Category Archives: Science Fiction

Book Review: Dreadnought by April Daniels

I love that Dreadnought is a thing that exists in the world more than I actually enjoyed reading the book, though I did rather like it. It’s being marketed as great for fans of last year’s The Heroine  Complex and Not Your Sidekick, and both of those were titles that I just never did quite manage to get around to reading, mostly because I’m not super into super hero stories. Like these other books, Dreadnought centers around an unconventional protagonist, in this case a fifteen-year-old closeted trans girl named Danny who has to quickly come to terms with her identity when she is unexpectedly gifted with both superpowers and the body she’s always known she should have. Danny is a smart, plucky, relatable heroine who I expect will be an education for some readers and a much-needed bit of representation for others. Nonetheless, Dreadnought is a book that I read with the constant awareness that it wasn’t for me. Danny’s story of self-discovery and actualization is one that will be compelling for any reader, but I imagine it will resonate most deeply with readers who share more of Danny’s experiences as a trans girl.

Superhero narratives have long dealt with issues surrounding identity and marginalization, and author April Daniels has written a novel firmly in that tradition. Daniels’ geek credentials are on full display here, and it’s obvious that she has a thorough knowledge of genre conventions, which she deploys in a perfectly pitched tale that is both a top notch example of its type and a wholly fresh take on a set of familiar tropes. Dreadnought‘s fairly straightforward hero’s journey structure is a tried and true framework that works well here to provide a foundation upon which Daniels can build a strong, clearly messaged modern superhero story. It’s an excellent example of the value of not reinventing the wheel, and Daniels shows a good instinct for when to utilize common tropes and when to subvert or interrogate them for maximum effect.

I love that there’s no real preamble to Danny’s story. Daniels digs right into things from the first page, with Danny undergoing her transformation almost immediately and being thrust into a vastly changed life by chapter two. The pace of events never does let up, which makes for fast reading. I didn’t make it through Dreadnought in a single reading session, but only because I had other obligations that kept me from it. Each scene in the novel feels necessary and has an easily identifiable purpose, moving along the plot, fleshing out characters, or communicating part of the book’s message. This trimness is a great asset, especially in the YA market where the fashion for some years now has been great sprawling, meandering fantasy stories with indistinct characters and bland ideas. At an economical 276 pages, Dreadnought is a refreshing departure from that trend.

Trans issues take up a lot of page space in Dreadnought, but I still wouldn’t say its a particularly message-heavy title. Danny is a transgender teen, so she’s got a lot of stuff to deal with, but Daniels presents it all matter-of-factly and in a naturalistic enough fashion that most of it feels about the same as reading about any other teen drama. It’s not that Danny’s struggles with parents, friends, doctors, and various associates aren’t specific to her trans-ness; it’s just that these things seldom feel like the point of the book. While Danny’s trans-ness figures largely in the novel and is inextricably bound up with her superhero abilities, being trans is only one part of Danny’s character, and many of the scenarios Danny must deal with as a teen with sudden superpowers are pretty standard stuff for the genre. Sure, she has to deal with some blatant transphobia from her parents and others, and that will no doubt be new to many readers, but a lot of her problems are still just versions of the same banal coming of age crap everyone has to deal with as a teenager trying to figure out their place in the world.

In most ways, Dreadnought is a run of the mill teen power fantasy. It’s always obvious who the villains are in this book, and while it doesn’t flinch away from depicting some darkness, I never felt any real fear that the bad guys were going to win. Even the authorial choice to complicate things by exploring the double-edged nature of super powers as both blessing and curse and the decision to interrogate the whole “with great power comes great responsibility” thing isn’t altogether new or particularly noteworthy. It’s well done, though, and it’s still sadly rare for there to be a book like this written by a trans woman about a trans girl. April Daniels offers a fresh perspective on her topics of choice and has created a great character with whom a disgracefully under-served population will be able to identify. Dreadnought isn’t an exceedingly ambitious novel, but it is a well-written, highly entertaining, and ultimately optimistic origin story of a heroine I look forward to reading more about.

This review is based on a copy of the title received from the publisher via NetGalley.

Book Review: The Fortress at the End of Time by Joe M. McDermott

Joe M. McDermott’s The Fortress at the End of Time might be a little bit genius, but I can’t decide if I loved it or hated it. It’s got a great classic sci-fi sensibility if, but I’m generally not one for classics. It’s a novel that, while short, is often boring, but intentionally so and in a way that mostly works if you’re a patient reader. It’s got some big ideas that are worthy of considered exploration, but none that are particularly fresh. It’s solidly written with a distinctive voice and style, but there’s nothing especially exceptional about it. It’s a book that I’m glad to have read because it is a bit outside of my usual fare and a nice change, but I don’t feel compelled to read either more of McDermott’s work or more of this sort of thing in general. It’s not that The Fortress at the End of Time is unremarkable or pedestrian; it’s just a profoundly workmanlike example of its type of thing–thoughtful medium-hard military-ish sci-fi that has something to say about some stuff–if you like this sort of thing. I can easily imagine this being a book that lots of other people love, but I can’t muster any very strong feelings about it, myself.

