The Apex Book of World SF: Volume 2 ed. Lavie Tidhar – 7.5/10

Pageflex Persona [document: PRS0000040_00007]The second collection of World Sci-Fi from Apex is a worthy successor to the first, not least because its contents is considerably expanded, with twenty-six disparate stories gathered under the careful eye of Lavie Tidhar, the editor. An eclectic mix of hope and horror, death and rebirth, companionship and loneliness, it spans everything that comes under the banner of science fiction: from the unsettling visions of “Zombie Lenin” (Ekaterina Sedia) to the whimsical time-travel caper that is “December 8th” (Raúl Flores Iriarte, translated with the help of Daniel W. Koon) to the witty cyberpunk of “Branded” (Lauren Beukes).

 

As ever, to stop these reviews becoming overlong I have a few favourites to pick out. In the case of this collection this was a really difficult choice, as most of the stories are, frankly, fantastic. I narrowed them down as much as I could, but as you can see by the following, this isn’t saying much:

 

Alternate Girl’s Expatriate Life – Rochita Loenen-Ruiz

In this story Loenen-Ruiz weaves an engagingly dark technological dystopia, in which, through the lens of a collectivist society big questions are asked. For example, what is humanity? And what lengths would you go to to save loved one?

Mr Goop – Ivor W. Hartmann

In a futuristic Harare, Hartman creates a heart-warming story about a boy and his hand-me-down technology. It’s easy to relate to the characters, especially the protagonist coming of age, his geneform who cannot keep up, and his parents who are trying their best. The message that growing up not necessarily about putting away childish things is one that more people should remember.

Trees of Bone – Daliso Chaponda

This harrowing tale of inter-tribal tensions and violence really brings home the dangers of forgetting past horrors and atrocities, of assuming the here and now is different and grievances more justified. The shades of grey in the characters, in their nostalgia, naivety and, in the end, horrific pragmatism all bring life to a story that is ultimately about the trade-off between holding to tradition and saving the future – a theme that is never irrelevant.

The First Peruvian in Space – Daniel Salvo, trans Jose B. Adolph

One of the shorter offerings in this collection, this is a clever, and at times uncomfortable, exploration of structural racism, and how token efforts to combat it are ultimately only make the situation worse.

The Sound of Breaking Glass – Joyce Cheng

Joyce Cheng’s tale of a reclusive old man’s odd habit of making wind chimes is a fun and charming reversal of brownie folk tale. What’s more, the ecological subtext makes it a story that has a lot to say to the modern world that is so often in opposition with nature.

A Single Year – Csilla Kleinheincz

In a neat twist on the traditional love story, Kleinheincz explores the devastating and tragic effects that having an oracle in the family can have on your love life. Filled with pathos and moving emotion, it’s a hard-hitting and powerful story.

Nira and I – Shwets Narayan

Another story that has a folkloric feel to it, “Nira and I” begins with harsh, violent darkness and gradually builds an atmosphere of hope as people learn to fight the mists of despair and fear through the power of dance.

Nothing Happened in 1999 – Fábio Fernandes

A witty, faintly satirical what-if sci-fi about time travel development and its social history. It’s short, sweet, and will keep you thinking.

Shadow – Tade Thompson

Thompson works his own distinctive dark style with this mystical story of the importance of the shadow and the dangers of losing – and misusing – this vital, and inscrutable, part of oneself.

Shibuya no Love – Hannu Rajaniemi

In this near-future tale of teenagehood, Rajaniemi explores the limits of cyberdating through what can only be described as virtual reality Tinder with a dash of a glimpse of the future. It’s clever, thought-provoking stuff that prods both at shallowness and at the mystery of romance. How far is a relationship worth it if you know how it will pan out from the very beginning?

Maquech – Silvia Moreno-Garcia

This unexpected gem is a slow burner, following an exotic pet dealer as he grows fond of a beetle he is trying to sell. Moreno-Garcia does an excellent job of depicting the dealer’s frustration and the emotional warmth that grows with what is essentially ambulatory jewellery.

The New Neighbours – Tim Jones

In a sweet, if heavy-handed metaphor for xenophobia, Jones follows the acceptance, or lack thereof, of an alien family in suburban New Zealand. It plays out as an interesting fish-out-of-water drama that occasionally seems overoptimistic, but the source of the aliens’ eventual acceptance injects a sobering dash of cynicism into the mix.

From the Lost Diary of TreeFrog7 – Nnedi Okorafor

A real highlight of this eco-scifi of otherworldly explorers is the neat worldbuilding, built through intriguing zoological entries and a vivid sense of the characters’ inner world. In an apparently cyber-bionic rainforest, two married explorers must put their trust in each other and themselves to the test in order to complete their mission, weaving in themes of kinship, humanity, and the sometimes thin divide between knowledge, reality, and madness.

The Slows – Gail Hareven trans Yaacov Jeffrey Green

In a more dystopic vision of the future, Hareven imagins modern humans seen from perspective of the evolutionary step that will replace us. An uncomfortable exploration of the “Übermensch” mentality and the way more “advanced” civilisations look down on those different to them as if inferior ensues, and also asks another deep question about the human condition – how human is someone if they have no childhood?

