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“I Have a Bad Feeling About This”:
A Review of Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

by Gary Westfahl

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story provides precisely what it promises – a professionally-rendered, authentic Star Wars story – and enthusiastic devotees of the Star Wars universe will probably be pleased by the results; indeed, in the theatre where I watched it, its conclusion was greeted with scattered applause. However, filmgoers who are not diehard fans, and who were not entirely thrilled by Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015 – review here), may be bored and appalled by this latest installment of the venerable franchise. My own feelings are aptly conveyed by some of the titles I considered for this review – “One for the Money,” “Same Old Story, Same Old Song and Dance,” “The Star Wars Holiday Slaughter” – suggesting the various reasons why I found myself loathing this film.

The film is a direct prequel to the original Star Wars (1977) – now identified as Episode IV: A New Hope – which explains why the word “hope” keeps coming up; and it sets out to answer the question that nobody who watched that film ever asked: just how did the rebels get a hold of those plans for the Death Star? And the answer, predictably, is that it was due to the efforts of a plucky band of rebels, battling against impossible odds. One might describe it, then, as Star Wars: Episode 3 1/2 – or perhaps, Star Wars: Episode 3.9, because who knows how many additional films might be created that are set in the period between the third and fourth films. It brings back some cherished characters from the original trilogy (and less cherished characters from the later prequels), but it would be a shame to identify them (with one exception below), since being surprised by their regrettably brief appearances constitutes one of the few pleasures that many will derive from watching the film.

To understand why viewers may have a “bad feeling” about this film, it is useful to recall a term coined by film reviewer Nick Lowe: “plot coupons.” To set, and keep, their stories in motion, authors can announce that, to achieve some desired goal, their heroes are required to visit some special place, encounter some special person, or retrieve some special object; having garnered such a “plot coupon,” they then typically discover that another task of a similar nature awaits them, and the game continues until the story has achieved a satisfactory length. It is true, as David Langford notes in John Clute and John Grant’s The Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997), that the goals in certain stories have evocative resonances that elevate them above the status of expedient devices, like Dorothy’s quest to return home in The Wizard of Oz (1939) and J. R. R. Tolkien’s One Ring; but this is definitely not the case with the contrived plot coupons that inspire each and every single action in this film. For example, without really offering any “spoilers,” I can report that, in the film’s final scenes, one group of heroes is on the ground seeking to obtain a plot coupon – which will prod a second group of heroes in the sky to obtain another plot coupon – which will enable a third group of heroes within an enemy stronghold to obtain a third plot coupon. It is an insult to the field of mathematics to describe such stories as “formulaic,” since actual mathematical formulas tend to be a bit more complex.

This film is disappointing not only because it is so mechanically constructed, but also because one can envision a virtually infinite series of future Star Wars films in which, as in this film, (hero A) must travel to (planet B) in order to obtain (plot coupon C), only to learn that it is now necessary to travel to (planet D) in order to obtain (plot coupon E). After all, one can easily find in this film, and other films, many other questions that nobody has asked: how did scientist Galen Erso (Mads Mikkelsen) get involved in building a Death Star, and what inspired him to turn against the Empire? How did Chirrut Îmwe (Donnie Yen) become blind, and what led to his friendship with Baze Malbus (Wen Jiang)? All one has to do is to invent plot coupons to get them moving, and the possibilities are sadly endless, as long as the audiences keep showing up.

One might tolerate this film’s arbitrary narrative if it involved genuinely appealing characters, but none of its newly-crafted heroes are truly memorable. The film devotes an ample amount of time to the back story of protagonist Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones), but she is so disappointingly similar to Star Wars: The Force Awakens’s Rey that she never comes to life as a character in her own right. And if you are surprised to learn that she first expresses a determination to only look out for herself, but later becomes utterly dedicated to fighting for the rebellion, you have never watched a Star Wars film. (A character observes that her “behavior is continually unexpected,” but precisely the opposite is the case.) All of the other new heroes, it seems, were each allotted no more than two minutes to establish why we should love them, and then the filmmakers, confident that we’ll now be rooting for these stalwarts, go back to moving them around like pieces on a chessboard. Three of Jyn’s companions – Cassian Andor (Diego Luna), Baze Malbus, and Bodhi Rook (Riz Ahmed) – are merely dull, but blind swordsman Chirrut Îmwe is actively annoying, a character inanely stolen from Japanese action films and utterly out of place in this film. Occasional lines of dialogue suggest characters with emotional depths: “There is more than one sort of prison. I sense that you carry yours wherever you go.” “You’re not the only one who lost everything.” “I’m not used to people sticking around when things go bad.” But we know so little, and care so little, about these characters that these pronouncements have no impact at all, serving only to prolong the welcome respites between recurring gun battles.

Overall, while I realize that I was supposed to find them endearing, I instead began longing to watch all of these characters die on the screen, since that would greatly decrease the chance that they would someday blight another Star Wars film. It is also significant that characters from previous films, not any of this film’s pallid stars, are featured in the film’s final scenes. Still, there is one halfway likable character that might merit a revival – the robot K-2SO (Alan Tudyk) – though he is blatantly derivative, combining C-3PO’s witticisms with R2-D2’s technological savvy in one convenient package. (And didn’t Tudyk play a similar character in I, Robot [2004 – review here]?)

Considering this film’s cast leads me to an unexpected conclusion: one imagines that franchises like Star Trek and Star Wars are popular primarily because of their fascinating and richly developed universes – and such backgrounds in themselves might be enough to sustain a television series, novel, or video game. But feature films may require strong, involving characters as well. Thus, the Star Trek film franchise floundered when it attempted to rely on the generally boring cast of Star Trek: The Next Generation (1987-1994), but came to life again when they brought back the more interesting characters from the original series. In the case of the Star Wars franchise, its two recent films make me suspect, more than ever, that the original trilogy succeeded in large part because of its wonderful group of characters – Luke Skywalker, Princess Leia, Han Solo, Chewbacca, Obi-Wan Kenobi, C-3PO, and R2-D2. The mixture of new and old characters in the prequels never worked quite as well; Star Wars: The Force Awakens was mostly enjoyable because of the sustained participation of Harrison Ford’s Han Solo, aided and abetted by Peter Mayhew’s Chewbacca and Carrie Fisher’s Leia; and this film is not enjoyable because old, familiar friends are observed only fleetingly. To keep the franchise alive in decades to come, then, producers may be well advised to stop striving to develop ineffectual new characters and instead, like Star Trek, hire new actors to portray its original cast in new adventures.

Despite its novel characters, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story seems determined in many ways to emulate previous Star Wars films, right down to beginning the film with “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away …” and having a character say, “I have a bad feeling about this” (though he is at least cut off before uttering the final two words). Menacing walkers and the Death Star return; there are yet another version of the cantina scene, more groups of fighter pilots identified by different colors, storm troopers threatening on multiple occasions, and distinctively odd aliens lurking in the background. But director Gareth Edwards has departed from the pattern of Star Wars in one noteworthy way. In the other films, the characters faced several different sorts of challenges, and one could never complain about any “gratuitous violence.” But that is precisely the element that Edwards, having already demonstrated his indifference to mass murder in Godzilla (2014 – review here), is now adding to the Star Wars franchise. Again and again and again, the peril facing Jyn and her allies is that a group of enemies is trying to kill them; again and again and again, they are obliged to respond by slaughtering all of them; and the weapons of choice, unimaginatively, look very much like ordinary machine guns. In fact, for someone who is not paying attention to the nuances of the plot, the entertainment provided by this film could be accurately summarized as “watching seven hundred people get killed.” No, I didn’t actually count all the corpses, but if I am ever forced to see this film again, I may divert myself by endeavoring to tally them up.

Reflecting its nonstop bloodshed, the film is also unlike other Star Wars films in its visual gloom; one associates earlier films with bright, daytime landscapes and well-lit interiors, but these characters seem to spend most of their time enduring pouring rain and dark, confining rooms; the final battle occurs on a sunny day, one suspects, solely because our heroes must see what they are doing. In addition, Edwards’s film is almost entirely devoid of humor. Yes, K-2S0 has a few funny lines, and Churrit offers a single joke, but otherwise the characters all maintain stone faces throughout the film – contrasting sharply with the original trilogy, enlivened by Han Solo’s constant wisecracks, C-3PO’s amusing complaints, and Princess Leia’s sarcasm; at times, Chewbacca and R2-D2 could inspire laughter with well-timed bursts of inarticulate sound. One might defend Edwards’s film on the grounds that, instead of keeping everything light, he is endeavoring to finally produce a grown-up Star Wars film; but – let’s face it – Star Wars has never been, and can never be, a grown-up world. It is like striving to produce Mickey Mouse’s Dungeon, or Elena of Armageddon. There is perhaps some irony in one character’s statement that “I’m beginning to think the Force and I have different priorities” – for it certainly seems like George Lucas and Gareth Edwards have different priorities.