The story is told in first person from the point of view of one of the most unpleasant characters I’ve had the misfortune to read about in some time. Ronaldo Aldo was raised on Earth and attended a military officers’ school, after which a copy of him (not really a clone, despite what the cover blurb says) is made and stationed on a remote military base at the far end of the galaxy, where he finds himself lonely, bored, and with few opportunities for success or advancement. While the book seems intended to explore the banality of that sort of everyday experience–not everyone can be a Captain Kirk, natch–I found Aldo so unlikable that it was difficult to root for him at all. For me, this is primarily because Ronaldo Aldo is a man who really doesn’t care for women, in spite of being straight and wanting to fuck/possess one (or more) of his own.

The first introduction to Aldo is his attempt to flip a coin with a friend of his over who gets to fuck a woman they are both hanging out with, only to find out that his friend and the woman are already a couple. It speaks to Aldo’s self-centeredness and obliviousness that he didn’t know that the people who are supposed to be his two best friends are in love, and it speaks to Aldo’s deep-seated misogyny that he ever thought it was appropriate to flip a coin for access to a woman’s body. McDermott doesn’t portray this behavior favorably, and I think that it’s intended to make Aldo unlikable from the start as well as set a baseline for his behavior towards women from which we can measure change over the course of the rest of the book.

However, Aldo’s subsequent arc never actually improves his attitudes towards women very much. Throughout the book, Aldo thinks of every woman he meets (and there are few enough of them) in terms of sexual attractiveness, which is consistently gross and off-putting, specifically because there are so few female characters in this book. Aldo’s championing of women at the Citadel feels hollow, and his “romantic” relationships are dysfunctional, with the dysfunction almost entirely on his side. Aldo continues to be slightly obsessed throughout the book with the girl from the very beginning; then he almost immediately becomes infatuated with the beautiful wife of one of the other officers at the Citadel, who he later has an affair with.

Aldo magnanimously gets involved with a young trans woman, but he primarily thinks of her in terms of her beauty and her transness, which is in turns almost fetishized and slightly vilified. Amanda’s transness is suggested to be a ploy to be able to marry a man and thus gain more land on the surface of the planet, and this plays off of some extremely negative tropes about duplicitous trans women who want to “trick” good men into being with them. I’d say that the treatment of this in the book falls in depiction rather than endorsement territory, but I’m not sure it’s handled as well as it could have been. There is quite a lot of time spent on talking about Amanda’s transness, in general but especially about her lack of childbearing ability (Future people can replicate whole people but can’t give a trans woman a uterus yet? Okay.) and there are several times where characters misgender and deadname her in ways that are derogatory and unpleasant to read.

Still, thematically, The Fortress at the End of Time is moderately ambitious, and McDermott does a good job of staying on target with the story he’s trying to tell. There’s not much fat that could have been trimmed here, and the deliberately slow pacing works nicely to highlight McDermott’s theses. The interplay between the planetside monastery and the Citadel could have been given somewhat more page time, but I may only feel that way because I could have done with less of Aldo’s feelings. All in all, though, The Fortress at the End of Time is fine. It’s not great, but it’s good, and sometimes that’s plenty. This isn’t a book that was perfect for me, but if you like this sort of retro-styled sci-fi or if you have a thing for unlikable protagonists and likely unreliable narrators, it’ll be right up your alley.

This review is based on a copy of the title received from the publisher through NetGalley.

Book Review: Runtime by S.B. Divya

I read all of Tor.com’s novellas, which is a good thing because I otherwise might have missed out on this gem by S.B. Divya. I would never have picked up a story about a cyborg endurance race on my own, but I’m glad I read this one. Runtime is a marvel of world building and character portraiture wrapped around a perfectly executed straightforward plot and just the right amount of smart-but-not-overbearing social commentary. It’s a near-perfect use of the novella length, and I cannot wait to see what S.B. Divya does next.

Marmeg Guinto is as prepared as she’ll ever be for the grueling Minerva Sierra Challenge, but she’s nonetheless not nearly as prepared as some of the other racers, with their support teams and wealthy sponsors. In a race where people compete and win on the strength of extreme body modifications, Marmeg has cobbled together her cyborg enhancements from cheap parts, black market materials, and sometimes literal garbage. Still, she’s determined to race well enough to win a better future for herself and her family. When she actually gets out on the trail, however, things don’t go entirely as planned, and Marmeg soon has to make some hard choices that put her future plans in jeopardy. The surface narrative here is simple enough and fits neatly into the popular genre of stories about young people who participate in extreme sports or contests in order to help their families in dystopia-ish futures. It could have been banal, but S.B. Divya does several things in Runtime that elevate it above the usual stories of its type.