Electric Sonalika – Samit Basu

One of the highlights of the collection, this dark take on the Cinderella tale set in a technological uprising is both a clever updating of an age-old tale, but also a deeply unsettling story about breaking free of an abusive relationship.

And those are just the highlights! As with the last collection of Apex World Sci-Fi, there’s something to suit every taste here. No matter what flavour of science-fiction or fantasy you like, you’ll find a gem or two here. Highly recommended.

The Apex Book of World SF 1 ed. Lavie Tidhar – 8/10

It’s very easy to stay in a cultural bubble. Enjoying the media we have at hand can be a rich and varied experience, it’s true, but sometimes it pays to look beyond our own mental borders (in my case, the UK and the US, largely) to see what lies beyond. The Apex Book of World SF 1 provides a perfect starting place for this, with a selection of works (many of which are award winners) from across the globe, brought together under the watchful eye of Lavie Tidhar.

Pageflex Persona [document: PRS0000040_00007] As is to be expected, there is a range of styles, subgenres and subject matters – something for every taste.

Some of the stories take a more speculative tack. Transcendence Express (Jetse de Vries) is a neat eco-sci-fi with a hopeful prediction for future global prosperity; Wizard World (Yang Ping) begins as a thrilling whodunnit about identity theft in a digital world, but ends as a sensitive study of addiction, and of escaping it; in a similar vein, An Evening in the City Coffeehouse, With Lydia on my Mind (Alexsander Žiljak) is a sci-fi crime caper following a maker of voyeuristic pornography who stumbles across material that is literally out of this world – and faces the consequences.

There also is a good deal of unsettling horror: The Bird Catcher (S. P. Somtow) is a chilling examination of monstrosity and victimhood against a background of national atrocities; the interior view given of the mind of serial killers in Cinderers (Nir Yaniv) is nicely bewildering and ultimately satisfying; The Allah Stairs (Jamil Nasir) brings childhood revenge fantasies to life in an eerie tale of reminiscences that perhaps should have been left alone. Finally, Elegy (Mélanie Fazi) is a moving plea for a reunion, born of one of the most feared horrors of all – losing ones children. Framed with hints at eldritch forces, it explores grief in a sensitive way, all the while toeing the line between truth and the lies that grief can tell to those mourning.

As ever with such collections, some stories stand out from the others (although in this case it’s a stellar crowd to stand out from. The following stories have particularly stayed with me since I read this anthology:

The Levantine Experiments (Guy Hasson)

A haunting tale of a girl raised in solitary confinement as part of an unethical experiment. Her experience of the concept of an “outside”, explored only in dreams, is both unsettling and thought-provoking, and calls into question our ideas both of freedom and what it is to rescue someone.

The Wheel of Samsara (Han Song)

Here Han Song blends Buddhism and physics in a Bradbury-esque study of creation and the shared desire of both religion and science to touch the divine. Both philosophy and entertainment are provided in equal measure, with a dash of wonder.

Ghost Jail (Kaaron Warren)

An unsettling ghostly horror-cum-political-allegory in which journalists and residents of Fiji find themselves gagged and trapped by both authoritarian reforms and supernatural forces.

L’Aquilone du Estrellas (The Kite of Stars) (Dean Francis Alfar)

In this fairytale-esque story Dean Francis Alfar describes a folkloric quest for love. The result is moving and affectionate, exploring both the folly and the power of obsession. The narrative is beautifully sketched, with evocative imagery that lingers with the reader.

Biggest Baddest Bomoh (Tunku Halim Bin Tunku Abdullah)

In this Malaysian spin on The Monkey’s Paw, a man’s obsession with a woman leads to a misguided quest for love with horrific consequences. Highly enjoyable, with a satisfying ending.

The Lost Xuyan Bride (Aliette de Bodard)

One of the stories with richest setting, this gritty noir thriller takes place in an alternate history where Mexican cultures and the Chinese dominate the Americas, with the United States taking a firmly peripheral role. The backdrop is well realised, and the private investigation storyline is tense and suspenseful, blending detective and alternate history genres with panache.

Into the Night (Anil Menon)

This is perhaps the most moving story in the anthology. As the protagonist, a brahman brought from his native India to live in the West by his daughter during his twilight years, adjusts to a new way of life, the pros and cons of both cultures are called into question. Most especially, the “progress” that his daughter insists he integrates with is undermined – the West might have fancy gadgets, but does it have the spiritual soul and simplicity that he craves?

 

In The Apex Book of World SF 1, Lavie Tidhar has done an excellent job of curating an entertaining and diverse selection of stories. This anthology is not one that fans of science fiction should miss – there’s a whole world out there with worlds of its own to offer!

(This review was provided in exchange for a free copy of the ebook)

Sword and Sonnet – A. Doyle et. al – 7.5/10

Sword and Sonnet, edited by Aidan Doyle, Rachael K. Jones and E. Catherine Tobler, is a short story collection, largely made up of fantasy but with a smattering of science fiction, centring around female and non-binary warrior-poets. This is exciting enough as a prospect by itself, but what makes the collection special is the unique perspectives that each author brings to what it is to be a poet, what it is to be a warrior, and what it is to be a warrior-poet. Most of the stories are also accompanied with authors’ notes, which provides a more personal touch and a fascinating insight into the creative processes at work.