I should also address the rumors that the film did some last-minute shooting in order to incorporate some sort of attack on Donald Trump. All I can say is that, if that was the filmmakers’ intent, they were much too subtle for me, for I discerned nothing in the film that might be interpreted in that manner. The theory also strikes me as unlikely, since in making Godzilla, Edwards was visibly determined to avoid saying anything that might offend somebody, and I can’t imagine that he would weaken this film’s chances for success by criticizing a president-elect who received over 62,000,000 votes. More broadly, as I indicated while reviewing Star Wars: The Force Awakens, I see no meaningful parallels between the starkly Manichean world of Star Wars and our own, more complicated real world, and imagining that such parallels exist – regarding one’s own group as entirely good, and one’s opponents as entirely evil – is both inaccurate and dangerous.

If this film has any message at all, it is the less than controversial point that fathers should love their daughters, and daughters should love their fathers. To drive the point home, Jyn is provided with both an actual father, Galen Erso, and a surrogate father, Saw Gerrera (Forest Whitaker); avenging the wrongs done to them becomes the main reason that she fights for the rebellion, and when she has completed a mission, Cassian pays her the ultimate compliment by saying, “Your father would have been proud of you.” At times, characters dispense uplifting platitudes on other subjects, all designed to create the impression that this movie is actually about something – even though it is not.

The only interesting issue raised by the film actually has nothing to do with its plot, but rather involves a disturbing advancement in its special effects. It seems that the producers wanted to have Peter Cushing reprise his role as the sinister Grand Moff Tarkin – despite the fact that Cushing died twenty-two years ago. The solution to this apparently insurmountable problem was to hire another actor, Guy Henry, and employ cutting-edge technology to make him look exactly like Cushing. This was done with the permission of Cushing’s estate, which is duly acknowledged in the closing credits, but whenever Henry appeared, I was jolted out of my limited engagement with the story by the realization that I was watching a living simulacrum of a dead man. I suppose this is not really different from editing footage of dead actors into television commercials, but I still found it unsettling – the spectacle of an actor being forced to appear in a film without his permission. Further, the same technology could be employed to re-create living actors; so, if Daniel Craig continues refusing to play James Bond again, producers could invoke a clause in his contract allowing them to use his image and have him star in the next James Bond film anyway. All in all, I definitely think that what was done with Cushing raises ethical questions that need to be debated before this practice becomes commonplace.

All things considered, this particular review will probably be ignored, but I may be subjected to harsh rebuttals from Star Wars fans, angered by my obstinate refusal to acknowledge what a marvelous film this was. But I already said that if you really like Star Wars films, you will probably like this one; I merely happen to be one of those people who is finding less and less to like about Star Wars films, and I am obliged to provide my honest reactions. And, if more films like Rogue One: A Star Wars Story keep appearing, I believe that the numbers of such disillusioned viewers are likely to grow.

Gary Westfahl has published 25 books about science fiction and fantasy, including Science Fiction Quotations: From the Inner Mind to the Outer Limits (2005), The Spacesuit Film: A History, 1918-1969 (2012), A Sense-of-Wonderful Century: Explorations of Science Fiction and Fantasy Films (2012), and William Gibson (2013); excerpts from these and his other books are available at his World of Westfahl website. He has also published hundreds of articles, reviews, and contributions to reference books. His most recent books are the three-volume A Day in a Working Life: 300 Trades and Professions through History (2015) and An Alien Abroad: Science Fiction Columns from Interzone (2016), now available from Wildside Press.

Paul Di Filippo reviews Ken MacLeod

The Corporation Wars: Dissidence, by Ken MacLeod (Orbit 978-0316363655, $9.99, 384pp, mass market paperback) US edition November 29 2016

The Corporation Wars: Insurgence, by Ken MacLeod (Orbit 978-0316363693, $9.99, 384pp, mass market paperback) December 20, 2016

I just missed celebrating the twentieth anniversary of Ken MacLeod’s debut, the publication of The Star Fraction in 1995. I make out that he’s issued nearly that many books in the two decades since, certainly an admirable record. And he’s maintained a good balance between series and singletons. But most importantly, he has represented a unique voice in the field, blending deep, fresh thoughts on political science and economics with rousing adventures full of solid speculations. His nearest comrades might by Charles Stross and China Miéville, but neither are exact counterparts. Despite his perceived radicalism, in some warped, non-intuitive way, when one puts aside his antithetical worldview, he might almost be John W. Campbell’s dream writer, a kind of ultra-progressive, postmodern Mack Reynolds or Christopher Anvil or Eric Frank Russell with better literary chops.

Currently MacLeod is in the middle of a saga, The Corporation Wars, with the third book, The Corporation Wars: Emergence, due in September 2017. But we can gear up for that conclusion by having a look at the first two.

The overarching designation of the series—“The Corporation Wars”—has an echt-cyberpunk air about it. But the series, while dealing with some of the core tropes of that sub-genre, is really more New Space Opera with a Greg Egan-ish overlay of metaphysics.

We open with a quick portrait of our familiar planet circa 2200, when the whole world seems at war (in a postmodern manner reminiscent of the conflicts in New Model Army by Adam Roberts.) One of the warriors is dubbed Carlos the Terrorist. We watch him die, and then cut to “exomoon SH-17,” where a construction robot named Seba has just spontaneously attained autonomy and full self-awareness, along with some fellow “freebots.”

Our next venue is a virtual-reality simulacrum of the planet that hosts exomoon SH-17, inside which silicon existence Carlos—in digital form—has just been reincarnated. He gets an introductory lecture from his handler Nicole, who informs him that the time is now the 32nd century—1000 years after his death—and that the VR world he inhabits is platformed in a computer orbiting around an exoplanet some 24 light-years from Earth. Everything in this star system—including Seba and posse and any other humans—has been built with local materials from the instructions contained in a starwisp probe. With no practical communications possible with Earth—ruled by a system called the Direction—the agenda at the colony site is being carried out by a local AI.

That executive agent was the one who dictated that Carlos and five other dead human fighters should be revived, trained, and sent out to subdue the rogue freebots. After they harmonize into a team inside the virtual reality, the six ghost soldiers will be instantiated inside weaponized physical ships (has that novum by Anne McCaffrey ever been acknowledged as the seminal trope it is?) and launched against the freebots. After any real-world “deaths,” the ghosts get rebooted again inside the VR world.

What follows is a kind of action-packed Dirty Dozen or Suicide Squad scenario, but with plenty of speculative side-paths, such as the way in which the freebots organize themselves, and the true nature of the colonizing expedition. The major impact on this latter thread stems from Carlos meeting a figure named Shaw inside the VR. Shaw claims to have been alive for the whole thousand years since the era of Carlos, and he also maintains that the real setup is the reverse of what Nicole has said. The alien planet VR is physical, and the fighting with the robots is the actual VR exercise!

By the novel’s end, Carlos has broken off with the Direction and gone rogue himself, and it appears that the old antagonists of his era—the Rax and the Axle—are still active and vying for supremacy.

The second book introduces several new characters, notably a ghost soldier named Harold Isaac Newton and a robot named Baser; these two unlikely souls will become allies and friends. And because Carlos is now separate from his old comrades, the once-bipartite narration (switching from robots to humans and back) is now tripartite: two camps of humans and the robots.

Where Carlos has ended up after fleeing is in another VR environment, this one hosted by the entity known as Arcane Disputes. His old boss was Locke Provisos. Arcane seems to represent the current-day incarnation of the Axle, while Locke seems infested by the Rax. Being a loyal Axle man from way back, naturally Carlos wants in with Arcane. There he finds another old comrade, Jax, and he begins to learn more about all the players and their motives in this hyper-complicated battleground.

There’s lots of action in this second installment, including thrilling space battles and VR weirdness. There’s plenty of discussion along lines of thought old and new. For the first time we begin to learn why unleashed AI has not resulted in a Singularity. And there’s further speculation about what the conditions are back in the home solar system, and whether the Direction favors Axle or Rax. But mainly, despite some new developments, this second volume feels more like an extension of the first book or a holding action before big doings in the third upcoming book. This middle-volume semi-stasis is all too familiar.

MacLeod does many astonishing things here. He creates viable, believable multiplex interactions among so many different sets of characters, human and robot. His detailing of the non-human way of thinking and speaking employed by the freebots is fun and exemplary. (He graciously cites Brian Aldiss’s work as an inspiration.) The philosophies and creeds and belief systems of the humans are interesting, engaging and morally deep. He shows a keen hand with action sequences. And there is a generous amount of humor to leaven the otherwise dire and deadly consequences of the multi-front war.

He does indulge in plenty of omniscient info-dumps, such as this:

Sharing conversations and trains of argument is an easy matter for robots. While their consciousness doesn’t exactly run on machine code, there’s a much closer connection between the underlying process of communication and of thought than there is in organic brains. Keeping their thoughts between themselves, likewise: it would have been possible for the Arcane Disputes fighters in the shelter to decrypt and interpret the interactions in the freebots’ common mental workspace, but it would have taken them an unfeasible length of time, or far better computing resources than it took to run their own minds, let alone any of their onboard peripheral processors.