Partly, this is accomplished by cleverly adding layers of meaning and nuance to a simple story. Within the simple framework of the race/survival story lies a cleverly integrated fable with something to say about cheating and good turns. Wrapped all around the story and built into the fabric of Divya’s excellent world building is some insightful social commentary about capitalism, gender, immigration, and community. It sounds like a lot, but it never feels like too much for the reader to take in. There’s never any obvious lecturing or moralizing, which is often a mistake made in these kind of stories, and the ending is satisfying and thematically appropriate without feeling pat.

The heroine, Marmeg, also accounts for a great part of Runtime’s appeal. She’s a nicely complex character but without falling into either any of the common Strong Female Character tropes or the common Morally Grey Character tropes. Instead, she’s highly distinctive, with a backstory and personality that are both well-considered and well-constructed. The key here is the specificity of this character and her background. Marmeg isn’t a Generic Dystopian Heroine, and the reader’s understanding of her situation, her family, and what she’s willing to sacrifice for them is absolutely necessary for the story to work. Fortunately, Divya communicates all of this information clearly and concisely with sparely elegant prose that is perfectly styled for the story she’s telling.

Where S.B. Divya excels most notably, however, is in simply balancing all the many moving parts of this novella. The race itself necessarily takes center stage, but Marmeg is a strong enough personality to really carry the story by getting the reader invested in it. There’s a nicely cinematic quality to the action, enough to earn this little book a place on my ever-growing list of things I’d like to see adapted for film or television. Marmeg’s peril feels like a very real threat, and there are a couple of small subplots that nicely augment the main story and could provide fodder for more stories or even a full-length novel in this same universe. Every piece of Runtime is meticulously crafted and fitted together with every other piece in order to make a whole that is even greater than the sum of its parts.

Book Review: Too Like the Lightning by Ada Palmer

Ada Palmer’s Too Like the Lightning is a tremendously, gloriously wonderful book that seems like an obvious contender for all of the genre awards next year. It’s a remarkably original, refreshingly optimistic (but not cloyingly so), and deeply challenging read that demands the reader’s full attention. It’s a novel that is difficult at times, but it’s very much worth taking the time—and it may take quite a while—to work through.

The narrator, Mycroft Canner, is a convict in a utopian future where the world is administered collectively by enormous “hives” of philosophically like-minded people and tied together with a system of flying cars that have made travel faster and safer than ever before. As a convict, Mycroft’s sentence is a life of servitude and enforced poverty; he and others like him are essentially public property, bound in service to the community for life. Too Like the Lightning is the first part (I understand the series is planned as four books) of Mycroft’s account of significant events in the year 2454.

There’s not much to say about the plot that wouldn’t be a spoiler, but suffice it to say that there are several slowly, methodically unfolding mysteries contained in this book. It’s a story that isn’t as complicated as it seems, with much of the book’s seeming complexity owing to Ada Palmer’s intricately humane portrayal of Mycroft Canner as a character rather than to any particular complexity of the plot itself. Some of the novel’s high reading level also comes from the affectation (Palmer’s and Mycroft’s) of telling the story in such an antiquated fashion (in the style of the 18th century from which most of the book’s characters’ philosophies are taken). As a great lover of 18th and 19th century literature and philosophy, this put Too Like the Lightning about a hundred and ten percent right up my alley, but it definitely makes for a novel that may require some googling in order to truly appreciate it if you don’t have the requisite background to “get” it right away.

Where Too Like the Lightning really shines is in the worldbuilding department, and there aren’t even proper words to describe how delightful it is to read something so fresh and different. Certainly, one can see marks of many of the usual genre influencers along with the influences of more literary classics as well as works of philosophy and actual history, but Too Like the Lightning really isn’t quite like anything else I’ve ever read. For one thing, in a sea of modern dystopias that seek to explore all the ways in which theoretical utopias can fail, Palmer’s imagined future stands out for being an actually utopian one, and the book is a sort of look at what makes that kind of utopia tick. From eliminating gendered language to banning public displays of religion to the system of flying cars that are teased on the book’s cover to the reorganization of family life, Palmer has thought of answers for nearly all the world’s problems. Those she hasn’t, she’s been sure to include a group of people—the Utopians—in her book that are dedicated to improving on near-perfection.

Margaret Atwood has said that every utopia has a little dystopia in it, and Too Like the Lightning digs deep into examining this idea, looking for and often directly at some of the underlying ugliness that supports the world its author has dreamed up. Mostly, this is accomplished through the observations of the narrator, Mycroft, who offers a unique perspective on a world that he is decidedly set apart from while still embroiled in the events he’s recounting. Mycroft’s personal history, which is one of the central mysteries of the book, comes into play about two thirds of the way through and in a significant way that forces the reader as well as some of the other characters to wrestle with some big ideas. I won’t say it was entirely unexpected, but it’s a pretty major twist and I love a book that challenges my expectations the way this one did.

