excellent collection.

In these stories we find many repeated themes, as Hodgson highlights: The theme of dissatisfaction with how things have turned out; the theme of never knowing enough; the theme of always being just outside of things. Some of the stories focus on questioning reality; in others, the reality is so different from our own and yet it is taken for granted. Most of the stories contain at least one of these aspects; many of them contain more. This makes them exceptionally accessible: Even the weirdest of weird science fiction in them is not enough to make the stories themselves unfamiliar or strange, while sometimes the most mundane and ordinary of settings turn out to be home to the strangest and weirdest of stories.

Reading the collection was edifying, and I don’t mean this to be pejorative. I learned a lot about ways people look at the world; but I also learned a lot about the craft of writing stories, because even though I liked some stories better than others (usually the older ones I found more effective than the newer ones), there is no doubt that Harrison is a master of his craft, and one cannot help but marvel at what he has produced.

As is usual, the stories will be reviewed individually, and we will link the reviews back here when the are posted.

  • “Settling the World”
  • “The Gift”
  • “I Did It”
  • “Running Down”
  • “Land Locked”
  • “Yummie”
  • “The Causeway”
  • “Colonising the Future”
  • “The Machine in Shaft Ten”
  • “A Young Man’s Journey to Viriconium”
  • “Science & the Arts”
  • “The Incalling”
  • “The Ice Monkey”
  • “The East”
  • “‘Doe Lea'”
  • “Cicisbeo”

REVIEW: “Rest Stop” by MJ Gardner

Review of MJ Gardner, “Rest Stop”, Luna Station Quarterly 27 (2016): Read online. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman.

“If you had a problem you couldn’t fix, you moved on and left it behind.” This is a lesson Marcy learned from her parents, and she’s put it to good use more than once. Right now, the problem she can’t fix is Lenny, and the story opens with her moving on from him, leaving him behind without any reason or notice. Everything seems so very ordinary, up until the point at which nothing is ordinary at all and everything is extraordinary and weird.

I enjoyed the abrupt shift in direction that Gardner introduced with great effect, and felt the two halves — the mundane and the fantastic — of the story balanced each other nicely. I also appreciated Gardner’s choice of heroine — Marcy is in her sixties, fat and grey, and dealing with stress incontinence. In other words, she’s a real person, not a fairy tale. I like reading stories about real people, especially when they end up in unreal situations.

REVIEW: “A Curse, A Kindness” by Corinne Duyvis

Review of Corinne Duyvis, “A Curse, A Kindness”, in Marieke Nijkamp, ed., Unbroken: 13 Stories Starring Disabled Teens (Farrar Straus Giroux, 2018): 276-304 — Purchase here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology).

This was the other stand-out story of the volume, sitting alongside of Fox Benwell’s story a cut above the rest. It was so unexpected and charming and an unabashed, straight-up fairy tale, complete with a curse, a wholly unexpected genie, three wishes, and a happy ending. A great story, and a great way to end the anthology. Any misgivings I had reading the first story of the anthology were wholly banished by ending it on this note.

REVIEW: “Mother Nature’s Youngest Daughter” by Keah Brown

Review of Keah Brown, “Mother Nature’s Youngest Daughter”, in Marieke Nijkamp, ed., Unbroken: 13 Stories Starring Disabled Teens (Farrar Straus Giroux, 2018): 260-275 — Purchase here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology).

Mother Nature’s youngest daughter came into her powers early, earlier than any of her siblings. Being able to control snowstorms doesn’t make it any easier for Millie to control her teenage emotions and reactions, especially not when she is being bullied and no one — not the teachers, not the other kids, not even her siblings — will say a word to stop it. If no one else will help her, then Millie has got to help herself — maybe, being the daughter of Mother Nature isn’t the worst thing in the world.

This was an engaging story, but I felt it was a little flat compared to some of the others in the collection, perhaps unfairly because some of the others really sparkled. This one was still a good story, just not one I’m likely to remember strongly.

REVIEW: “Plus One” by Karuna Riazi

Review of Karuna Riazi, “Plus One”, in Marieke Nijkamp, ed., Unbroken: 13 Stories Starring Disabled Teens (Farrar Straus Giroux, 2018): 104-131 — Purchase here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology).

Hafsah has received an invitation from God, for a once in a lifetime opportunity: To go on hajj. A wonderful opportunity, a blessed opportunity, a sacred opportunity…and one she doesn’t particularly want. Because this is the sort of invitation where a plus one is not expected, and Hafsah doesn’t know how she’ll go on hajj without bringing It along.

Everyone says that It is just a phase, that if she ignores It, if she names It, if she grows out of It, It will go away, but nothing she’s done has ever gotten rid of It. What “It” is in the story is not specified — it is both everything that burdens every teenager and also something unique, special, Hafsah’s alone, that no one else has. My heart ached for Hafsah as she tried to navigate a way forward to a life without It, but I also felt a sense of kinship with her, and I suspect many other readers will too…

Reading this story also made me reflect that I can probably count on two hands the number of stories with a Muslim MC that I’ve reviewed for this site since it started almost 3 years ago. This is something I’d like to change going forward! If only they can all be as good as this one was.

REVIEW: “Found Objects” by William Alexander

Review of William Alexander, “Found Objects”, in Marieke Nijkamp, ed., Unbroken: 13 Stories Starring Disabled Teens (Farrar Straus Giroux, 2018): 90-103 — Purchase here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology).

Take the feel of an episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, throw in some Shakespeare and make the Buffy-character Hispanic and disabled, and that’s basically what this story felt like, and I loved it.

REVIEW: “The Leap and the Fall” by Kayla Whaley

Review of Kayla Whaley, “The Leap and the Fall”, in Marieke Nijkamp, ed., Unbroken: 13 Stories Starring Disabled Teens (Farrar Straus Giroux, 2018): 38-59 — Purchase here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology).

Spoiler alert

I wasn’t expecting this story, the way it started off, to become a horror story! But that’s what it was, complete with ghosts, a haunted carnival, and two best friends, Gemma and Eloise, who can only save each other by admitting their love. This was another story with a definite romance arc in it, but Whaley used it to good effect, making it a necessary part of the resolution.

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: “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: “A Few Minutes More” by L. M. Magalas

Review of L. M. Magalas, “A Few Minutes More”, Luna Station Quarterly 28 (2016): Read online. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman.

Content note: Suicide.

The premise of this story is simply: Susanna, by committing suicide, has forfeited her right to the remainder of her allotted days, but she is allowed to designate someone else as recipient.

I wouldn’t have ever thought a suicide story could be heartwarming, but this one was. Magalas handled the delicate subject matter with care and sensitivity, exploring the ways in which our actions affect those around us, positively and negatively, in a story full of warmth and hope.