500px-SwordSonnetThe stories span traditions and subgenres, from the folkloric tale of jealousy, “The Other Foot”, by Margo Lanagan, to the ecological parable, “Eight-Step Köan”, by Anya Ow, to Kira Lees’ vampiric political intrigue tale, “Her Poems Are Inked in Tears and Blood,” to the amusing and thought-provoking “This Lexicon of Bone and Feathers”, courtesy of Carlie St. George. They also tackle hard-hitting emotional topics; great examples of these are Khaalidah Muhammad-Ali’s “She Searches For God in the Storm Within”, which concerns an escape from an abusive relationship, Osahon Ize-Iyamu’s treatment of self-esteem and sexual predators in slam-poem form in “A Voice In Many Different Forms”, and the exploration of grief and the reconciliation of the darker aspects of loved ones in “Dulce et Decorum”, by S. L. Luang. Samantha Henderson’s “The Fiddler at the Heart of the World” likewise sensitively examines the lengths people can be willing to go to to save a life, even if it involves forces they don’t fully understand. It’s a well-crafted collection of stories that complement each other well, and there is definitely something for fans of fantasy and science-fiction of all stripes. A few highlights are:

Words in an Unfinished Poem – A. C. Wise

In this redemptive and bittersweet Weird Western, an immortal gunslinger who writes poems with bullets which have exactly the right to kill their target etched on them, takes on a contract that will change their life.

A Subtle Fire Beneath the Skin – Hayley Stone

Hayley Stone plays with the idea of what it is to be monstrous beautifully in this tale of a woman who kills with poetry coming to terms with who she is, and trying to rewrite themselves into something new.

As For Peace, Call It Murder – C. S. E. Cooney

In a rousing story of a near-future military coup, a poet’s power to change the world is displayed with its full majesty, even if she is unable to save herself. One of the best stories in the collection, and bonus points for the AI corvid drones.

She Calls Down the Future in the Footprints Left Behind – Setsu Uzumé

Setsu Uzumé’s exploration of the limitations of oral tradition and the needs for cultures to adapt even at the cost of tradition is thought-provoking and moving. It also brings a dash of variety to the collection in the form of shamanistic magic, and a focus on the cultic and religious power of poetry that was especially powerful in such societies.

Heartwood, Sapwood, Spring – Suzanne J. Willis

One of the other gems in Sword and Sonnet, this account of a rebellion against the outlawing of the written word in an attempt to control the population is at once rousing and disturbing. It has an inspirational vein without being saccharine – the losses are real, the risks are real, and the battle is not short or easily won. In many ways, it is a parable for our times, at once a warning and an encouragement.

The Bone Poet and God – Matt Dovey

Also one of the best stories in the anthology, this is a heart-warming tale of self-discovery. It also has anthropomorphic bear shamans, and if that isn’t a selling point, I don’t know what is.

Siren – Alex Acks

In this space opera, Alex Acks explores how anger can be used as a catalyst both for destruction and for positive change, and the ways in which the potential for both can reside within a single being. His handling of the protagonist’s two warring personalities is especially deft. Like “Heartwood, Sapwood, Spring”, this story feels very timely, and one to draw encouragement from in Interesting Times.

With twenty-three high-quality stories on offer, Sword and Sonnet is a fine addition to the collection of any reader who enjoys the fantastical, the wondrous, and the bittersweet.

Space Unicorn Blues – T. J. Berry – 7/10

Space Unicorn Blues, by T. J. Berry, is a novel that defies genre boundaries, blending science fiction, fantasy, fairy tale and space opera together into a concoction that stands out as one of the more interesting science-fantasy novels to cross my path in recent years. The sensitivities of Becky Chambers meets a healthy dose of morally-ambiguous grit, a dysfunctionality reminiscent of Red Dwarf, and the absurdity of Douglas Adams.

SpaceUnicornBlues_144dpi-1-400x606Especially arresting is Berry’s world-building. The population of the galaxy being largely bala, faerie races drawn from folklore, is fun, and provides an opportunity for human self-reflection. The way that humanity responds to longer-lived, less adaptable creatures whose very bodies are exploitable resources (especially the semi-divine unicorns, whose horn is the only fuel that can power faster-than-light travel) is deeply uncomfortable. The parallels with the rise of modern-day fascism are clear, and though Berry’s treatment of this could be considered a tad black-and-white or heavy-handed, this is entirely consistent both with the folklore she draws from and, frankly, the ways we can observe mankind behaving when at its worst, and most self-obsessed. Berry is also capable at injecting lighter shades into an otherwise cynical picture, playing with fantastical and sci-fi tropes to comic effect. Singularity pie provides a memorable (if slightly stomach-churning) example of this, as do the

The greatest strength of Space Unicorn Blues, however, is the well-crafted characters. Ricky Tang, for example, is a lot of fun, all sass and wheeler-dealing, as well as being a sensitive depiction of a trans woman. She is someone who always manages to land on her feet, because she’s had to learn to do so to survive. In contrast, Cowboy Jim is, simply put, intensely unlikeable; a toxic man who has pushed everyone away with his own bitterness. His stubborn refusal to acknowledge his own failings, and to accept the differences of others, is perhaps a little overwrought, but is necessary to act as a counterpoint to the central relationship of the novel: that between Jenny and Gary Cobalt.