You need to be onboard with these asides that do break up the flow of action. But such passages have always been a “feature not a bug” in SF.

Altogether, it seems to me that MacLeod has deliberately pared back some of the more abstruse game-playing of his earlier books to fashion a series that is more—well, not “superficial,” but just fan-friendly. It’s rather as if he had signed on to write an episode of James S. A. Corey’s The Expanse instead of producing a “typical” MacLeod novel as of yore.

But MacLeod’s immense talents and verve survive and conquer any faint wisps of commercialism. He steps more lightly, but still along those same roads only he knows so well.

Paul Di Filippo has been writing professionally for over thirty years, and has published almost that number of books. He lives in Providence, RI, with his mate of an even greater number of years, Deborah Newton.

Adrienne Martini reviews Manuel Gonzales

The Regional Office Is Under Attack!, Manuel Gonzales (Riverhead 978-159463-241-9, $28.00, 400pp, hc) April 2016.

Wrapping your metaphoric arms around Manuel Gonzales’s The Regional Office Is Under Attack! is nearly impossible – but it is delicious to try.

The best comparison might be Buffy the Vampire Slayer, if only because the story is about a coterie of girls who are trained to kick some otherworldly ass. There’s also a Die Hard-y element to it – one of the characters makes reference to doing something ‘‘John McClane-style’’ – where an office tower is under attack and only one entity has the tools needed to save those trapped inside. Moments also have a high-toned literary feel, like George Saunders, say, or, even, a less vocabulary-intense David Foster Wallace. Above all else, Gonzales’s work is 100 percent itself, even as it references other pop culture moments.

Regional Office opens in the Morrison World Travel Concern’s New York City office. It is, in fact, under attack, not because it books exotic trips for the rich and famous but because a shadowy organization is in its basement. Said shadowy org was the brainchild of a Mr. Niles and his crush Oyemi, who was given something approaching a superpower during a visit to IKEA. Their job is to find and train young women to save the world. Or, really, worlds, since there are hints about dimensions other than the one we agree on.

While the story itself is fun, what makes it incredibly, vibrantly fun is Gonzales’ approach to story-telling. He shifts between two viewpoint characters, except when he shifts into secondperson during a section that is simultaneously amusing and harrowing. There is a pseudoacademic history of the Regional Office that offers a frame and some backstory. Gonzales hints at other stories and feints at alternate endings, while sticking the landing of the book he was actually writing. And if that doesn’t make sense, it will once you read this, which you should.

Read more! This is one of many reviews from recent issues of Locus Magazine. To read more, go here to subscribe.

Paula Guran reviews Short Fiction, October 2016

Uncanny Magazine 7-8/16
Nightmare 7/16, 8/16
Black Static 7-8/16
Shimmer 7/16
The Dark 8/16
Apex Magazine 8/16

This month we discover some dark delights, but also encounter fiction bogged down in the end-of-summer doldrums. Of the five original stories in the July/August 2016 issue of recent Hugo-winner Uncanny Magazine, two can be said to be truly dark. The only element of the fantastic in ‘‘El Cantar of Rising Sun’’ by Sabrina Vourvoulias is a character’s magical tattoos. The reality of young black and brown people trying to survive the 21st-century inner city provides the horror. The use of Spanish and the almost hip-hop rhythm of this touching ‘‘song’’ may present obstacles to some, but it is worth the challenge. In Isabel Yap’s ‘‘An Ocean the Color of Bruises’’, a group of six college friends – Filipino young folks just entering the world of adult responsibility – take a short seaside vacation together. The hotel and beach are strangely deserted, the staff surly. The weird intrudes in the form of the drowned dead who, when killed by a violent storm, were also young. The narrator – who seems to be a single female even though the story is told in second-person plural – feels life (as only someone under 25 can) is grim and the future terrifying, which means that despite tragedy, this is a story of hope. Yap gives us five well-drawn characters in less than 6,000 words, and a straightforward story that is quite nicely done.

Two good originals in Nightmare #46 (July 2016). The narrator of An Owomoyela & Rachel Swirsky’s ‘‘Whose Drowned Face Sleeps’’ is both two individuals and one woman. Then again, as she/ they say: ‘‘Everyone’s brain is a liar. Mine (hers, mine) is more duplicitous than most.’’ This is a complex story with several levels, told in vivid, unsettling imagery and indelible aphorism. (‘‘This is a ghost story…. No. It’s a love story. But all love stories become ghost stories if you watch them long enough.’’) Memorable.

‘‘This isn’t the story you remember, where a girl escapes the woods. It’s the one where she takes you back there with her.’’ Gavin Pate’s narrator in ‘‘Red House’’ is quite unreliable, or perhaps she is utterly and horrifyingly reliable. Told from a ten-year old victim’s point(s) of view, ‘‘Red House’’ is an old story told in a new (if not groundbreaking), more terrifying way.

Nightmare #47 (August 2016), however, hits one home run and strikes out on the other story. In Amanda Downum’s ‘‘Fossil Heart’’, Nan is haunted by a past with which she cannot make peace. When monsters from that past threaten someone she cares for, she seeks to do the impossible: change the past to protect the living. An imaginative winner. ‘‘The Hunt for the Leather Apron’’ by G. Neri – written as a statement for police from Edward John Nichols, the son of Jack the Ripper’s first victim – is lacking. A fictional writer who spells words like ‘‘morgue,’’ ‘‘eerie,’’ ‘‘thieves, and ‘‘tongue’’ correctly while misspelling those like ‘‘sed’’ and ‘‘yeer’’ stretches credulity. The core of the story is weak – a son believes a certain man to be his estranged mother’s killer, for no real reason other than a dream of the murder – and detail after detail, the sort of touches that lend verisimilitude to setting and characters, are either missing or incorrect. Evidently, the author did enough research to establish there really was an Edward John Nichols, but – as evidenced by many historical mistakes that cannot be justified by the fact that this is fantasy – not much beyond that. When editors allow such problems in historical horror, the author is not solely at fault.

Black Static # 53 (July/August 2016) published a variety of styles and themes in its half-dozen offerings. Priya Sharma takes a gothic turn with ‘‘Inheritance, or the Ruby Tear’’: noble family, a possible inheritance, lost love, mysterious reappearance, a significant piece of jewelry. Sharma combines a sincere (if refined) Matthew Gregory Lewis impression with gore and shock for an effective combination.

Steve Rasnic Tem’s ‘‘Breathing’’ is much more than the metaphor and mood a casual reader might take it for. Read it slowly, savor it, and reread it. Charlie is obsessed with his own breath and the breathing he hears that is not his own. ‘‘The imagination always promises everything, both the wonderful and the terrible in unending supply, but at the end of the day it all goes away, leaving you alone in bed with the lights out and only the compulsive and enigmatic movements of the air to accompany you.’’ It’s further proof Tem is a master of craft and emotion.

In ‘‘Dare’’ by Harmony Neal, three drunk high school girls play ‘‘Truth or Dare,’’ and things turn gruesome. Perhaps if the inexplicably footnoted details and descriptions of the trio added at the end had been included in the narrative, we might have cared.

Kristi DeMeester takes us to the southern US in ‘‘The Rim of the World’’. Married couple Laurel and Jacob, childhood sweethearts, return – after a decade away – to the rundown deserted home of Laurel’s deceased grandmother. Jacob is more than uncomfortable with the marshy South Carolina locale and the memories of his sister’s strange behavior and consequent death. Laurel, however, delights in the place and exacerbates his fears with her own weird reminisces. DeMeester adroitly builds diaphanous layers of dread and creepy atmosphere into an enveloping curtain of fear, but the ultimate reveal of Laurel’s true character rips through this veil a bit too suddenly for the reader to completely accept.

Akio survives a tsunami, but loses his wife to the storm in Danny Rhodes’ ‘‘Tohoku’’. Beset with grief and guilt, he finds meaning in life only through obsessively searching for his wife’s body by diving into the sea where what is left of the village and its dead inhabitants remains. Heedless of his own safety, Akio himself is nearly drowned, but receives an oceanic message as a result of his near miss. In the face of overwhelming disaster, a fictional focus on the individual can bring understanding. It’s well done, but whether the story moves you or not probably depends on your personal experience with other literature of its kind.

‘‘Mittens’’ by Stephen Hargadon opens with the aftermath of a bloody murder, then spins and twists its way, rather indescribably, into a quirky, original tale. About all we are (fairly) sure of is that Percy Scollop, a show biz entrepreneur, has spent many years presenting and coddling often odd entertainers, but Neil O’Neill, ‘‘the fastest, most inventive knitter in all of Christendom,’’ was the crème de la crème. Further description is difficult. Hargadon is clever, witty, and can turn a wicked phrase. ‘‘Mittens’’ will either convince

you of his excellence or utterly baffle. The issue’s final story, ‘‘In the Frame’’ by Charles Wilkinson, finds the smug Luke attempting to meet Callum, an old friend, at an art gallery Callum has designated. Luke does not find the gallery and, instead, has several strange encounters. When he finally locates Callum and the gallery, things get stranger still. Wilkinson etches his protagonist and his weird journey so well you are drawn into his nightmare before you know it.