All things considered, though—little dystopia or not—the world of Too Like the Lightning is one I wouldn’t mind living in, and I feel privileged to have gotten to spend so much time there with this novel. If there’s one problem with it, it’s only that there’s not enough of it. There is no real resolution to most of the problems and conflicts the book introduces, which makes me think that the ultimate success of it is going to rely on the how well things go with the rest of the series. That said, I have a feeling it’s going to be just fine, and I can’t wait to read Seven Surrenders and find out what happens next.

This review is based on a copy of the book received through NetGalley.

Book Review: Central Station by Lavie Tidhar

It would have been useful to know in advance that Central Station is a novel that was cobbled together from a collection of related short stories. While there is much to love about the finished product, it nonetheless has a somewhat disjointed feel to it that makes it somewhat difficult to fully appreciate the novel’s strong points. It’s not incoherent, exactly, just slightly garbled in execution, which is too bad because Central Station is otherwise a gorgeously imagined, smartly written, ambitious work of thoughtful futurism.

Perhaps the strongest aspect of Central Station is Lavie Tidhar’s lovely prose, which brings his vision of a future Tel Aviv to life with great depth and richness. There’s an almost magical, mythmaking quality to his descriptions of Central Station, its inhabitants and their lives that reminds me of nothing more than Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles, to which Central Station is an obvious successor, if not intentionally than certainly through serendipity. While most of Central Station’s chapters have been edited so that they no longer entirely stand alone, there is still the feeling of it being constructed from a series of slice-of-life vignettes clustered around an overarching narrative—primarily concerned with the comings and goings of people through Central Station, which is here a major hub of travel between Earth and space—and core themes—mostly perennial sci-fi big ideas about war and religion and artificial intelligence and robots and how technology effects the human condition.

Along with crafting a striking and memorable setting, Tidhar has also populated his future Tel Aviv with a fascinating cast of characters. Sadly, this is another area in which the book is sold short in the marketing department, as its cover copy focuses on introducing Boris Chong as if he’s the main protagonist of the novel. Certainly, Boris’s experiences are important and effectively work as bookends to the rest of the stories, and the book description correctly communicates that Central Station is a sort of family drama, but Boris actually turns out to be one of the least compelling characters in the book. Instead, I found myself drawn more to Boris’s ex-lover, Miriam, Carmel the data vampire, the book dealer Achimwene, and the robot priest R. Brother Patch-It. Even the fraught romance between Boris’s cousin Isobel and the robotnik Motl somewhat overshadows Boris’s contribution to the narrative, which makes the decision to sell the book as Boris’s story somewhat unaccountable.

The missteps in the back cover copy of the book are mostly made up for, however, by its absolutely stunning retro-futurist cover by Sarah Anne Langton, which is more than enough reason to have it on your shelf. It’s a perfect package for such a lovely book, and it nicely telegraphs the fusion of classic sci-fi themes and posthumanist sensibilities contained within its pages. There’s very little new under the sun when it comes to storytelling, and Tidhar hasn’t reinvented the wheel with this book, but he definitely brings a refreshingly new and important perspective to the material he tackles. Central Station is a book that is perhaps too “literary” to get the readership it deserves, but it’s certainly worth a look for any serious reader of science fiction, especially if you think you prefer the classics.

This review is based on a copy of the title received from the publisher via NetGalley.

Book Review: Sleeping Giants by Sylvain Neuvel

It’s easy to see why Sylvain Neuvel’s debut novel, Sleeping Giants, is one of the most talked about sci-fi novels of the year. It’s got a gorgeous cover, a great (in very inaccurate) mash-up description (World War Z meets The Martian? Not really.) to sell copies, and it’s compulsively readable from page one. It’s also a book that can be read as seriously or unseriously as you like; on its surface, Sleeping Giants is a blockbuster thriller that (judging from its recently being optioned for film) would be right at home at a movie theater in June, but there’s a good amount of depth to it as well if one cares to look. In short, it’s an excellently written middle brow novel that defies strict genre classification. Between its broad appeal and heavy advance promotion (it’s been on NetGalley since before Christmas, I believe), Sleeping Giants is well-positioned to be one of the most widely read sci-fi novels of 2016. Even better, it’s a novel that deserves to be widely read. Because it’s really, really good.

The story opens with a young girl falling into a hole in Deadwood, South Dakota. Inside the hole is a giant, glowing turquoise hand, which is quickly whisked away and the whole incident hushed up. Seventeen years later, the girl, now Dr. Rose Franklin, finds herself in charge of a team overseeing the search for the rest of the pieces and trying to figure out how to make the ancient alien machine work. In a way, this description—basically what is on the cover of the book—is misleading. Rose is not the main character as it implies, though she does have a vital part to play in the narrative. In some ways this is a little disappointing, as I was expecting a book about a badass lady scientist, but the lack of focus on Rose is more than made up for by the other main female character, pilot Kara Resnik, who is wonderful. That said, all the characters were pretty good, even linguist Victor Couture, who is a pretty obvious semi-self-insert on the part of the author but tends to steal every scene he’s in.