Jenny is a fantastic example of a disabled Maori woman who strives both to overcome her disadvantages and also, and crucially, to improve her own flaws. Hers is a journey of self-recognition and coming to accept the wrongs she has down others in the past. Gary, in contrast, is half-unicorn half-human, living a liminal existence attempting to hide his horn from those who would use him for it – as Jenny did in the past, leading to an incident that lands Gary in prison for ten years and the eternal enmity of Cowboy Jim. His release from prison at the beginning of the book, and his falling in with his former captors and enslavers for mutual benefit, forms the crux of the narrative. The journey of Jenny and Gary, both war heroes from different sides of the same conflict, former captor and captive, is a nuanced depiction of forgiveness. There is no great reconciliation, no hugging or emotional declarations. It is simply two people coming to a mutual recognition of their past wrongs and doing their best to move forward. This is given more poignancy by the backdrop of the lack of cooperation between human and bala, with the great summit of omniscient beings who have charged the two species to set aside their differences or face the consequences looming. While individuals are capable of setting aside differences, are races? Nations? Species? This is the uncomfortable question of Space Unicorn Blues, and its answer is not an easy one.

Ultimately, Space Unicorn Blues is a space opera with a great premise and a fresh new twist on the synthesis of fairy-tale fantasy and science fiction. It loses its way somewhat towards the end, in the way that great ideas often do, but this doesn’t mean that the ride is any less fun. The fact that the seeds of a sequel are shown makes the future of science-fantasy all the more exciting.

Nexhuman – Francesco Verso – 7/10

Francesco Verso’s Nexhuman (translated from Italian by Sally McCorry) is many things. It is gritty, it is uncomfortable and thought-provoking, and it is absorbing.

Nexhuman-Generic_776xIt is also a finely-crafted transhumanist dystopian tale with strong ecological and anti-capitalist themes; a society so overrun by its own waste that the entire economy seems dependent on it provides the backdrop to Verso’s characters. It is a theme that has unsettling parallels to the present day, especially with the implication that the world could be cleaned up, with improvements to the lives of many, if it wasn’t economically inconvenient to the companies that deal with humanity’s effluvia. The complex barter economy that builds around this situation, and which very much drives the characters, is an additional detail that makes Verso’s world-building so compelling.

The environmental catastrophe unfolding across the fifteen years that Nexhuman spans is evocative of the deeper, and central, theme: what is it to be human? This is clearest in the titular Nexhumans, the android bodies into which the consciousnesses of the rich and powerful are uploaded that their lives may be extended. Are they still human? And, if human, are they the same person? Is it right that personal finances are the only apparent measure of worth for the next best thing to immortality? Likewise the protagonist, Peter, is arguably semi-human in the eyes of some, having a prosthetic arm and leg; though these aid him in his work of upcycling the “kipple” from the gargantuan rubbish-pits, there is a sense that his incompleteness shames him.

And this idea of incomplete, or apparent lack of, inhumanity is key to the relationships in Nexhuman. In a world where refuse is the only resource open to most people, many have ceased to treat others as people. The domineering Charlie uses and abuses those around him, friend and family alike, first as gang-leader, later as family patriarch. Other members of Charlies gang, as representatives of wider society, (and this is a Big Content Warning) indulge in necrophilia, casual violence, even murder, especially of the rich and nebulously-alive Nexhumans. The refuse-gatherers whom society has cast aside must scratch a living, and this is especially true of Ion, whose memories of working for a major tech company are forcibly taken from him. Kiko, Peter’s eventual partner, appears to be using him only for the trappings and kudos of a relationship. There is no love or affection, and where there is, it appears to be another commodity.

This brings us to the central relationship of Nexhuman: Peter’s love for Alba, the Nexhuman woman whom he saw murdered when he was fifteen, whose head he salvages and whose body he makes it his quest to rebuild and resurrect. In a world where he has no purpose, Peter finds meaning in Alba. Whether this purpose, this obsession, is healthy is rarely explored; although it is difficult to see who a character who has never been shown affection (except by Alba, on occasion) can articulate love in a healthy way.

Ultimately, Nexhuman is a story about striving to create something out of nothingness, or out of discarded remnants of somethings. The central quest is framed uncomfortably in terms of the objectification of Alba’s body, but it is a world in which nothing is comfortable. Not all of the twists and turns hit home, but the overall story is compelling and leaves the reader with much to think about.