Shimmer #32 (July 2016) has four stories featuring children; only one doesn’t come under our apothic purview. ‘‘Painted Grassy Mire’’ by Nicasio Andres Reed is, more-or-less, magic realism that doesn’t really turn dark until the end. The story is set in Saint Malo LA in 1915. If you already know Saint Malo was the first settlement (mid-18th century) of Filipinos in what is now the U.S. then you’ll also know the village was wiped out by a hurricane in 1915. But even expecting this natural disaster, it is supernatural disaster that provides the darkness. Reed sets his finale up so subtly you assume this is a non-fantastical ‘‘literary’’ story until the very end.

Like the Reed story, ‘‘The Wombly’’ by K.L. Morris, is concerned with transformation and has a young girl as its protagonist. The similarity ends there. This is a bizarre little tale about parasitic creatures – womblies – that transform their human hosts into soap, tin, or wool. Family obligation and love are the central themes in the simple but affecting story.

‘‘The Singing Soldier’’ by Natalia Theodoridou is a brief parable with a message that will probably be interpreted differently by each reader. The daughter of a happy peasant family comes into the possession of a singing tin soldier. The family accepts the odd toy and sees it as good fortune. They can glean the meaning of only a few words of the otherwise indecipherable language of its perhaps prescient songs. Things take a bad turn for the family, and ultimately the daughter uses the toy in a way one could not predict at the story’s start. It is an appealing story, but I can’t really pin down why.

The Dark #15 (August 2016) offers two originals: ‘‘Floodwater’’ by Kristi DeMeester and ‘‘Some Pictures of Monsters’’ by Rhonda Eikamp. A deluge of seemingly unending rain is falling in DeMeester’s story, and young Kayley’s mother is emotionally drowning, much as she did after losing a baby daughter three years before. The birth of a healthy son some months previously has not erased the mother’s grief; her postpartum depression may be deepening into psychosis. Although DeMeester effectively builds the disquieting story with hints and intimation, narrator Kayley’s voice and behavior is not consistently that of a seven-year-old. Perhaps this doesn’t bother other readers; for me, a few minor changes would have vastly improved the tale. ‘‘Some Pictures of Monsters’’ by Rhonda Eikamp is a gritty take on the folk/fairy tale we know as ‘‘Cinderella’’. She retains the theme of a young woman whose unfortunate circumstances are suddenly changed to remarkable fortune, but the stepmother uses sorcery to change her stepdaughter, the ‘‘sooty one,’’ into a partner far more suitable for a monstrous prince than she intended. Eikamp structures the story as a series of images: an ingenious device, but it neither adds to or detracts from her satisfactory story.

Although Apex Magazine is a ‘‘science fiction, fantasy, and horror’’ magazine, all three of its original stories for August 2016 (#87) are dark. ‘‘The Gentleman of Chaos’’ by A. Merc Rustad is a poetic dark fantasy with some elements of the epic – power, kings, assassins – that turns out to be an examination of duality/identity. Alexis A. Hunter’s brief, SF-nal ‘‘Fall to Her’’ is (literally) half poetry. It is a tale of truly forbidden love between a fleshly spacefarer and an alien siren. The protagonist of E. K. Wagner’s ‘‘I Remember Your Face’’ is Ket. Wagner switches back and forth between a noir-ish (current) story of Ket as an adult bounty hunter in a post-apocalyptic dystopia and an account of the end of her (past) childhood. As a child she is drawn to crows; her mother warns her of them. As an adult, she has some symbiotic relationship that I don’t understand. Even at 7,000 words, this one is more sketch than completed work. We have again come to the end of our allotted space. By the time this is published, October – high season for horror – will be upon us. Be prepared!

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Russell Letson reviews Alvaro Zinos-Amaro

Traveler of Worlds: Conversations with Robert Silverberg, Alvaro Zinos-Amaro (Fairwood Press 978-1-933846-63-7, $16.99, 274pp, tp) August 2016. Cover by Patrick Swenson.

Robert Silverberg’s career has spanned more than half the history of modern American science fiction: he began reading SF magazines in 1948, during the ‘‘Golden Age,’’ and by 1954 was writing for the pulps, producing the first entries in a bibliography that now runs to 600-plus items of fiction and booklength nonfiction alone. Between receiving a Hugo Award for ‘‘Most Promising New Author’’ in 1956 and attaining SFWA Grand Master status in 2004, Silverberg has been in a position to meet nearly everyone of consequence in the SF field, sell to nearly every editor (and do plenty of editing himself), and explore nearly every market niche, while also (for a while) carrying out parallel careers turning out carefully-researched nonfiction and pseudonymous, non-SF yard-goods.

It’s a professional life well worth documenting, and although in the past Silverberg has offered his reasons for not writing a conventional ‘‘formal autobiography,’’ he has nevertheless produced the components of what he once called a ‘‘collective serial autobiography.’’ This began as far back as 1975 in ‘‘Sounding Brass, Tinkling Cymbal’’ (for Hell’s Cartographers, ed. Brian Aldiss & Harry Harrison) and continued over the decades in the form of introductions, afterwords, headnotes, and commentaries in anthologies and collections (notably Robert Silverberg’s Worlds of Wonder, 1987) and in regular magazine columns (in Galileo, Amazing, and Asimov’s) which would be periodically gathered into retrospective collections (Reflections and Refractions: Thoughts on Science- Fiction, Science, and Other Matters,1997; Other Spaces, Other Times: A Life Spent in the Future, 2009).

Now, in Traveler of Worlds, we have the latest and most substantial entry in this serial autobiography: a kind of interactive memoir built, as the subtitle signals, on a series of extended conversations between Silverberg and Alvaro Zinos-Amaro. Zinos-Amaro – himself cosmopolitan, cultured, attentive, articulate, and interactive – is well-suited to the task of unpacking the worlds of this sophisticated, widely-traveled and -read, ferociously intelligent man. There is a relaxed give-and-take between interviewer and respondent, as Zinos-Amaro explores not only the professional past but the travels, opinions, and personal tastes and feelings of his subject. And while there is considerable attention given to the past, the book is not merely memoirishly retrospective. There is a strong sense of the present environment: the talks were conducted in Silverberg’s living room and are filled with references to his office (and its clutter), his garden, his books and art-objects and tchotchkes, the household cat – things that characterize Silverberg as surely as anything he has written.

The book’s organization is not chronological but associational, and the chapter titles signal the large topic areas: ‘‘The Vividness of Landscape’’ (travel, mostly), ‘‘Aesthetics,’’ ‘‘Enwonderment’’ (the heart of SF), ‘‘Libraries,’’ and so on. Anyone who has followed previous segments of Silverberg’s serial autobiography will be familiar with much that is covered here: the very early entry into the writing life, the globe-trotting, the wide range of intellectual interests and curiosities, the sharply analytical and precisely-articulated observations and opinions – the sense of a deeply cultured, thoroughly professional, artistically and intellectually ambitious wordsmith. Zinos-Almaro encourages his subject to expand on the connections among and between travel, research, food, and collecting (art objects, books); to reflect on favorite books, writers, and artists both in and outside of SF; and to explore specifics of the Silverbergian aesthetic and work ethic.

The ‘‘Aesthetics’’ chapter is particularly interesting from a literary-critical point of view: it begins with some considerations of the writer’s craft and then moves on to an extensive ramble through Silverberg’s tastes and preferences in literature, music (including a consideration of how it showed up in his work), painting, film, drama, and gardens, eventually circling back to his interest in Jules Verne. The ‘‘Enwonderment’’ chapter expands on the term Silverberg coined to ‘‘explain what science fiction is supposed to do’’ – but is also connected to his love of archaeology and history, of gardening, of cats. One topic leads to another, and the conversation turns to a consideration of existentialism, to the stories from what one might characterize as Silverberg’s intensely literary-modernist period (‘‘Trips’’, ‘‘Breckenridge and the Continuum’’, ‘‘In Entropy’s Jaws’’), and eventually to the premature, temporary retirement of the mid-1970s.

What is new (though not, on reflection, surprising) to me is the sense of valediction that recurs throughout. Silverberg is just past 80, and he is keenly aware of what aging means, of the limitations within which he now operates, of the choices that are being forced on or denied him – of, say, books he will never get around to reading or re-reading. (‘‘Do I have time to read Gibbon again? And if I do, what am I passing up?’’) There is also a sense of being out of touch with the times, a Yeatsian no-country-for-oldmen feeling to many of his comments.

When I said… that I’m not on Facebook, I’m not really a part of it – any of it. I live on as an observer, a stranger in a strange land. I’ve just come down from Mars. ‘‘Oh, look what they’re doing now.’’ I can’t be part of it. I’m not out there in the social world.

