REVIEW: “Ratcatcher” by Amy Griswold

Review of Amy Griswold, “Ratcatcher”, in Steve Berman, ed., Wilde Stories 2017: The Year’s Best Gay Speculative Fiction (Lethe Press, 2017): 165-179. — Purchase here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology.)

“Never mind the sodding dead!” someone shouted, firing from beside him, but the only certainty he had in a world full of flying debris and blood was that the souls needed to come out of the corpses, extracted like rotten teeth. He raised his head, and saw the shattergun pointed at him from across the narrow gap between the ships.

This is the first story in the collection that I’ve read (remember, I’m reading them out of order) that is science fiction/steampunk in nature. The story opens with what could be a classic futuristic space setting, with a man with a shattergun and two airships docking together. But before the story starts, we’re told the time and place: “1918, over Portsmouth”. So this shower…isn’t your ordinary futuristic SF, and with that date “airship” takes on a steam-punk interpretation.

That being said, all the SF/SP/SPEC elements fade to the background in this wonderfully personal story, which focuses on the nature of death and the intimacies of life. It’s a story where the queer element only turns up in the final sentences, but it fits so perfectly and feels so natural that there is no question at all that this story belongs in this anthology.

There was ONE oddity of language in the story that tripped me up because it occurred so soon, and I feel compelled to mention. In the second paragraph, we’re introduced to a character via the rather clunky description “woman airman”. “Woman” isn’t an adjective; this construction doesn’t make much sense and only serves to emphasise the over gendering of the English language.

(Originally published in Mothership Zeta, 2016).

REVIEW: “Angel, Monster, Man” by Sam J. Miller

Review of Sam J. Miller, “Angel, Monster, Man”, in Steve Berman, ed., Wilde Stories 2017: The Year’s Best Gay Speculative Fiction (Lethe Press, 2017): 123-151. — Purchase here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology.)

Because to succeed as myth, Tom had to be dead. Otherwise the charade became too complicated to maintain. And who would know, in this city where the dying stacked up faster than firewood, that this one particular name in the long litany had never been an actual person?

A thought occurred to me, while reading the title of this piece, that while women have the threefold “Maiden/Mother/Crone” division, there isn’t really anything equivalent for men. What would such a tripartite characterisation of men look like? What types of myths and history could such a division tap into, in the way that the one for women does?

Miller’s story doesn’t actually address this question, but these were the thoughts playing in the back of my mind as I read it. I really enjoyed the complex narrative structure: Three parts, one for each portion of the title, one for each of three named narrators, the three that gave birth to Tom.

I loved the way the story operated at two levels, at one, just a story, at the other, an interrogation of the limits and boundaries of lies, fiction, and myth. Above all that, I loved the beauty of the story, with fine, delicate, ugly language. (The story is so full of lines I’d like to quote that if I quoted them all, I’d just be reproducing the entire story. “Adulterous toad-priests”. “Being a criminal is not so different from being an artist.” “Because of course it will hurt, because the things we need most always do.” “Love is the disease.” Ah! So many beautiful words.)

There is a rawness to the stories in this anthology that is unlike anything in any of the other anthologies I’ve reviewed for SFFReviews. It is hard to read these stories, Miller’s included especially, and not be moved. I also think I will be hard pressed to find a more powerful story in the collection than this astonishing one.

(This story first appeared in Nightmare, 2016).

REVIEW: “Bull of Heaven” by Gabriel Murray

Review of Gabriel Murray, “Bull of Heaven”, in Steve Berman, ed., Wilde Stories 2017: The Year’s Best Gay Speculative Fiction (Lethe Press, 2017): 83-99. — Purchase here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology.)

So much calculation had gone into giving Francis realistic human coloration: olive skin, brown eyes, brown hair a little lighter than the eyes, striated and naturalistic. No one had done the same with the android Moses: they’d just painted him in tones they found beautiful, which occurred on no living man, which Francis found garish.

This is another story of automata, religious automata programmed and constructed so that they are “born” already knowing all the catechism, already capable of experiencing “the mystery of the faith” (p. 85). It is easy, in this story, to slip into the uncanny valley; it is only in consciously self-reflective narration that we are reminded that Brother Francis is no ordinary temple cleric. Moses, too, is an android, and what I find most fascinating in this story is watching Brother Francis go through his own uncanny valley, to see the automaton respond to the not-quite-right, the too-almost-organic android. “The humans might not have noticed, but Francis did” (p. 86). But there remain many things that Francis does not notice, not until he is confronted with them, not until it is almost too late.

REVIEW: “Of All Possible Worlds” by Eneasz Brodski

Review of Eneasz Brodski, “Of All Possible Worlds”, in Steve Berman, ed., Wilde Stories 2017: The Year’s Best Gay Speculative Fiction (Lethe Press, 2017): 223-236. — Purchase here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology.)

Warning: This story contains a rape.

Ehud. I had slept with him years ago. I had loved him for awhile. I should have known he would be found out. A stone flew from the crowd and tore his ear open. It bled black.

This story was a feast of detail — Romans and Jews, slaves and centurions, Colosseum fights, monstrous grotesque animals, a wizened wizard. To every animal, human or beast, that Marad sends into the Colosseum, he offers the following apology: “You must die so that I may live. I don’t ask your forgiveness; this is the way of life. But know I wish this world was different” (p. 225).

All the stories in this anthology make my heart ache, from sadness, from gladness, from a desire that the world is other than how it is. This one left me with a feeling of sadness and fear too complex to be articulated. The horror in it is shattering.

(This story was originally published in 2016 in Swords vs. Chthulhu, Jesse Bullington & Molly Tanzer, eds.)