(This review was given in exchange for a free copy of the ebook)

Robot Dinosaur Fiction! – 7.5/10

One recent sci-fi delight that crossed my path was the Robot Dinosaur Fiction project masterminded by A Merc Rustad. The artwork alone of the blog (on which all the stories are free to read) promises much – and the stories very much deliver on these promises.

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Kelsey Ligget’s banner-art encapsulates the spirit of the project. And who can resist it?

 A collection of flash fictions centred around the theme of robot dinosaurs runs the risk of being overly silly, or violent, or shallow. Robots and dinosaurs are staples of speculative fiction, both of the serious and not-so-serious stripes, but both bring their own associations of children playing imaginative games with action figures. Rustad and company certainly tap into this nostalgia and whimsy (as stories like Rexatron 3000, Private Eye by Mina Li attest), but do so with delicacy and emotional gut-punches that elevate the collection into something special. Stories like Five Functions of Your Bionosaur (Rachael K. Jones) and The Dinosaur Graveyard (Aidan Moher) – which bookend the collection if read in order – along with The Caretaker Noticed (Katie Spina) and When I Was Made (Kathryn Kania) provide truly moving emotional clout. Only a cold-hearted raptor could fail to be brought near heart-warming tears.

Other stories take a rather more serious, ecological approach. Hunting on Ethera (M Rauolee) is a fun, and thought-provoking, take on the issues of biodiversity, while Robo-Lipleurodon! (Darcie Little Badger) and Twenty-Fifth Named Storm (Alina Sichevaya) tackle ecological issues in more direct, unsettling ways.

In many ways, many of these stories excel when the focus is not the Robot Dinosaurs, but the people around them and what these dinosaurs mean to them. The true strength of Robot Dinosaur Fiction is its ability to use its titular bionic sauropods to explore the human condition. Twenty-Fifth Named Storm is a particularly touching example of this, exploring the tenderness of human relationships; “Sphexa, Start Dinosaur!” (Nibedita Sen) is another adorable example of this, while Small Things Pieced Together (Ginger Weil) is a fantastic portrayal of a relationship at breaking point, as well as being another highlight of the site (also, IKEA take note. Robot dinosaur kits. I would buy one). Be A Thunder, Release A Roar (Osahon Ize-Iyamu) and Taiyesha’s Fist (Khaalidah Muhammad-Ali) critique the way the educational system can fail children. As a grad student, Research Lab Electricity Usage Timesheet Reporting (Ada Hoffman) was a more accurate depiction of higher education than I would like to admit (and frankly some manic raptor servants of my own would be very welcome).

Alongside the writing, mention must me made of the fantastic illustrations by a range of talented artists: Rhiannon R-S, Kelsey Liggett, Kit Leighton, Rica March, Kosmic Arts, Lars Weiler, Vincent Konrad, Rekka Jay, Jennifer Rossman, and James Kurella. All bring their own personal style to the site, and complement the stories well.

Though the Kickstarter intended to bring these stories, amongst others, to ebook form failed to fund, the quality of the work is there for all to see, and is well worth enjoying. And with rumblings of a second attempt, hopefully Robot Dinosaur Fiction will receive more of the recognition that it deserves and return with a triumphant RAWR. Read the site, check out the authors. You won’t be disappointed.

The Quantum Soul: A Sci Fi Roundtable Anthology ed. Eric M. Craig and Ducky Smith – 7.5/10

From the pens, keyboards and various writing implements of the Knights of the Sci Fi Roundtable comes this immersive and exciting anthology which asks the one of the oldest questions in science fiction – what makes something alive? Two centuries since Mary Shelley first explored this theme in Frankenstein, sixteen authors take the question across time, space and the very dimensions, and come up with many different answers.

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With a wide range of authors from across the globe, The Quantum Soul really does provide something for everyone – from the quantum-mechanical “Wondrous Strange” (E. M. Swift-Hook) to the near-future whodunnit “The Endymion Device” (Lyra Shanti), to the enjoyably satirical “When Words Are Not Enough” (Cindy Tomamichel), in which writers are forced to produce stories for the passengers of an interstellar voyage, being fed according to their reviews under the all-seeing eye of “the Zon”. Really, I have no idea where these ideas come from…

With so many authors to cover, it is difficult to go into much detail (and to go into too much would be to ruin some fine surprises), but needless to say this is a fun, exciting and thought-provoking read that showcases some of the best indie talent out there. Highly recommended to science-fiction fans of all stripes.

Some highlights:

The Trees of Trappist – Brent Harris

A fun and evocative adventure of colonists coming to terms with the beings they share the planet with. Plenty of excitement and imagination.

Second Contact – Leo McBride

A neat Star-Trek-inspired tale with a grounding in linguistics that tickled the cockles of my academic heart. Finally, recognition for the humanities!

Project Chameleon – Jeanetter O’Hagan

A highly enjoyable cyborg sci-fi which skilfully blends alternate timelines, class warfare and political intrigue. I live in hope of a sequel.

Patient Data – Claire Buss

This time, a near-future what-if story about the introduction of medical drones into the health service, with a healthy dose of wry cynicism.

Aether Technician – Jim Webster

This meditation on humanity and the lengths a civilisation will go to for the sake of “progress” manages to blend the excitement of the pioneer spirit with the sombre reality of the consequences for humanity and those it uses to forge its path through the stars.