He repeatedly insists that he is not an active but ‘‘a former writer’’ (‘‘I could push myself through and write a novel right now. But why?’’), that much of his current work amounts to organizing his office and riding herd on paperwork. This disengagement is more than just a matter of getting off the publication treadmill. At one point he says, ‘‘I barely speak the language any more,’’ and at another, ‘‘If I were writing now I’d have difficulty writing in 21st-century English.’’ But then, Silverberg has retreated or retired before, and I have long sensed in his personality (despite his prowess as a toastmaster, convention panelist, and conversationalist) a certain self-contained, arm’s-length reserve.

That is not to say that he has become utterly indifferent to the world, as is clear from his comments on political matters and the state of the planet, and his apparently still-unquenched thirst for travel – even after an ‘‘unpleasant time abroad,’’ he says, ‘‘Hardly am I home – in fact, while I was on the plane heading home – I’m already thinking about the next trip.’’ Silverberg may be cultivating his garden (literally), but he hasn’t become a hermit. And as long as he is willing to keep writing magazine columns and taking on editorial projects (for example, the forthcoming anthology This Way to the End Times), there will be pages to add to the serial autobiography. (Though one hopes for whole chapters.)

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Paul Di Filippo reviews John Crowley

The Chemical Wedding, by John Crowley (Small Beer Press 978-1618731081, $16.00, 224pp, trade paperback) December 6, 2016

John Crowley is a cruel man. Or just a meticulous, painstaking artist. Take your pick. For years now, he has been tantalizing attendees at his public readings with excerpts from a brilliant weird novel narrated by a crow (his totemic animal?) But when we hear delightedly of a new Crowley book, is it the legendary crow saga, at last? No! It’s Crowley’s mad, capricious and hypnotically glorious retelling of a 400-year-old book which he has the temerity to dub, during an interview in the Guardian newspaper, “the first science fiction novel,” thus upsetting all kinds of canonical academic apple carts. The man is a fiend, I tell you!

But if we cannot have brand-new unadulterated Crowley, due to his slow and steady monumental laboring, then we must be happy with what we do have: Crowley admixed with original author Johann Valentin Andreae. And of course, being pleased with this stimulating and readable production is not actually very hard work at all.

Crowley’s introduction lays out concisely and intelligently the context for the original publication of this early novel; the historical fallout of the book’s mysterious appearance; and finally its probable raison d’etre. To abridge this fascinating information: the book appeared in 1616, perfectly timed, as kind of a proto-viral hoax, to take advantage of widespread interest in secret, esoteric alchemical teachings, and was written by a literary fellow who had no real adherence to the sects and cults. It purports to be the first-person account by one “Christian Rosencreutz” of a journey he made to a hidden castle where a highly symbolic wedding was to take place. The book is structured as a seven-day pilgrimage and labor and celebration, although, as Crowley reveals, a further eighth day’s happenings come into play. And all of this prefatory material will be supplemented by Crowley’s frequent annotations in footnote form.

Given that Crowley, in addition to having an outlaw fabulaic soul and mind, also teaches at Yale, this material could have come off as stultifyingly academic. Instead, it is playful and speculative, even admitting ignorance and uncertainty when called for. His glosses offer plenty of added value to the text.

But what of the narrative itself, even rendered into fresh prose with Crowley’s skills? It proves to be quite entertaining and propulsive, not stodgy and archaic. The story-telling holds the attention of twenty-first-century jaded readers.

On Day One we meet our hero, an older fellow, unprepossessing yet erudite. He receives a supernatural passport to attend a mysterious holy union. He sets out “hopefully and joyfully on the way.” Day Two finds him in a Dante-esque forest, forced to choose among four paths. Eventually he attains his destination, a castle big as a city, it seems, but is immediately put through initiations and tests.

The Third Day is a long chapter and pivotal. Our hero passes his exams and joins the elite, a group of men who will become the Knights of the Golden Stone. He tours the facilities of the place, including supernatural appurtenances, and is finally escorted by beautiful handmaidens to his chamber for sleep. On Day Four he arises late and is conducted along with his peers to finally meet the King and Queen of the place, where the visitors are presented as helpful advisors. There are actually other royal couples present too, of various emblematic natures. The day culminates in the ritual execution of all the nobles.

Day Five finds our hero along with the other Knights-to-be travelling by boat to an island with a tower where they will perform duties leading to the resurrection of the primary royals on Day Six. Day Seven is feasting and celebrations back on the mainland—with a surprising end for Christian, as some earlier transgressions seem to leave him in a less-than-enviable position. Crowley’s final new text seeks to recreate the aftermath of Day Eight which Andreae left unwritten.

The attractions of this tale inhere in several realms. First, as Crowley affirms, these people come off as real folks, not just tokens of alchemical rites. Christian’s self-doubt and fears, his pride and altruism make us eager to follow his journey. The second attraction of the tale is all the beautiful little naturalistic or whimsical touches. Did you know that singing mermaids would be happy to get a long red scarf as the payment for their performance? And finally, the frissons of estrangement at the arcane doings should entice any lover of the fantastic.

And so, while not as consciously literary as A Voyage to Arcturus or The Manuscript Found in Saragossa, The Chemical Wedding offers many of the same pleasures as those two allegories.

Finally, we must applaud the stellar illustrations by Theo Fadel, whose work reminds me of New Yorker magazine favorite Barry Blitt, with maybe a trace of Breughel: sharp wavery line work full of energy and life.

The world has seen numerous modern editions of the Iliad and Odyssey and Beowulf, all intended to attract new audiences. Tolkien redid Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. But it took an offbeat, Hermetic mind like John Crowley’s to reanimate The Chemical Wedding.

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Adrienne Martini reviews Chuck Wendig

Invasive, Chuck Wendig (Harper Voyager 978-0-06-235157-9, $25.99, 352pp, hc) August 2016.

Chuck Wendig’s Invasive, which is about killer ants (sort of), is a companion (also sort of) to Zer0es, which was about killer hackers (mostly (but not really)). Both are rich, darkly funny page-turners with details designed to make those little hairs on the back of your neck stand up with how plausible they seem.

This time the protagonist is Hannah Stander, the FBI futurist, whose sole job is to ‘‘imagine the worst. To look far down the road to see what’s coming, what technology, what social system, what change to nature will humans face? Will it elevate and evolve us? Or will it destroy us?’’ She’s called by Agent Hollis Copper to a cabin in the woods, one where an oddly chewed body lies. Scattered around and in said body are hundreds and hundreds of equally dead ants.

Stander is launched on a fact-finding mission that takes her to a biologist friend, then to Kauai, where an eccentric, future-obsessed tech-billionaire has a research compound. There’s also an incoming tropical storm and just when you think the tension can’t ratchet itself up any more, it surely does. Then it does it again and again.

While the plot is propulsive, Wendig gives it unexpected depth. Stander’s backstory is masterfully intertwined with the current story. The echoes between Stander, her mom, and the current situation of a potential global catastrophe make each element greater than the sum of its parts.

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Paul Di Filippo reviews Lauren Beukes and Bruce Sterling

Slipping: Stories, Essays & Other Writing, by Lauren Beukes (Tachyon 978-1-61696-240-1, 288pp, $15.95, trade paperback) November 2016

Pirate Utopia, by Bruce Sterling (Tachyon Publications 978-1-61696-236-4, $19.95, 187pp, trade paperback) November 2016

Currently in its twenty-first year of operation, Jacob Weisman’s Tachyon Publications has attained a nigh-legendary stature as one of the leaders and innovators in the modern domain of genre-centric small-presses. Their selections are unfailingly interesting and often end up on award ballots, and the books themselves are handsomely designed. Had Tachyon never existed, the history of our field would be vastly impoverished. We can only hope they continue for a good long time.

Just consider two of their latest offerings to see what I mean.

First, while the Big Five have more or less abandoned story collections, Tachyon continues to promote this essential variety of book. Lauren Beukes’s debut assemblage is a fine example. Coming after four essential novels, the book can only enhance her reputation in the field. Twenty-one stories bulk out the tome, while a handful of non-fiction pieces hang back near the exit. These latter items are entertaining—snippets of journalism, along with some tidbits on the research that preceded Beukes’s novel Zoo City—as well as a touching maternal screed addressed to Beukes’s daughter. But the fiction is really the main attraction here. And since the majority of it appeared first in South African publications, reflecting Beukes’s country of residence, chances are great that the Tachyon audience will not have seen them before.

Just to select and highlight a few favorites.

The book opens with a tiny prose poem “Muse” that sets the vivid and even savage tone of the collection. Creativity hurts, but maybe less so than simple living. Next up is the title story, concerning a cyborg athlete named Pearl Nitseko. The contrast between her humble origins and superstar present are intensely depicted. “The idea of the money sits on her chest.” Tactile and colorful, those are keys to Beukes’s style.

