Friday, November 27, 2015

Johansson, Googolplex (2015)

K.G. Johansson, Googolplex. Affront Publishing, 2015. Pp. 206. ISBN 978-91-87585-35-7. $12.90.

Reviewed by Kate Onyett

A googolplex is a large number. A vast number. It is a one followed by 10,​000,​000,​000,​000,​000,​000,​000,​000,​000,​000,​000,​000,​000,​000,​000,​000,​000,​000,​000,​000,​000,​000,​000,​000,​000,​000,​000,​000,​000,​000,​000,​000,​000 zeros. If you considered it in terms of, say, a number of particles, it would be more particles than is contained in the universe! It’s so insanely huge, that most human brains (e.g. those not involved in eye-watering, teeth-swallowing mathematics), would consider it to be damn close to infinity. And trying to count anything in terms of googolplexes, plural, becomes a close run-in with insanity when trying to conceptualize such vast numbers of things. So instead, as Johansson has done, we are invited to think of googolplex as the description of the number of possibilities. That is, pretty much limitless numbers of alternative universes to our own. ‘Quantum’ seems to be the catchall phrase in science fiction now for anything involving differential potentials. Within the explicatory vindication of ‘quantum’ multitudes of probabilities opening out as new vistas for speculative fiction to explore. But Johansson, while his story remains rooted in the concept of multiverses, refrains from heavy-handed science-fiction quantum explanations. He even hardly uses the word at all. This is a huge story about just one man.

Friday, November 20, 2015

Reed, Where (2015)

Kit Reed, Where: A Novel. Tom Doherty Associates, 2015. Pp. 236. ISBN 978-0-7653-7982-5. $25.99.

Reviewed by Wendy Bousfeld

By eighty-three-year-old Kit Reed, prolific author of fantasy, speculative fiction, and psychological thrillers, Where is a page-turner! It is set on Kraven, an island off the coast of South Carolina. Close-knit and backward-looking, Kraven residents glorify their antebellum Southern heritage, passing down to their children cherished Civil War photos and heirlooms. An enigmatic developer, Rawson Steele, appears, charming some residents and alienating others with promises of “new buildings and renovations” (11). Shortly after Steele’s arrival, Kraven residents wake up to find themselves in “Anywhen”: “a square of gleaming, featureless buildings in a dead desert town where nothing grows” (38). Though the layout of streets and houses is identical to Kraven, the islanders’ habitats have been stripped of color and personal possessions. In the plaza, a giant TV streams newsreels of Kraven, now deserted except for search parties. Without any clue to their whereabouts, most stunned islanders remain in their assigned quarters, unwilling to brave scorching hot days and dangerously cold nights. Every morning, dumbwaiters supply each household with food (never described) and fresh scrubs to wear.

Friday, November 13, 2015

Burdon, Almost Invincible (2014)

Suzanne Burdon, Almost Invincible: a biographical novel of Mary Shelley. Criteria Publishing, 2014. Pp. 339. ISBN 978-0-9923540-0-8. £12.99.

Reviewed by Andy Sawyer

You couldn’t make it up. You really couldn’t. Three young people, filled with new-agey dreams of free love and liberal communitarianism, run away to Switzerland. One of them (who in a couple of years is going to write one of the greatest and certainly most paradigm-shifting novels ever written) is the teenage daughter of the greatest female political writer of her age, forever haunted by guilt stemming from her mother’s death shortly after childbirth. She was brought up by a father whose celebrated philosophical anarchism was a magnet to the young man who has just deserted his wife and child for her: a poet already notorious for atheism and revolutionary views, as well as an almost godlike personal charm. The third (in some ways the most interesting character) is the stepsister of the first: a young woman almost certainly in love with the second but who seemed to have reserved a scarcely sane fangirl obsession for the man whom they are destined to meet: an older and more cynical poet “mad, bad, and dangerous to know.”

Friday, November 06, 2015

James (ed.), Far Orbit Apogee (2015)

Bascomb James (ed.), Far Orbit Apogee. World Weaver Press, 2015. Pp. 306. ISBN 978-0-6925-0976-0. $14.95.