I have been a fan for many years of the epistolary novel, and I’m glad to see that it’s been coming back in recent years. Sleeping Giants is another one to add to the pile. Told primarily in the form of transcripts of interviews between various characters and an unnamed interviewer, Sleeping Giants is consistently entertaining and never once boring. Early in the novel, Neuvel does lapse into a more generic prose style that doesn’t feel as conversational as it ought to, given the format, but by about a quarter of the way in you can clearly see each character’s voice and personality emerging and by the end of the book they feel like old friends. It’s not perfectly executed, but the later finesse makes up for earlier stumbles, and the novel is overall nicely structured. Each character has a well-defined arc, and Neuvel does an excellent job of setting up the story, breaking things, and then pulling it all together for a satisfying ending to this first installment of his series.

Interestingly, the most compelling character turns out to be the unnamed interviewer. He doesn’t get a character arc in the same way that Kara and Vincent do, but the slow revelation of his character is fascinating. I wasn’t, at first, totally sold on him as a character—a shady figure outside the government who has, well, not a heart of gold, but some kind of conscience—but by the end of the book I was totally engaged in his story. And it is the interviewer’s story, at least as much as it’s the story of Kara or Vincent or Rose. Because the interviewer is the only constant character and the collected files that make up the book seem to be the part of the interviewer’s records, it’s the interviewer who is ultimately in control of the narrative that we’re exposed to as we read. This may not matter for a surface reading of the text, in which case it’s totally fair to just accept that the interviewer is what he seems to be, but I feel as if we could endlessly debate the veracity of the collected documents that make up the story, the motives of the interviewer, and the degree to which he is or ought not be considered a reliable narrator.

Sleeping Giants isn’t going to be one of the technically “best” novels of the year, in spite of all its hype. It’s good, and it’s highly enjoyable, but it’s not great literature. Still, it’s a solid debut for Sylvain Neuvel and a nice start to the Themis Files (a trilogy, I guess?). I don’t think this is going to be a book with much reread value, but I’m absolutely looking forward to the next installment of the series.

This review is based upon a copy of the book received through NetGalley.

Mini-Review: Forest of Memory by Mary Robinette Kowal

Mary Robinette Kowal’s Forest of Memory is one of my favorite of Tor.com’s novellas to date. It’s an interesting exploration of memory and the authenticity of experiences in a world in which nearly all human experience is filtered through a technological lens. Smartly, Kowal doesn’t dwell much on the actual future technology she’s imagined, and she also avoids the pitfalls of attempting to examine the broader societal effects of that technology. Instead, she focuses squarely on a single character and her personal experiences in order to tell a singularly excellent story.

The first-person point of view is likewise a good choice, and Katya is an engaging narrator. The peculiar method in which the story is being told—from Katya’s point of view, in hindsight, ostensibly as Katya types the story on a typewriter for a client—is clever but not too precious. The occasional misspellings and typos are just enough to be noticeable to a keen reader, but not so obtrusive that they detract from the reading experience. Instead, they lend character to the story and add a small sense of realism to an otherwise somewhat dreamlike narrative.

I haven’t read much of Kowal’s fiction, just this and her marvelous novelette “The Lady Astronaut of Mars,” and I’m not sure I’ll ever get around to reading her Glamourist Histories fantasy series, but I will definitely be watching for more of her science fiction in the future.

Let’s Read! Up and Coming: Part 12

Reading Up and Coming, even though I feel like it’s been a frantic and sometimes frustrating pace, has been totally worth it. This final group of authors has produced some of my favorite stories in the collection, and made for an altogether pleasant last day of reading.

Nicolas Wilson

Nicolas Wilson starts things off with “Trials,” which I mostly liked very well. It’s a very Star Trek-ish novelette with some fascinating aliens and a mostly compelling plot in which a man travels to a dangerous ice planet and has to negotiate a treaty with the people there. Though it’s somewhat (if not entirely) corrected by the ending of the story, the only serious issue I had with “Trials” was the narrator’s motivation being “earning” a woman’s love so he could steal her away from someone else. It’s not romantic or interesting; it’s infantilizing and unattractively obsessive, and that he transfers his affections so easily to the alien woman he meets only serves to reinforce that the narrator sees women as interchangeable objects rather than as people with agency of their own.

Wilson follows this up with “Multiply,” a cute piece of odd couple romantic comedy about a pair of AIs traveling together. It’s not bad, but it’s a fairly pedestrian premise with an execution that doesn’t really rise above workmanlike. I chuckled a couple of times, but the banter between the characters became grating about halfway through the story.