“Princess” is a wry modern fairy tale about the awakening of one of the Beautiful People who populate celebrity wet dreams.

The princess and the handmaid fled the bright and terrible city. They bought a farm in the mountains of Ecuador and launched a trendy fashion label of hypoallergenic alpaca wool products in couture cuts.

The handmaid still struggled with the princess from time to time; people aren’t readily cured of a lifetime of bad habits, not even by fairy-tale miracles. She found the alpacas to be generally sweeter of temperament, although when riled, they would spit a sour green slobber of saliva and stomach acid and half-dissolved grass. And at least, in her experience, the princess had never done that.

“Parking” follows the Walter-Mitty-style life of a traffic cop, but is more tragic than otherwise. Beukes’s intermittent focus on mimetic settings such as here reflects a groundedness in reality that even her SF shares.

Reminding me a bit of Lucius Shepard’s Green Eyes, “The Green” concerns a corporate expedition to an alien world where corpses are reanimated by a native slime mold. Our protagonist eventually choses to succumb to a queasy fate. “Unathi Battles the Black Hairballs” is pure kaiju-mecha madness amped up to eleven. “The creature resembled a toothsome Godzilla-sized hairball studded with gnashing sharky mouths…”

“Unaccounted,” a tale of interstellar warfare, has this killer closing line: “You can’t dehumanize something that isn’t human.” And finally, my absolute favorite selection: “Ghost Girl,” which chronicles the interactions between a teen Goth Girl spirit and a male student of architecture in a manner that brings to mind Peter Beagle filtered through comedian Margaret Cho.

Beukes writes with passion and a hot immediacy, employing demotic prose that often attains a gritty poetry. She favors capturing the explosive instant rather than the multi-linked chain of circumstances that constitute most stories. This trait lends her work intensity and impact, but detracts a bit from any sense of grand patterns enacted and long-term destinies fulfilled. Luckily, her longer fiction remedies this deficit quite handily, making the total Beukes canon into a well-balanced sculpture.

All unwittingly, I have been preparing myself by a certain course of study to truly appreciate Bruce Sterling’s outrageous and droll new novella, Pirate Utopia, set in a counterfactual version of the Adriatic city of Fiume—or as it is dubbed in the book, the Regency of Carnaro. My preparatory work consists of reading Rebecca West’s Black Lamb and Grey Falcon: A Journey Through Yugoslavia. This mammoth, elegantly written survey of Balkan history and current (1941) conditions in the region is a chronicle of high heroism, mad idealism, craven duplicity, dashed nobility, peasant endurance, treachery, faith, desperate inventions, religious fervor, centuries-long subjugation, and fiery revenge. To say that Pirate Utopia captures the same set of values, virtues, vices and vicissitudes is merely to affirm that both West and Sterling are working from intimate acquaintance with the region’s realities. Sterling adds in a couple of other narrative tributaries—the pulp tradition of larger-than-life adventurers, and the tradition of Italian Futurism—but basically he and West are soul mates.

But you, as a savvy reader of fantastika, need know nothing special about the region to relish Sterling’s bravura performance. In the deft manner of the Grand Master speculative fictionist that he is, he provides all the background info and context necessary. (Some copious and generous ancillary material at the rear of the book illuminates the affair even more deeply, if you wish to investigate.)

Chapter One plunges us in media res into the Fiume scene circa early 1920. (The whole timeframe is merely a few months in that year.) In the aftermath of WWI, the city has been taken over by a band of idealists, rogues and chancers, all of them exhibiting a heady mix of motives and desires, not all of which derive from the saner precincts of their teeming brains. “The Regency of Carnaro was a clique of armed, dissolute poets who robbed bankers, then distributed the means of production to labor unions.” Our main viewpoint character is one Lorenzo Secondari, “the Pirate Engineer.” All of twenty-four-years old, Secondari is a hardened military veteran intent on transforming the staid world of the bourgeois and the powerful into a kind of techno-anarchist dreamland, fit for the ubermensch. Mostly this involves producing cheap handguns and aerial torpedoes. When Secondari is recruited into the actual government of Fiume— such as it is—as Weapons Minister, under the Prophet, Gabriele D’Annunzio, he is empowered to make his dreams come true.

We careen amongst the colorful players, both real and imagined, as they ride the wild tiger of their fantasies. The language is deadpan, the dialogue declamatory. Then, when the Americans come calling—in the form of an official delegation consisting of Harry Houdini, H. P. Lovecraft, and Robert E. Howard—Secondari finds new awesome horizons beckoning.

Ultimately, I would call this book Sterling’s Pynchon homage. This whole text could almost be wedged sidewise into Gravity’s Rainbow without disturbing the Pynchon flow. And the motley cast in Fiume recalls “Benny Profane and the Whole Sick Crew” from V.. But Sterling is no mere Pynchon-wannabe. His voice offers a unique timbre that blends the coolly intellectual Fabianism of Wells with the gonzo absurdity of the Spider pulps. This is Fritz Lang directing Buckaroo Banzai.

Despite its solid anchorage in the events and attitudes of the 1920s, however transmogrified, this book speaks to similar circumstances in other eras. We hear the speeches of Occupy Wall Street and the Ninety-nine Percenters when Secondari preaches that the pirates should “Kill the ruling class! Erase them! Liquidate them without pity. Build the new world on their bones. It’s the only way to make anything that’s fresh and clean!” And we are surely mean to think of the Age of Aquarius when Secondari inveighs against too much emphasis on “lifting the skirts of pretty girls, after we give them votes, and hashish, and jazz records!” Hippy heaven indeed!

Sterling’s primal message, I think, is that all these affiliated interstitial pockets of chaos and liberation are forever fleeting and temporary, and must be enjoyed while they flourish, for however brief a span.

Lastly, I have to marvel at the superbly gorgeous design and illustration work by the legendary John Coulthart, who conjures up the esthetics of this period with a 21st-century overlay. His artwork makes this volume a fine instance of Tachyon’s dedication to the field.

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Rachel Swirsky reviews Short Fiction, October 2016

Clarkesworld 4/16, 6/16, 8/16
Uncanny 3-4/16, 7-8/16
Beneath Ceaseless Skies 5/16, 7/16

While Gardner Dozois is recovering, Locus has given me the enormous privilege to fill in with two columns. I join everyone in wishing him a swift return to health and writing brilliant articles.

This review focuses on a sampling of short fiction from three prominent online venues – Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Clarkesworld, and Uncanny Magazine. Since I have the privilege of a second column, I will take a different perspective then.

One benefit of the narrow focus is that all these stories are easily accessible on the web. I hope you choose to read and enjoy some of them.

Clarkesworld is a natural home for alien stories. Neil Clarke’s editorial voice emerges in the magazine’s persistent themes and aesthetics, a frequent thread of which is the consideration of alienation and identity.

‘‘Touring with the Alien’’ by Carolyn Ives Gilman (April) is an exemplar of character-driven science fiction, providing both an intellectual lure, and a subtly effective emotional journey. Avery is a hauler with high-level security clearance who’s recruited to drive a mysterious alien (Mr. Burbage) and his human translator (Lionel) across the United States. Mr. Burbage is sessile, hidden from Avery for most of the trip. Lionel, who was abducted as a child and does not understand humanity well, reveals that the aliens are not self-aware.

Nevertheless, Mr. Burbage is addicted to consciousness, which he can only experience through humans, and which shortens his lifespan. Both Lionel and Avery, grieving for different reasons, are intimately confronted with the pain of consciousness, which Mr. Burbage has chosen to take on. The story balances on a delicate, regretful tightrope, weighing the virtues of self-hood.

‘‘Things with Beards’’ (June) by Sam J. Miller approaches the same themes. On his blog, Miller describes the story as ‘‘essentially a fanfic sequel to John Carpenter’s The Thing.’’ For those unfamiliar with the movie, the story’s main character, MacReady, is the survivor of an Antarctic expedition where he was possessed by an alien:

The thing wears his clothes, his body, his cowboy hat, it doesn’t want him to know it is there. So the moment when the supply ship crewman walked in and found formerlyfrozen MacReady sitting up – and watched MacReady’s face split down the middle, saw a writhing nest of spaghetti tentacles explode in his direction, screamed as they enveloped him and swiftly started digesting – all of that is gone from MacReady’s mind. But when it is being MacReady, it is Mac- Ready. Every opinion and memory and passion is intact.

The story is a tangle of metaphors that knot perfectly together. MacReady wears a multitude of beards: he is a disguised alien, a disguised gay man, a disguised terrorist. He is the vector of a deadly, unknown disease that he suspects and dreads but doesn’t understand. He doesn’t know about the literal tentacles inside him, but he also doesn’t know what mundane monstrousness he possesses. He wonders whether anyone in this compromised world can. ‘‘He can’t do anything about what he is. All he can do is try to minimize the harm, and do his best to counterbalance it.’’

This story joins others of Miller’s, such as last year’s ‘‘The Heat of Us’’, as a startling and intelligent engagement with queer history through a science fictional lens.