Reviewed by Cait Coker

Far Orbit Apogee is the second in a series of anthologies dedicated to space adventures edited by Bascomb James, with two more books slated as forthcoming in 2016. The aim of the series, James explains in the introduction, is dedication to “Grand Tradition storytelling for a modern audience,” with Grand Tradition defined as “a writing and storytelling style popular in mid-century SF publications composed of plot-driven fun-to-read adventure stories with a positive message and a sense of wonder” (5). Reading this volume with a critical eye, I honestly wasn’t sure if this collection was meant to participate in the ongoing schisms in genre fandom personified by the recent Puppygate crisis, or if it was only trying to appeal to new or nostalgic readers. “Grand Tradition” is a known phrase but one seldom used; outside of the occasional brief review blurb, the only other times I’ve seen it used was in a pair of anthologies edited by Gardner Dozois in the 1990s (The Good Old Stuff, containing classic reprints and published in 1998, and The Good New Stuff, a collection containing contemporary writers published in 1999). Nonetheless, James does provide what he aims to deliver: a diverse series of stories.

Friday, October 30, 2015

Mullaney, Eternal Blue Sky (2015)

Marguerite Mullaney, Eternal Blue Sky. SGW Books, 2015. Pp. 262. ISBN 978-0-69245-217-2. $12.00 pb/$6.99 e.

Reviewed by Djibril al-Ayad

Eternal Blue Sky is an indie-published historical adventure/fantasy novel involving slightly far-fetched technology and time travel to the crucial period of Mongolian history. The land and skies of Mongolia are almost a character in themselves, which is just as well since most of the human characters range between unsympathetic and downright repugnant; it really is a strikingly unromantic view of the exotic past. Despite some writing flaws and slightly grating cultural appropriation, and the fact that many of the basic elements of this book were not really my cup of tea (it is an historical fantasy adventure/thriller with an ostensibly science fictional setting, rather than fiction about the science or even social themes), the premise itself is interesting, and the adventure at times exciting and gripping.

Friday, October 23, 2015

Holland, Dragon Heart (2015)

Cecelia Holland, Dragon Heart. Tor Books, 2015. Pp. 286. ISBN 978-0-7653-3794-8. $25.99.

Reviewed by Cait Coker

For the first time in ages, I’ve recently joined a writing group. Thus far we’ve had several conversations about writing genre, and what that means, both online and face-to-face. One of the things I’ve found puzzling, in both the teaching of writing and of speculative literature, is the difficulties that abound in describing what makes a genre, any genre, a member of a specific category. It sounds simple, doesn’t it? Romance stories obviously have love as a consistent theme, mysteries a puzzle or murder to solve, science fiction has rocket ships (unless, of course, it doesn’t), fantasy has magic, and history has, well, history. But if we look more closely, it’s amazing how quickly these supposed walls disappear, and how excellent writers can take a hoary staple and utterly subvert it. Further, as the popularity of Young Adult literature has shown, genre mash-ups create entirely new sub-genres like dystopian romances or historic fantasy, among many others. And it’s with these thoughts in mind that I started reading Cecelia Holland’s Dragon Heart, a fantasy novel by a writer who has made her mark in historical fiction.

Monday, October 05, 2015

James, Mesmerist’s Daughter (2015)

Heidi James, The Mesmerist’s Daughter. Neon Books, 2015. Pp. 28. ISBN 978-1-3113-6569-9. £4.00.

Reviewed by Djibril al-Ayad

Nicola’s mother is a wolf. Maybe a werewolf, maybe a wolf disguised as a human during the day, maybe a magician or mesmerist of some kind who is able to pull the sheep’s clothing-wool over people’s eyes at will. During the day she is a sarcastic, dissatisfied, compulsive liar, somewhat bullying mother and unfaithful wife; at night she sloughs her human skin and voraciously attacks Nicola in her bed. Afraid that she is not able to control her voice and keep her mother’s secret, Nicola stops speaking altogether after the age of 4, and goes through her whole childhood voluntarily mute, thereby treated like an idiot by the world and especially her lycanthrope mother. The story of this semi-real life is interspersed with scenes from Nicola’s later stays in a psychiatric institution, where she reflects with the benefit of hindsight on her paranormal childhood. This short novella by Heidi James, author of the well-received spousal-angst novel Wounding, reprinted by Neon Books who specialize in poetic and slipstream chapbooks, tells a story full of unsettling developments and leads to the bathetic, inevitable climax. This is not the first story to use monstrous imagery to describe an unhappy childhood, nor does it break new ground in its use of unreliable, potentially psychotic narrator, but it is a refreshingly unapologetic combination of absurdist, surrealist, and nightmarish content in the service of a genuinely emotive story.