Alyssa Wong

I read and loved Alyssa Wong’s “Hungry Daughters of Starving Mothers” last year when it first came out, and if anything I loved it more the second time around. It’s definitely a story with several shades of meaning and multiple layers of genius to explore. “The Fisher Queen” is a similarly marvelous story about a young woman who finds out that her mother might be a mermaid of the sort that her people usually eat as fish, and in “Santos de Sampaquitas,” a young woman must deal with a god in order to protect her family. The beauty of Alyssa Wong’s language makes all three of these stories compulsively readable and highly enjoyable without distracting from the richness of her settings and the resonance of the themes she explores. Going into this project, Alyssa Wong was one of the writers I was almost certain I would nominate for the Campbell, on the strength of “Hungry Daughters of Starving Mothers” alone, and her other stories here only made me more sure of that choice.

Eleanor R. Wood

“Fibonacci” has an interesting structure and a lovely cadence to its storytelling, but very little plot and not much in particular to say about its subject matter. Still, I liked it the best of the three stories Eleanor R. Wood offered here. “Pawprints in the Aeolian Dust” has a premise that I enjoyed at first, but it moved along so slowly and methodically that I found myself bored and losing focus about halfway through. “Daddy’s Girl,” about a woman whose father is an android in need of repairs, is fine, but nothing particularly special, and its sweetness turned cloying at the end.

Frank Wu

I wanted to love Frank Wu’s “Season of the Ants in a Timeless Land,” but it’s another story that I, sadly, just found my mind wandering throughout. The romance, such as it was, was unconvincing, and none of the characters were compelling enough to keep my attention very long. I also found the religious allusions and the mysticism of the ending off-putting.

Jeff Xilon

From Jeff Xilon come “H,” a very short stream of consciousness in which a drug is used to make soldiers into a sort of hive mind and “All of Our Days,” about a man who misses out on a chance at immortality when he takes too long enjoying having a body. Neither of these were awful, but neither one stands out as very accomplished either.

J.Y. Yang

I loved “A House of Anxious Spiders” so, so much. J.Y. Yang’s imagery of people fighting with spiders that live in their mouths and then losing their voice until a new one hatches is clever and powerful, but never cutesy, and Yang doesn’t shy away from an insightful examination of the ways in which even people who love each other can hurt each other deeply. Sook Yee’s and Kathy’s cruelties to each other will feel almost too familiar to anyone who has argued about something real with a person who knows you well. In “Temporary Saints,” a woman prepares the bodies of children who were briefly able to perform miracles, and “Song of the Krakenmaid” finds a woman dealing with an interesting cryptid and a cheating girlfriend.

Honestly, I’m not sure how I’ve never come across any of J.Y. Yang’s stories before since they are relevant to basically all of my interests, but you can be sure I’ll be keeping an eye out for them in the future.

Isabel Yap

I didn’t love “Milagroso” in spite of its interesting ideas, and “Good Girls” was at times actually unappealing to me, but I love “The Oiran’s Song” passionately. It’s brutal and sad, but it’s also remarkably beautifully written, and Isabel Yap has a distinctive voice that I look forward to reading more of.

Jo Zebedee

I read just enough of this excerpt from Inish Carraig to send me over to Goodreads to find out more about the book, which confirmed that it is not one for me. However, though it only has a few reviews, they all seem to be very positive so far. If you like post-alien invasion stories, this one might be one to pick up.

Jon F. Zeigler

On the one hand, I love an original fairy tale, and “Galen and the Golden-Coat Hare” is a well-conceived and nicely written one. On the other hand, I dislike the deeply conservative message of this one, which frames poverty as a virtue that should be preserved and justice as the upholding of a fundamentally unjust status quo. Zeigler plays with some interesting fairy tale conventions, and there’s a clever conclusion to the story, but I just can’t bring myself to consider the ending a happy one.

Anna Zumbro

I know it’s only a quirk of alphabetical chance, but I was a little disappointed that the last two stories in Up and Coming weren’t more impactful. “The Pixie Game” and “The Cur of County Road Six” are both extremely short stories about kids being kind of awful to each other, and “The Cur” is a particularly ugly.

Final Verdict:

Alyssa Wong, of course, is definitely on my Campbell ballot, but Isabel Yap and J.Y. Yang are strong contenders for the couple of slots that I still haven’t sorted out yet.

Let’s Read! Up and Coming: Part 11

Second group of authors of the day!

Joseph Tomaras

I actually have no idea where to start with any substantial analysis or review of Joseph Tomaras’s work. All I can say is that, without being an expert on critical theory and being white myself, it seems as if Tomaras chooses to write about a lot of experiences that aren’t his in a way that seems appropriative and voyeuristic. “Bonfires in Anacostia” was fine, if somewhat pessimistic, but “Thirty-Eight Observations on the Nature of the Self” asks the reader to empathize with a pedophile, which I just don’t have it in me to do today. “The Joy of Sects” is Tomaras’s weirdest story in this collection, and follows a trans woman as she infiltrates a sex cult as part of a Marxist conspiracy to suppress religion, another thing that my splitting allergy-induced headache prevented me from entirely wrapping my head around.