Dale Bailey, an underappreciated short fiction powerhouse, provides another take in ‘‘Teenagers from Outer Space’’ (August). His story springs from the imagery associated with B-horror movies – a 1950s invasion of strange looking aliens – altered by a modern viewpoint.

The powerful, strange aliens send their teenagers to high school, where they play football and attend English class. A human girl, Nancy, tells the story of how the aliens influenced her friend Joan, the restless daughter of a ‘‘strict disciplinarian’’ who regularly hits her. After Joan rebels against her father by going out with a facile older boy – a ‘‘cheap hood’’ – her date repays her with attempted rape. She’s rescued by an alien, Tham, who offers her a freedom she can’t find anywhere else. Bailey’s characteristically beautiful prose creates an eerie but alluring alien world, deliberately reminiscent of fairyland:

With each passing block, the streets became increasingly unearthly. Entire homes had been buried under thick, undulating vines, succulent and smooth… Fleshy, tentacled trees – I have no other word – shouldered up to the sidewalk and intertwined their limbs in a dense, rippling canopy that blocked out the sky… And everything sang. I sometimes hear it still, that soft, arrhythmic music, ethereal, and eerie as the tones of a theremin… It got inside my head, like an itch I couldn’t reach to scratch.

In this setting, Joan is: ‘‘tall and unafraid… the one unmoving point in that undulant landscape, her face softly illumined by the slow-pulsing colors.’’ Bailey captures the same poignancy Gilman does, a tension between the desire for Joan to go, and for a world in which she would be able to stay.

Uncanny Magazine’s predominate mode is lushly voiced stories that create intensive, enduring emotional immersion. Some are like Dali paintings – or, perhaps more relevantly, like many Kelly Link stories. Disparate, vivid images converge and clash, allowing the story to bloom in the interstices.

When one finishes a story like Catherynne M. Valente’s ‘‘Snow Day’’ (July-August), it’s not always immediately apparent what has happened on a literal level. In fact, it’s not clear that ‘‘Snow Day’’ can be usefully interpreted on a literal level.

Gudrun lives in a world that she perceives as near-apocalyptic. Her narrative is deeply unreliable; she was raised by her mother, Ruby, whose obsession with the end of the world drove her to isolate herself and her daughter as completely as possible. Though Ruby is dead, Gudrun feels bound to the house, waiting for the world to whimper out on the ‘‘Snow Day’’ she has marked on her calendar.

‘‘Snow Day’’ successfully evokes the feeling of claustrophobic stasis. Events do happen. Gudrun bides time waiting for the apocalypse by writing a diary in the marginalia of old pornography books. She passes notes back and forth with the general store owner, who has taken an interest in the isolated woman to whom he sends regular orders. Although the tone of the piece is often science fictional, it blends into fantasy. Gudrun experiences sudden, inexplicable parthenogenesis as the world winds down, and must raise her adult, newborn twin. Gudrun is also literally allergic to bad art, an affliction that does not affect her enjoyment of pornography because:

Those books were just what they aspired to be, nothing more and nothing less. They achieved their ambitions and fulfilled their purpose. Against all stylistic, narrative, and technical odds, they performed the function of fiction and imitated a certain delicate reality perfectly. Not the reality of Ruby and Gudrun and Murray and the Secretary of Agriculture and the Uptown Grand cinema, but something better, a cohesive universe of total generosity, of events occurring in perfect order and quick succession.

It’s long been my assertion that certain kinds of experimental fiction instruct you on how to read them. A passage like this provides a possible key. ‘‘Snow Day’’ is ‘‘imitat[ing] a certain delicate reality perfectly.’’ It’s not our reality – it’s ‘‘the reality of Ruby and Gudrun and Murray…’’ Unlike the pornography, the world of ‘‘Snow Day’’ is not ‘‘a cohesive universe of total generosity,’’ and does not have ‘‘events [which occur] in perfect order and quick succession.’’ It is a world where science fiction, fantasy, present, past, memory and contradiction exist in fractured simultaneity.

Instead ‘‘Snow Day’’ communicates by feeling. It is movement-but-stasis, real-but-uncertain. It’s the abrupt ending when stasis turns to sudden end:

‘‘Your calendar says today’s a snow day,’’ he said softly. ‘‘I wouldn’t count on it.’’ …. Behind them, the television cut out as quick as a knife. Pemberley screamed for her mother. She couldn’t ever be brave in the dark.

Far below, the lights in the valley vanished, one by one, the Uptown Grand Cinema and the Abalone General Store and the Post Office, the houses and the banks, the bakery and the schoolhouse, and when they had all gone, only a stillness like black nebulas remained.

‘‘It’s nothing,’’ Gudrun whispered in the sudden, total silence. ‘‘Just something my mother used to say.’’

Shveta Thrakar’s ‘‘The Shadow Collector’’ (March-April) provides another collection of vivid imagery. Most prominent are the miniature girls that the narrator, Rajesh, grows in the queen’s garden. Some are jasmine; some are roses. A delightful Lotus randomly recites silly predictions and aphorisms.

Rajesh also collects shadows which he steals from the garden’s visitors. Shadows constantly ‘‘[beckon] to him, tempting, always tempting.’’ The story turns when he’s dazzled by the ghost of the queen’s broken flute, who seeks revenge for having been carelessly dashed.

Unlike ‘‘Snow Day,’’ the events in ‘‘The Shadow Collector’’ take place in a linear, logical sequence. However, it still has a dreamlike quality. To borrow Valente’s lens, this story isn’t telling the reality of a cohesively built secondary world. Instead, it presents a place where one magical concept emerges after another, where flower-girls blend into shadow stealing and the spirits of magical flutes, where another surprising turn could easily emerge and reshape the world.

If the story can be criticized, it may be for the fact that the images don’t play off of each other with the kind of ideal tension that Valente’s ‘‘Snow Day’’ achieves. Though the story has a dramatic moment, by and large it floats without risk. Images nestle softly together, all pretty: flowers, shadows, flutes.

Or, via another interpretation, one can say that the story, per Valente, ‘‘achieve[s its] ambitions and fulfill[s its] purpose.’’ It is a gentle story, which evokes a blossoming mood like the garden, leavened with moments of fading and broken branches.

Alyssa Wong, who has rapidly risen to prominence with sharp, visceral stories, achieves her signature effect in ‘‘You’ll Surely Drown If You Stay’’ (July-August). In contrast to Valente’s stasis and Thrakar’s beauty, Wong’s story is saturated with rising dread. The story is a tense, second-person narrative about a young boy who works at a harsh brothel in the Wild West where the Madam unhappily tolerates his strange abilities to control dead things.

The sound of bones rattling against metal fills your ears, and you turn to look; the chicken she’d been preparing for dinner staggers back to its feet, half–skinned, half– butchered. Its flesh hangs in open, swaying flaps. The discarded pile of plucked feathers begins to swirl around it like an obscene snowfall. You can feel each movement the dead chicken takes, your blood pounding in time with its footsteps…

The chicken’s headless neck whips toward you, snakelike, its ragged circle of severed bone and muscle gleaming at you like a malevolent eye. Its toenails rasp against the sink. Calm down, you think, and it sways, sinking to its knees. Go back to sleep.

This passage demonstrates Wong’s skill at creating horror. The image of the dead bird is vivid enough, but her sentences surge urgently forward, snapping between unsettling images without allowing time for dread to dissipate. The imagery is unsettling – ‘‘its toenails rasp against the sink’’ – when it is not outright repulsive – ‘‘flesh hangs in open, swaying flaps.’’ Severed bone and muscle ‘‘gleam,’’ creating a dissonant sense of beauty.

The story pursues a more traditional plot than some of Wong’s work, as the boy embarks on something like a quest. It only becomes darker after the passage above, but it best evokes my lingering feeling of vacillation between the uneasy and the horrifying.

Beneath Ceaseless Skies has always had a strong editorial voice, partially because of its distinct focus on secondary world fantasy. Its stories usually have strong, forward-driving styles with external action. What really makes a Beneath Ceaseless Skies story, though, is unusual worldbuilding, the stranger the better.

For several years, the magazine has been mining a rich world-building seam: gender. Since gender is a significant organizing factor in most societies, and much (though certainly not all!) older science fiction didn’t deeply interrogate it, BCS authors often build on the traditions of authors like Tiptree and Le Guin.

While writing about gender roles is often equated with writing about women, many excellent stories discuss men’s gender instead (or additionally). Mishell Baker’s ‘‘Fire in the Haze’’ (July) takes on circumscribed male roles. En is a man who can wield magic, in a world that believes only women can or should. Ten years ago, his former lover, Tuo, a magical shape-shifting child of the goddess Ru, cast a spell on him so that his body would become female at nighttime, allowing him to enter the goddess’ temple as a magic-worker. Though the plan was that he would reveal himself once he was entrenched, En has become complacent, enjoying a steady, fulfilling life. When Tuo’s spell breaks, En is forced to act, but his revelation doesn’t stir the High Seeress’ convictions about men; instead, she condemns him to death.