What Measure is a Homunculus? – Ricardo Victoria

Here Ricardo brings his distinctive imagination to bear on the themes of slavery and sentience. His take on debate-by-combat is fresh and believable, while the wider consequences of decisions made provide satisfying depth to the story. Also credit for a twist ending that made me stare at the wall and declare him a clever bugger.

Shepherd of Memory – Rob Edwards

Another exploration story with shades of Star Trek and Doctor Who, and which brought out the same sense of childlike wonder in me. An excellent way to round off the anthology.

The Quantum Soul is a fantastic showcase of the talent in the SFF indie scene, and is well worth the time of any fan of speculative fiction.

I Remember The Future – Michael A. Burstein – 9/10

This collection of Michael Burstein’s (rightfully) award-nominated and award-winning short fiction is a testament to his ability to blend hard science fiction with genuine emotional power. As challenging as it is moving, Burstein pulls few punches from the very beginning of the collection.

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The opening tale, “Kaddish For The Last Survivor”, explores the importance of remembering one’s past and one’s heritage, as the passing of the final survivor of the Holocaust paves the way for more potential denial of those atrocities now that there is no one left who was there. The exploration of the dichotomy between past, present and future paves the way for one of the major themes of Burstein’s work, as exemplified in this collection, while providing a warning against creeping fascism that has become all too relevant in recent times.

Equally challenging, albeit in a more optimistic fashion, is the two-part tale consisting of “Teleabsence” and “Telepresence”. This exploration of the possibility of using VR technology in education to prevent violence in schools is fascinating, as are the two flaws that are explored in the story; the gentrification of the technology away from its original intended recipients in the former, and the way in which a school shooting might unfold in a VR world in the latter. While “Teleabsence” is a heart-warming story about social justice (in a Matrix-meets-the-Magic-Schoolbus-meets-Robin-Hood way), “Telepresence” darker, and all the better for it, blending the aesthetics of A Nightmare on Elm Street with genuine social commentary on the importance of interconnectedness and human relationships.

The next three stories in the collection also constitute a trilogy. “Broken Symmetry”, “Absent Friends” and “Empty Spaces” are examples of Berstein’s skill with conveying hard scientific concepts with clarity and ease (especially to this humanities graduate!), and the strength of his human characters. In the course of three stories Burstein explores both multiverse theories, the frustrating world of academic funding, the ethics of research, and the challenges of scientific discovery to religious belief, enduring friendship, obsession and the conflict between the needs of the individual and the needs of the whole. It’s powerful stuff, adeptly handled.

Burstein doesn’t shy away from the speculative, and in several stories he delights in the possible futures for humanity, from the nostalgia of a transcendent being for defunct technology in “Spaceships”, to the almost playful take on time paradoxes and the place of humanity in the wider universe in “Decisions”.  A more grounded speculative story is “75 Years”, in which the proposed extensions to the free availability of census information after 70 years to 75 has ramifications beyond the intentions of the instigator. What begins as a political thriller transforms, almost without the reader noticing, into a case study for civil rights and what truly makes a figure historic.

As noted already, Burstein also shows great interest in ethical conundrums. “Time Ablaze” is a good example of this, combining historical detachment with human relationships in a style reminiscent of Ray Bradbury (and it is difficult to say much more without giving away the plot). The other chiefly ethical tale is “Sanctuary”. This is a true highlight in an already stellar collection, and raises challenging questions as to the nature of belief in the face of a wider cosmos – can aliens be Catholic? do their babies have souls? would the Church consider their abortion murder? The strength of this story is the clear research that Burstein (whose personal Judaism is prevalent throughout his writing) took to sensitively treat the issues surrounding Catholicism and to resolve them in a believable way. The resulting exploration of the nature of belief, and the strength of humanity lying in diversity and (ideally) resultant mutual respect, is a refreshing take on religion in science fiction that is reminiscent, again, of Bradbury, and of “A Canticle For Leibowitz”.

The final stories of the collection are, appropriately enough, about writing. The titular “I Remember the Future” is deeply moving, as an ailing author on the brink of losing himself to dementia cannot bring himself to burden his living daughter whom he feels he has neglected enough throughout his life due to his career. After a life of living in the past or the future, but never the present, he turns to his abstract children – his characters – for succour. As an aspiring writer, the idea of characters as our children, the mark we make on the world, is one that has occurred to me, but that I could never have expressed so well. “Cosmic Corkscrew” is about inspiration, and is very much a celebration of Asimov, one of Burstein’s chief influences. Finally, “Paying It Forwards” is a must-read for aspiring writers – a science-fiction story about writing and the privilege of the elder generation in nurturing the young. It’s a moving and appropriate conclusion to the collection, striking an optimistic and encouraging tone, and there is more than one author I would like to set up a similar system with…

“I Remember The Future” is a stellar collection that fans of science-fiction ought not to miss out on. Each story also comes with an epilogue explaining the thought-processes and stories that lie behind it. These enrich the stories with new understanding, making them well worth at least one reread, and aspiring writers will find excellent advice and encouragement within them.