Friday, October 02, 2015

Prokopiev, Homunculus (2015)

Aleksandar Prokopiev, Homunculus: Fairy Tales from the Left Pocket. Istros Books, 2015. Pp. 140. ISBN 978-1-9082-3623-4. £9.99 pb/$4.99 e.

Reviewed by Małgorzata Mika

Today, I shall tell you a fairy-tale; not the bedtime story that allows you to safely drift into the realm of dreams; nor will it be shaped in the image of a Disney princess whose amygdaliform eyes filter out all the symbolic content to leave you with a B-Smart version of the original story. The Western consuming approach to literary left the legacy of our ancestors in a rather consumptive condition. It coughs and spits emptiness into the cartoon-shaped chimeras of once lost three-dimensional treasures. A common reader may find it doubtful that a different kingdom expands beyond the barbed wire of our prison camp. In fact, seven seas and seven forests can bring us to the place where the true jewels can be found, if you travel long enough. The collection of stories Homunculus: Fairy Tales from the Left Pocket is one of them.

Monday, September 28, 2015

Poelsma, Fly (2015)

Anneliese Poelsma, Fly and other stories. Self-published, 2015. Pp. 68. ASIN B00S5Z5XUE. $3.99.

Reviewed by Djibril al-Ayad

This short collection of dark stories by Australian artist and writer Poelsma, touches on several themes including domestic horror, delusion and mental illness, queer characters, and the unreliable narrator, or narrative as seen from inside the protagonist’s head, rather than objective reality. While the six stories themselves are rather mixed in quality, there is a coherence of theme, combined with fiction that cosily hugs the border between genre horror and literary. This collection sometimes edges dangerously close to exploitation and stigmatization of mental illness, but is written with a crystal-clear competence and control of prose, and an uncommon sensitivity to character, especially marginalized or self-loathing personalities. Some of these stories made me uncomfortable with the subject matter, but all made me uncomfortable with the wider world, which is an achievement of the writer, especially in a somewhat risky crossover of genres like this one.

Friday, September 25, 2015

Öberg (ed.), Waiting for the Machines to Fall Asleep (2015)

Peter Öberg (ed.), Waiting for the Machines to Fall Asleep. Affront Publishing, 2015. Pp. 324. ISBN 978-91-87585-31-9. $17.50.

Reviewed by Margrét Helgadóttir

This anthology, edited by Peter Öberg and published by Affront Publishing in 2015, is a collection of twenty-six stories within the speculative genres, all written by authors from Sweden. As the title of the collection indicates, you will find plenty of stories in it about robots, cyborgs and machines, but the book actually covers quite a broad range of themes, plots and subgenres, stretching from steampunk, horror, fantasy, weird, post apocalypse to space colonies and space travelling. Many of the tales circle around ethical questions connected to the relationship between humans and machines. Though there is disappointingly little about this book that screams “Swedish”, except for the nationality of the authors and the editor, I would still recommend the book for all lovers of science fiction, because the tales told are a really good read.

Monday, September 21, 2015

Ashley (ed.), Sensorama (2015)

Allen Ashley (ed.), Sensorama. Eibonvale Press, 2015. Pp. 290. ISBN 978-1-9081-2537-8. £9.50.

Reviewed by Wendy Bousfield

Sensorama’s twenty-one original stories, mostly by British contributors, extrapolate changes in the human (or humanoid) sensory apparatus. Though he does not describe the book’s origins, editor Allen Ashley must have given would-be contributors a writing prompt: What if touch, sight, taste, smell, or hearing were augmented, blocked, or altered? Set in the near future, Sensorama stories have no alien extra-terrestrials. With three exceptions, discussed below, characters are human beings like ourselves.

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Rauch, What if I got down on my knees? (2015)

Tony Rauch, What if I got down on my knees? Whistling Shade Press, 2015. Pp. 200. ISBN 978-0-9829335-5-8. $12.00.

Reviewed by Kate Onyett

Rauch is a name not unknown on the speculative fiction circuit, where he publishes in anthologies and magazines. He has, to my knowledge, tackled morality and fairy tale formats with great aplomb, creating an interrogative space of uncompromisingly active engagement between story and reader. His stories will make you think, whether you realise it or not. As the master Terry Pratchett said, “fantasy is an exercise bicycle for the mind. It might not take you anywhere, but it tones up the muscles that can.” Rauch may move into out-and-out surrealism on occasion, but his stories remain true to Pratchett’s idea: they work mental muscles, and blessedly, it is a highly satisfying exercise to be put through.