En’s sadness at losing his contented temple life slowly shifts into the well-rendered revelation of his abiding pain at having loved and lost Tuo. When he once again finds Tuo, he still cannot make sense of the Child of Ru’s non-human loyalties. This is a story of unequal, irreconcilable, and yet durable love.

‘‘The Night Bazaar for Women Becoming Reptiles’’ by Rachael K. Jones (July) is considerably more surreal than Baker’s ‘‘Fire in the Haze’’. However, the stories share preoccupations.

Hester sells asp eggs at the illegal Night Market where women buy reptile eggs to swallow, hoping to transform into reptiles themselves and escape their human encumbrances.

[Hester] used to ask them why, back when she first started selling. Why the bazaar? Why tonight? Why this shape?

‘‘Because this body has grown too tight around me.’’

‘‘Because breathing weighs me down, and I am exhausted.’’

‘‘Because each night, I dream of walking into the desert and not returning.’’

‘‘Because each morning, I watch the merchants pass into the gates, and I want to scream, ‘Stay away!’’’

At the night bazaar, they shed their skin and leave as asps and tortoises and crocodiles. They pass the gates unimpeded. They go out into the desert and erase the footprints leading inward.

Hester has come to crave this escape, too. She dreams of what would happen ‘‘[i]f she could be that kind of creature. If she could cross the desert. If she could break free of the spidersilk bonds… the thin invisible obligations tying woman to man to woman to child, a web which caught and snared.’’ However, even when she resorts to swallowing her own wares, she cannot transform.

Though everyone believes only women can turn into reptiles, Hester is rattled when her male partner insists on swallowing one of her eggs. He achieves what she cannot: ‘‘An asp springs from his breastbone, a fine golden-eyed creature damp from heart’s-blood.’’ She is left to help butcher his ‘‘unwanted body,’’ selling hair to weavers, bones to fruit-growers, meat to candle-makers. Hester’s yearning for a life scraped bare of obligations is as palpable as the desert.

In addition to her beautiful Uncanny piece, Catherynne M. Valente also contributed a lush story to BCS: ‘‘The Limitless Perspective of Master Peek, or the Luminescence of Debauchery’’ (May).

If ‘‘Snow Day’’ is reminiscent of Kelly Link, then ‘‘Lumiscence’’ evokes Tanith Lee, with its sumptuous descriptions of decadent lives. The narrator is expertly characterized through his elevated, old-fashioned style, which teeters between gorgeous and pompous, often hitting both.

The story glories in indulgence, the narrator making no pretense at morality.

That narrator, Cornelius, is first introduced as Perpetua, the daughter of a glassmaker who inherits the least useful of his property – an iron punty which she cannot make use of while seen as a woman. To solve the problem, Cornelius simply adopts a man’s role (which may or may not be initially inherent to his identity, but certainly becomes so), a change he describes in unilaterally positive terms: ‘‘My womandectomy caused me neither trouble nor grief – I whole-heartedly recommend it to everyone!’’

Working as a glassmaker, Cornelius eventually discovers his calling, crafting unparalleled glass eyes more beautiful than real ones. On a whim one day, he crafts a pair of glass eyes, though his client only needs one replaced. Experimenting with the spare, Cornelius discovers that his creations possess a magical ability; when he looks into one eye, he is able to peer through its match and see the world from its owner’s perspective.

Unlike Baker’s and Jones’, Valente’s story does not dwell on the concept of men and women’s parallel achievements. However, the story does include a trans woman; her character can be read as mirroring Cornelius’s, though it’s not a central thread.

Though not as emotionally evocative as ‘‘Snow Day,’’ Valente’s BCS story is rich and beautiful, and will delight readers who enjoy her wit and chameleonic style.

Read more! This is one of many reviews from recent issues of Locus Magazine. To read more, go here to subscribe.

Russell Letson reviews Alastair Reynolds

Revenger, Alastair Reynolds (Orion/Gollancz 978-0575090538, £18.99, 432pp, hardcover) September 2016; (Orbit 978-0-3165-5556-2, $14.99, 560pp, tp)
February 2017.

In Revenger Alastair Reynolds inserts a distinctly old-fashioned space opera into a Stapledonian milieu right out of Last and First Men, a solar system rendered unrecognizable by millions of years of natural and unnatural processes. Reynolds has used the ancient-far-future trope before in, for example, House of Suns (reviewed in August 2009), but in that case the protagonists are post-human and the story line takes place across as well as after millions of years, and involves multiple 200,000-year circumnavigations of the galaxy. Revenger is set in a single period and within the limits of the solar system, but on the very, very far side of many historical discontinuities. There is, to be sure, plenty of familiar, conventional-SF futurity furniture here – a settled solar system, swarms of space habitats, exotic technologies, aliens, and so on – but it is felt to be located in a multilayered, imperfectly-known and -understood, fragile area of light that sits atop an abyss of lost time and vanished empires.

The novel doles out this background in hints and details rather than big expository lumps: over more than ten million years, civilizations have risen and fallen in eras called ‘‘Occupations’’ (this is the year 1799 of the current one). Multiple alien species have visited the solar system (and some have stayed around), while it has been completely rearranged. There is no mention of planets circling the Old Sun, only the Congregation, a swarm of twenty thousand habitats of all shapes, sizes, ages and states of repair; and millions of other objects called ‘‘baubles,’’ the mysterious, locked-up, and sometimes dangerous remnants of earlier Occupations. (This book does not seem to be part of the Revelation Space sequence, but this de- and reconstructed solar system has echoes of the far end of that series.)

It is a world that offers romantic adventure to the well-brought-up but restless daughters of a shabby-genteel widower. The narrator, Arafura Ness, is persuaded by her older (and officially adult) sister Adrana to escape their father’s smother-love (and the creepy ministrations of the family doctor) by signing on with Captain Rackamore of the sunjammer Monetta’s Mourn as bone-readers (we will return to that job description). Rackamore and his crew are scavengers, seeking out and rummaging through baubles, hoping to find scraps of near-magical technologies left over from earlier Occupations. Typical miscellaneous swag includes

Thirty sheets of Prismatic Ironglass – tougher than any we’ve seen. A pretty jade box with a pair of duelling pistols, Empire of the Atom. A space helmet, done up with horns. A sword that teaches you how to swing it. Half a robot. A skull or two….

In addition to the kind of engineering and maintenance specialists one would expect on a spaceship, a scavenger crew requires specialists who can figure when the impenetrable fields surrounding a bauble will open and close; who can get past the locks and traps that guard the interiors; who can sniff out the most valuable and useful items. And every ship needs someone who can detect and interpret the signals from the bones – huge skulls (like the ones in the above-listed inventory) laced with enigmatic and somehow interconnected tech, left behind by an alien species that likely passed through the neighborhood long before any of the Occupations. ‘‘Bone reading’’ – a strange kind of instantaneous communication – requires not only inborn talent but neuroplasticity, and Adrana and Arafura have both the gift and the youth, which makes up for their naiveté and lack of practical spacefaring experience, so Rackamore takes them on.

What follows combines a YA coming-of-age story with a pirate adventure: Monetta’s Mourn is attacked and robbed by the legendarily cruel and effective Bosa Sennen of the legendarily scary Nightjammer. The sisters are separated when Adrana is dragooned into being the pirate’s new bone reader, and Arafura must first survive and then figure how to track down Nightjammer and rescue Adrana. In the course of doing so, she must also reinvent herself, changing from a well-mannered, book-educated girl into a tough, experienced, and even ruthless spacer who is not above lying and manipulating others – even her friends and allies – to achieve her ends. The rest of the tale involves disguises, psychological and physical transformations, chases & escapes, kidnapping, brainwashing, betrayals, sacrifices, cut-throatery, explorations of spooky treasure troves, deployments of exotic weaponry, and various trapdoors and revelations.

While this is a pirate-adventure/space-opera/ treasure-hunt tale, that is only one side of its appeal. In fact, the setting may be more than half the fun: a space-dwelling, spacefaring civilization that only partly understands the technologies that sustain it; that lives in the multiple shadows (and the abandoned homes) of more accomplished and powerful forbears; that has an economy partly driven by scavenging in the ruins of those vanished Occupations; that doesn’t know why aliens like the Crawlies are so interested in running its financial system. It’s a world of riddles and puzzles and blank pages, which means it’s also a world full of strange turns and surprises, as well as treasure hoards and reavers and exotic ports of call.

Accordingly, Arafura does get where she said she wanted to go, though that destination is not quite what she had imagined at the beginning – which is one of the things one looks for in a story. And the end of her quest looks suspiciously like a pause before the beginning of a pursuit of answers to a new set of riddles, and (one hopes) more glimpses of how this ancient future came to be.

Read more! This is one of many reviews from recent issues of Locus Magazine. To read more, go here to subscribe.

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