Vincent Trigili

Vincent Trigili’s “The Storymaster” is a bland, derivative piece with a long, dialogue infodump for an ending, which is my least favorite type of story. There are a lot of dragon story tropes strung together here, but not in an interesting way, and the infodump at the end neatly dispelled anything like mystery or tension within the story.

P.K. Tyler

Whereas Joseph Tomaras’s work was mildly troubling, P.K. Tyler’s novelette, “Moon Dust” just made me absolutely fucking furious. It’s a truly disgusting piece of internalized misogyny that only made me feel progressively enraged the more I read. Reading about a young woman being kidnapped, raped, impregnated, escaped, punished by her family and society, and then being expected to read her decision to keep and love the baby that is a product of her rape as a positive, edifying thing, made me want to vomit. That P.K. Tyler went to some lengths to frame Nilafay’s rape as consensual sex is just the cherry on top of this sundae of awfulness. I skipped Tyler’s second story altogether.

Tamara Vardomskaya

Both “The Metamorphoses of Narcissus” and “Acrobat Duality” were technically excellent stories that I just didn’t care for. “Acrobatic Duality” was somewhat the better of the two, but most of what turned me off was the author’s seeming disdain for fine art in “The Metamorphoses of Narcissus,” which framed art as frivolous and wasteful in contrast to the main character’s work as a nurse during a war and the fulfillment she finds as a wife.

Leo Vladimirsky

I’m always surprised that late stage capitalism isn’t more fertile ground for SF authors, but I was glad to see Leo Vladimirsky making use of it as a dystopian backdrop for the story in “Collar.” Unfortunately, “Dandelion,” about a couple who don’t share the gene for immortality, doesn’t quite live up to the promise of the previous tale.

Nancy S.M. Waldman

In a group of mediocre writers, Nancy S.M. Waldman stands out as the most consistently excellent, and I loved all three of the stories that she submitted for this anthology. “ReMemories” is a little scattered in terms of what ideas it wants to focus on, but it’s a strong piece with a good amount of emotional impact, some interesting technology ideas, and a hopeful ending. “And Always, Murder” has a fantastic cast of uplifted animals who have integrated themselves into human society with varying levels of success. “Sound of Chartreuse” is a little fussy and high-mindedly intellectual to be purely enjoyable, but it’s a smart bit of family history and the ideas about synesthesia and communication could stand to have even more development. I would definitely read a book about Carinth.

Thomas M. Waldroon

“Sinseerly a Friend & Yr. Obed’t” dealt with some country-ish folks and a lake full of alien sea monsters. It might be fine for the right reader, but I found it dull and uninspired.

Jo Lindsay Walton

I expected “It’s OK to Say if You Went Back in Time and Killed Baby Hitler” to be a funnier story than it was, just based on the title. However, I wasn’t disappointed with it, and Jo Lindsay Walton’s story of competing time travel companies is clever enough to deserve its title after all.

Kim Wells

Kim Wells’s “The Book of Safkhet: Chronicler of the Journey, Mistress of the House of Books” is a very weird mashup of science fiction (space ships), fantasy (dragons), and biblical allusions that just did not work for me at all. Sometimes an unlikely mix of story influences can fuse together into something great; this time, it’s just a big old confused mess.

Alison Wilgus

“King Tide” takes us into a relatively near future in which coastal areas have flooded due to climate change and gives the reader a peek into the life of a young couple living in the aftermath of it all. It’s a quietly reflective tale that, at the same time never gets too bogged down in sentiment. Alison Wilgus follows this up with “Noise Pollution,” which is an excellent piece of world building in which music provides the magic to combat noise. I love this idea and think it’s plenty good enough to carry a much longer work, but as a short story it feels a little overstuffed and underbaked.

Final Verdict:

My favorites of this group are Leo Vladimirsky and Nancy S.M. Waldman, by far, but Alison Wilgus is also an author who I’ll be keeping an eye out for, especially if she ever decides to expand upon the ideas she put forward in “Noise Pollution.”

Let’s Read! Up and Coming: Part 10

This is only the first of two posts for today, now that I’m finally caught up on reading. I had considered doing all twenty of today’s authors in one post, but decided it would just run far too long; I think most of these posts have run in the 1.5-2k word range and I think breaking it up into groups of ten has so far worked really well. This first group of the day has some stellar pieces that stand out against a backdrop of general mediocrity.

Elsa Sjunneson-Henry

“Edge of the Unknown” is a very silly story about how the girls at a finishing school for young witches react to Arthur Conan Doyle killing off Sherlock Holmes in “The Final Problem.” I didn’t hate it, but I’m just not enough of a Sherlock Holmes fan to care that much about a story with this premise.