Hard sci-fi with a warm heart. Don’t miss out.

(This review was written for Apex Publications in exchange for a free copy of the ebook)

War Stories – J. Gates & A. Liptak – 8.5/10

When you pick up an anthology called “War Stories”, then you think you know pretty much what to expect. Violence, horror, machismo, pathos, grim humour. This collection, edited by Jaym Gates and Andrew Liptak, has all of these and more, containing within it explorations of the full sphere of human experience, in all its shades of glory and darkness. One of the strengths of the anthology is that its focus is clearly on war itself and its impact on its participants, not simply combat. Actual action is secondary to the psychological, cultural, societal and political implications of actions, attitudes and inactions, and the people who experience them.

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War Stories opens with the eerie “Graves” (Joe Haldeman), which is distinct from the rest of the collection by taking place firmly in the past, during the Vietnam War. Recounted by a veteran of “Graves Registration” (body collection and identification) with grim humour, the incident related has all the makings of a creepily ambiguous urban legend; even at the end the reader cannot be sure if they have just encountered an undead being or simply effective psychological warfare.

After this standalone story, War Stories is split into four thematic groups: Wartime Systems, Combat, Armored Force and Aftermath. Each group contains a good variety of takes on its respective theme, which makes for a reading experience where one knows what to expect but nevertheless is pleasantly surprised by twists and perspectives that were perhaps unexpected.

Wartime Systems is one of the more imaginative groupings, which tries to predict and explore the future technologies of war. Most of these, like Ken Lui’s “In the Loop” and Mark Jacobsen’s “The Wasp Keepers”, explore the murky ethics of drone warfare, with moving accounts from perspectives from both pilot/creator and target. Others explore the use of robotics in warfare. Susan Jane Bigelow’s “The Radio” is another morally ambiguous and redemptive tale about an abandoned piece of tech trying to find a place and a family, while James L. Cambias’ “Contractual Obligation” is a darker take on the use of robotic mercenaries in capital-driven warfare, and the brutal decisions made when lives are subordinated to money. A more optimistic tale is “Ghost Girl” by Rich Larson, in which an albino child in a near-future war-torn Burundi is watched over by a mysterious mechanical guardian. The final story in this group is Richard Dansky’s “Non-Standard Deviation”, which explores what happens when the soldiers within a virtual-reality training programme become self-aware.

Combat is a mixed bag of styles and ideas. It opens with the eerie, almost psychedelic “All You Need” by Mike Sizomore, which is as much a dialogue with an anthropomorphized weapon as it is a narrative. This is followed by Maurice Broaddus’ “The Valkyrie”. This story perfectly evoked the madness of war, and the madness of its socio-political motives to many on the front lines. The protagonist’s voice is world-weary, cynical and lacking in faith, in sharp contrast to the hyper-evangelical crusade that the Evangelical States of America wages in a futuristic Europe. While Broaddus explores the potential for religious conflict, Thoraiya Dyer focuses on the perils of climate disaster in “One Million Lira”, which tells of a sniper’s defence of a fallen airship against the denizens of a global-warming-blasted earth left behind by those who could afford escape. Civilians barely feature; for much of the tale we see only the sniper, the hard decisions she must make, and her coping strategies. After this, Jay Posey tells a gripping story of a hostage situation in space in “Invincible”. The main strength of this story, however, is its use of the idea of uploading the saved consciousness of a dead soldier into a new body (which I have seen increasingly used in recent times), and the philosophical and psychological implications of such a rebirth. Finally, Linda Nagata’s “Light and Shadow” delves into psychological drama once again with futuristic soldiers whose emotions are chemically supressed to ensure their competent service. As the title might imply, however, such a technique has its downfalls. Though combat is what ties these stories together, it is their psychological and philosophical discussions they have through violence that makes these stories so readable.

Where Combat explored violence in various ways, Armoured Force almost exclusively focuses on soldiers in powered mecha-armour of varying kinds. Two of these are fairly straight-forward; “Mission. Suit. Self.” by Jake Kerr is another good examination of ethics in combat, especially the ideas of self-sacrifice and grim rigidity of military mission parameters; similarly, Carlos Orsi’s “In Loco” tweaks the idea of a suited soldier instead as being a “feedback loop” in a squad of drones. The protagonist here is no hero, but rather a convicted murderer seeking redemption, or at least a shortened sentence. “Warhosts” by Yoon Ha Lee is perhaps the most original take on the idea of a war-suit I have come across; a situation in which humans (or humanoids) have become biological exoskeletons for an unnamed alien species is both fascinating and unsettling. The highlight of the group – and one of the highlights of the anthology – is James Sutter’s “Suits”. This is an unexpectedly heart-warming tale with a charmingly childlike tone that blurs the black-and-whiteness of warfare to those not on the front lines, forces innocent non-combatants to confront their part, and seek redemption.