REVIEW: “Das Steingeschöpf” by G. V. Anderson

Review of G. V. Anderson, “Das Steingeschöpf”, in Steve Berman, ed., Wilde Stories 2017: The Year’s Best Gay Speculative Fiction (Lethe Press, 2017): 13-28. — Purchase here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology.)

A hundred million things to paint, to write, to carve, to compose, all trapped in a body that’s failing. Awareness of a brother come to save them at last, separated only by Ambroise’s skin.

An unexpected commission, a journey in the dark, a hidden treasure in an attic, a stone man already alive and ready to be loved…so begins a sort of Pygmalion-in-reverse story.

The best of stories are the ones you read and wish they were real. Everything about this story was perfect — the level of detail to set the scene, the historical references to set the time, the way in which the creation of the Steingeschöpf’s seems so perfectly natural — every aspect of their construction and composition is exactly what you’d expect it to be, so that even though this should be utterly unfamiliar and new, it is not, it feels familiar and already known.

Part of me wishes the story had a happy ending, but even for that I cannot wish this story other than it is.

REVIEW: “Frost” by ‘Nathan Burgoine

Review of ‘Nathan Burgoine, “Frost”, in Steve Berman, ed., Wilde Stories 2017: The Year’s Best Gay Speculative Fiction (Lethe Press, 2017): 69-79. — Purchase here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology.)

To have a man like this, a man like his father, and his brothers, who would look at him and respect him and—yes—love him, even though he was small, and narrow, and gentle. What that might be like.

Flipping through the book to pick the next story to read and review, I opened to the page that had this opening quote, and knew immediately that this was the story I wanted to read. So much hope and sadness in those two sentences, and also a hint of something more.

“Frost” is in essence a classic fairy tale, with the clever youngest son hero, magic to mend a broken heart, and what should be a happily ever after. The man Frost is “born of magic and a longing for love,” and though he seems everything that Little Jay, with the gift of magic in his hands, desires and needs, as often happens when magic is involved, not everything is as it seems. Before my eyes I see the happily ever after melts away as the frost melts in the sun, and my heart ached for the unhappiness that threads through the entire story.

But,

Anything broken might never be what it was, but in the right hands, with enough heart, it could always be something else (p. 79).

There is hope at the end of the story, but I’m not quite sure it’s enough to make it a happy story.

(Originally published in 2016 on ‘Nathan Burgoine’s blog.)

REVIEW: “Turing Test” by Eric Scheller

Review of Eric Scheller, “Turing Test”, in Steve Berman, ed., Wilde Stories 2017: The Year’s Best Gay Speculative Fiction (Lethe Press, 2017): 215-220. — Purchase here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology.)

The interior of the case is decorated like a florid setting room, wallpapered, the floor spread with a rug of oriental design. There are three automata and all three are instantly recognizable…

A spec fic story about Alan Turing and automata? Oh, my heart, yes, please! One thing that sometimes frustrates me about science fiction as a genre (painting with very broad brush strokes here), is how narrowly “science” is often interpreted. As a scientist myself, I am often longing to find representation of my kind of science in traditional SF stories. But the laws of logic are desperately hard to play with, almost more so in fiction than in real life, where logicians think nothing of speaking of true contradictions and impossible worlds. So I had high hopes for this story as being “close enough”, not my science but close enough to it.

When one says “automata” in the context of SF, many readers probably think first of dumb robots moving mindlessly — something embodied. The automata that I know and love (and sometimes hate) from my days in grad school are much more abstract: They are (sometimes deterministic, sometimes not) (sometimes finite, sometimes not) state-machines that take as input strings of symbols and after a (possibly unique) computation (or “run”) of the machine either gets into an infinite loop, or accepts or rejects the string (Deterministic finite state-machines will never cycle infinitely, and will always accept or reject the input.) The most general class of automata is the class of Turing machines — and here we circle back to the content of the story as opposed to a mini lesson in computation.

Alan, who “loves permutations and crossword puzzles” (p. 215), enters the Ashmolean Museum and asks to see the automata the curator has in storage. But the automata that he is shown are not Turing machines but the embodied type, three versions of Oscar Wilde each in a different guise and a different pose. I am disappointed that the automata are not the ones I wanted them to be, but this lessens my enjoyment of the story only in passing. Scheller takes us through a story that is both history and fantasy, and captures all of the aching sadness that surrounds Turing and his life. For all that so much of him differs from me, there is so much of him that I can see in myself, and for that, I am satisfied.

(Originally published in Meet Me in the Middle of the Air, Undertow Publications, 2016).

REVIEW: Wilde Stories 2017 edited by Steve Berman

Review of Steve Berman, ed., Wilde Stories 2017: The Year’s Best Gay Speculative Fiction, (Lethe Press, 2017) — Purchase here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman.

As a cis woman who is in a happily monogamous het relationship, I am probably the least qualified person to review this collection of stories. But, oh, it has a story about Turing in it, and as a logician who sometimes flirts with computer science and AI, I feel eminently qualified to read about Turing, and for that story alone I bought the book.

As a “best of” collection, it draws upon stories published the previous year, so all of these first came out — in various venues — in 2016. Many are thus things I would not have otherwise come across, which is one of the advantages that collected volumes have — they provide a different type of exposure for the stories and the authors that wrote them. And this particular volume is a physically lovely one — beautiful cover art by Dmitry Vorsin, attractive typesetting, and a suppleness to the pages which reminds me, as if I needed a reminder, of why I love print books so much more than electronic ones.

Each story is prefaced by a short quote from the story, bound to spark the reader’s interest. The tales included are the following:

Each of the stories will be reviewed individually, and linked back to this post when the review is posted.

Overall, the collection is powerful, beautiful, and sad. Every single story is steeped in emotion, and lovingly crafted.