Daniel Arthur Smith

Daniel Arthur Smith’s first story, “The Diatomic Quantum Flop,” opens with four stoner college dudes, which I found immediately off-putting. I literally can’t think of a cast of characters whose stories could be less interesting to me, but I have a feeling this story is fine for people who can identify with its characters. Smith follows this up with “Tower,” a story that reads a bit like a disaster action film concept. The point of view character in this one is a war veteran who reads like exactly the sort of square-jawed action hero who bores me to tears just thinking about him. Again, the story itself is fine, I guess, but not at all the sort of thing I would ever pick up to read on purpose. I skipped Smith’s novella excerpt, which for some reason starts with chapter four.

Lesley Smith

Lesley Smith’s “The Soulless: A History of Zombieism in Chiitai and Mihari Culture” is an imaginative and moderately interesting meta examination of pop cultural zombie mythology. I like the idea of looking at zombies from the perspective of an entirely different and alien race, and Smith has produced a workmanlike piece that doesn’t overstay its welcome or overwork its concept.

William Squirrell

I didn’t care that much for either “Götterdämmerung” or “Fighting in the Streets of the City of Time,” though neither was particularly bad, just unmemorable. However, I adore “I am Problem Solving Astronaut: How to Write Hard SF,” a very funny—I laughed aloud more than once—piece that takes aim and fires at some of the more common hard SF tropes. It contains the wonderful line: “The future is a perfect meritocracy in which everyone is measured against the same standard: Problem Solving Astronaut.”

Dan Stout

Dan Stout’s “Outpatient” is one of my favorite kind of sci-fi stories, the kind that deal with scientific fuck-ups, and this one is a doozy that is also a nice bit of psychological horror. “The Curious Case of Alpha-7 DE11” deals with an entirely different kind of scientific fuck-up, and it’s told in a very clever fashion, as a voicemail complaint from a mad scientist who is having a problem with a golem that he purchased. What I appreciate most about this story is that it was smart and funny, but not self-consciously so. There’s very little that I dislike more than a clever story that is obsessed with its own cleverness, as it distracts from the actual story and often ruins the joke. Not so here.

Naru Dames Sundar

All of Naru Dames Sundar’s three stories are deeply powerful in their own ways. “A Revolution in Four Courses” deals with the destruction of culture in the wake of imperialism, and it ends on a bittersweet note with an act of resistance that may or may not be futile but still makes for a compelling story. Sundar’s descriptions of food are wonderfully evocative and help to bring his fantasy world to life. In “Infinite Skeins,” a bereft mother searches through numerous parallel universes for her lost daughter, unmindful of what else she might lose in the process. And “Broken-Winged Love” examines some of the often complicated feelings of a mother for a child that isn’t exactly what she expected or hoped for.

Will Swardstrom

“Uncle Allen” isn’t the worst, but it’s too short a story to have the kind of inconsistencies I noticed while reading it, and it ends with a long info-dumping piece of dialogue that reveals information that isn’t particularly hinted at or supported by the story up to that point. Will Swardstrom’s other novelette, “The Control,” is only slightly better. Bek’s long journey through history is told, not shown, and “The Control” focuses on what, to me, is one of the least interesting parts of Bek’s story.

Jeremy Szal

I rather liked Jeremy Szal’s first story, “Daega’s Test,” a very short piece about advanced AIs testing each other, but things were downhill from there. “Last Age of Kings” is a ho-hum piece of sword and sorcery about a guy with a fridged wife, and “Skin Game” has something to say about government surveillance being bad, but it doesn’t do so very memorably.

Lauren C. Teffeau

Lauren C. Teffeau’s “Forge and Fledge” is a nicely written piece about a boy born on a penal colony in space, but I couldn’t for the life of me get into “Jump Cut.” There was some kind of sci-fi motocross and lots of cyberpunk-ish implanted technology, but the story just read like the plot of some kind of straight-to-Netflix space sports flick.

Natalia Theodoridou

Along with Naru Dames Sundar, Natalia Theodoridou is my favorite of this group of writers. “The Eleven Holy Numbers of the Mechanical Soul” is a sort of castaway story that finds a man alone on a barren-seeming planet building robot animals in order to keep himself company after the death of the other people he was traveling with. “On Post-Mortem Birds” is a much shorter and significantly more fanciful story about the birds that have to be freed from the dead, and it’s lovely and charming in every way. “Android Whores Can’t Cry” is a total change of pace again, and deals with some relatively well-trod storytelling ground in a compelling way. Theodoridou’s idea of android nacre is fascinating, and it’s a wonderful symbol that she interweaves deftly throughout the narrative.

Final Verdict:

Obviously the standout writers of this bunch of Natalia Theodoridou and Naru Dames Sundar, and I’m definitely considering a Campbell nomination for Theodoridou, who is in her second and last year of eligibility. Lesley Smith, William Squirrell and Dan Stout also turned in some well-worth-reading pieces.