Aftermath is the largest group of the anthology, and the most emotional. Most of them deal with the difficulties of returning home after war. Both “Coming Home” (Janine Spendlove) and “Where We Would End a War” (F. Brett Cox) explore the effects of PTSD from different angles; the former of a military ambulance driver coming to terms with not being able to save everyone, the latter a veteran seeking escape from a banal home life, while also exploring the effects of a teleportation system on mental health (having, for example, a split second to adjust between the home front and the front lines). Both are deep and effective treatments of a difficult theme. Nerine Dorman’s “Always the Stars and the Void Between” focuses more on relationships with family, as a veteran returns to South African after nearly two decades to find her family ungrateful and resentful, and herself unable to relate to their renewed apartheidal attitudes. In a reversal, “Enemy State” by Karin Lowachee (perhaps the most moving story in the anthology) relates the view from home during deployment, of a lover waiting, unsure that their partner will return whole, sane or at all. Lowachee effectively evokes all the yearning and despair, and also effectively conveys the soldier’s inability to articulate their own frontline experiences. Two other standout stories in this section (and, again, in the anthology) are “War Dog” (Mike Baretta), the story of discarded bioengineered soldiers maligned as abominations by the ultra-Evangelical America that they fought to protect, and “Black Butterflies” (T. C. McCarthy), about a war-hero (or war-criminal) of a war lost by humanity trying to escape eerily realistic dreams of genocide and outrun the vengeful winners of the war. The final piece in War Stories is Keith Brooke’s “War 3.01” which has a neat premise of the weaponization of social media in an age in which all are connected and believe its content unquestioningly.

As I said before, the strength of War Stories is not its focus on war, but the people involved. In his foreword to the collection, Gregory Drobny writes that veterans are not broken people, but people who are unusual in that they can do what they do, and that their experiences should be learned from rather than pitied or seen as brainwashed. If the intention of these stories was to convey that, then they were successful.

Highlights:

Mike Barretta – “War Dogs”

Richard Dansky – “Non-Standard Deviation”

Nerine Dorman – “Always the Stars and the Void Between”

Karin Lowachee – “Enemy State”

T. C. McCarthy – “Black Butterflies”

Janine Spendlove – “Coming Home”

James Sutter – “Suits”

(edited 24/8/17 to correct author names)

Stay Crazy – E. L. Satifka – 8.5/10

Erica Satifka’s Stay Crazy is an invasion story with a difference. It tells the story of Emmeline Kalberg, a paranoid schizophrenic with depressive tendencies (as she constantly reminds the world and the world constantly reminds her), as she is discharged from hospital and takes up a minimum wage job at the local Savertown USA megastore to try and rebuild her life. She finds herself at the centre of an interdimensional conflict; an entity is feeding off the life-energy of the employees, driving them to suicide in the process, to power itself into a higher plane, consequently destroying reality. Only she, the voice coming from the stock tells her, can prevent this. Only she, and her co-worker Roger, are able to hear the voice, because they are both recovering schizophrenics. But how can she convince the world that she isn’t deluded? And can she convince herself? This uncertain relationship with reality is maintained throughout Stay Crazy, as we see life through the uncertain eyes of Em; parallels can be drawn with the perspective of Chief in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, and the effect is much the same, albeit in a corporate, rather than medical, prison.

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A major theme of Stay Crazy is that of exploitation and manipulation. Savertown USA itself is a caricature of banal corporate megacapitalism – everything is under one roof, highly affordable, mega convenient and, above all, proudly patriotic. No need for small businesses anymore; everything is done in service to the company, under the guise of service to the customer and, by extension, America itself. While Em is trying to save the world, the store is trying to rule it, one small town at a time. Within the store is Escodex, an interdimensional being instructing (and at times commanding) Em to do his will, with the promise of information about her missing father dangled tantalisingly before her. His enemy, the unnamed Entity, is clearly manipulating the workers, but what is it’s true purpose beyond being a metaphor for the soul-sucking drudgery of wage-slavery as it zombifies Em’s colleagues?

The theme continues outside the store. Em’s sister Jackie has fallen under the sway of a local charismatic evangelical pastor, while her mother binge-watches self-help DVDs which Em is convinced contain hidden messages keeping the would-be patients depressed so they keep buying them. And then there’s her uncle, who throws his money and success around to belittle others around him. Stay Crazy is as much about the dangers of those who feed on the needs of others (be they financial, psychological or social) as it is about mental health.

In the later stages of the book especially, family comes to the fore. Em’s family life is fractured – her father is missing, she is a recovering mental health patient, her sister has been taken un by what can only be called a cult, and her mother is depressed and at a loss of how to help those she loves. The whole family yearns to help one another – either through therapy, God or Em’s quest to find her family that drives her actions, but none of them know quite how to do so. Yet as conflicts grow and wane, and as Em especially gives up trying to pretend to her former friends and family that her life is normal, that they begin to heal. Again, Stay Crazy is about healing, about coming to terms with difficulties and overcoming them, but without any platitudes about the journey being easy.

Stay Crazy is a unique and perceptive novel with rounded, believable characters and a plot that perfectly wracks up the tension to draw the reader in. It’s nomination for the 2017 British Fantasy Award is well deserved, and I highly recommend it.