Monday, January 30, 2012

Lewis (ed.), Horror Anthology of Horror Anthologies (2011)

DF Lewis (ed.), Horror Anthology of Horror Anthologies. Megazanthus Press, 2011. Pp. 324. ISBN 978-1447757351. £10.00.

Reviewed by Djibril al-Ayad

This anthology of twenty stories from the venerable Megazanthus Press boasts no forward, no author biographies, no promotional blurb or detailed explanation of the theme; no editorial hand has lovingly ordered the stories into a meaningful sequence so as to maximize the reader’s please, the stories are merely ordered alphabetically by author’s surname. This is all in accordance with editor DF Lewis’s “nemonymous” philosophy, namely letting the stories speak for themselves. The only common thread in this volume, as its title suggests, is that each horror story herein revolves around (or at least contains reference to) a fictional horror anthology. This leads to an eclectic collection of stories, some rather meta-fictional, some only loosely touching on the theme, which at times feels like it testifies more to the editor’s tastes than to a coherent thread, theme or message. That said, as any reader of the erstwhile Nemonymous series will know, the editor has excellent taste, and while the quality of the contents varies almost as widely as the subject matter, there are more excellent stories than there are duds between the covers of this book.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Kepfield, Pygmalion Unbound (2011)

Sam S. Kepfield, Pygmalion Unbound. Musa Publishing, 2011. Pp 96. ISBN 978-1-61937-098-2. $2.99 (e-book).

Reviewed by Kate Onyett

Before any review can continue on this one, the simply delectable title just begs to be unpacked. As a basis for a first impression, for anyone with half an eye to cross-textual referencing (which I would like to think an intelligent reader interested in this genre of story would be), it’s a doozy. To begin: Pygmalion. Both an ancient Greek myth about the creation of the perfect female form (literally, from ivory, which comes alive at the besotted sculptor’s prayer to Venus) and a popular musical about similar, but in true Edwardian style the ‘moulding’ is a social one; turning a working class girl into the facsimile of a high-end lady.

Then there is Prometheus Unbound; a lyrical play by Percy Shelly from 1830. It continues the ancient Greek tale of the sufferings of Prometheus; a Titan bound to a rock and tortured for eternity by Jupiter for the help and favour he showed towards humans, giving them, among other things, the secret of fire. In Shelley’s play, following the traditions of the romantic poets, Prometheus begins to feel pity for his tormentor, Jupiter, thus showing himself to be the better being. He is released from his torment and reunited with his lost love; there is redemption in the air. Added to this, one cannot escape the marital connection to Mary Shelley, the ‘mother’ of the classic monster story. On the side of the monster, Mary’s take was revolutionary for its time; suggesting that the ‘monster’ was the better being; ultimately meeting and forgiving his human maker; a feckless and hysterical character by comparison. She also put forward the idea of nurture over nature: the monster, despite coming from questionable beginnings, learns to be more human than those who would fear and loathe him, based on his physical appearance. Mary voiced the classic tension of ‘us’ and ‘them’ that haunts politics and speculative fiction.

Kepfield’s story ranges across all these themes; it is no coincidence he chose the snappy collision of ideas. The story is about creating a perfect female, lost love, the politics of human failings, and the created heroine rising above the pettishness of her creators. It suggests a better future of the human race; shown by a created super-human; a new fire of hope from this lovely Prometheus. And it places the dialectic of ‘us’ the ‘them’ in a very familial setting. Humans relating to not-human is the stage for a developmental tussle between the creator ‘father’ and the socialising, nurturing influence of the ‘mother’ psychologist. The loss of a love-of-his-life and of domestic bliss and the feminine influence softens the usual ‘bad guy’ role of the creator in this genre of sci-fi. The stern Dr Crane is the sculptor trying to recreate that loss. Having locked his sentiment away in his doomed relationship in the past, he seeks to be in control, to assert his masculine prerogative, at all times as a way of protecting his dreams. Unfortunately, he tries to control the fate of one that is effectively his ‘child’ in order to try to hold close the memory of his lost partner. This, as any family psychologist will tell you, is not a healthy outcome, and Maria’s escape is inevitable in such a stifling relationship.

And nicely sprinkled over all as a sweetener are just enough geek sci-fi references to make this reader smile; notably direct associations to the Terminator, Metropolis, and trashy 1980s sci-fi actioneers. Asimov’s and Clark’s stories have been held up as the forefathers of current rational thought in scientific development; long have sci-fi ‘geeks’ crowed over the fact that creative imaginations, writing stories, came up with the basic inspirations that a lot of modern technology now appears to mimic. One could say that such writers were in fact just good at reading the lines of eventual development, but it is cute to have a sci-fi story purporting to be all about the serious science make a nod to such themes and beginnings, right from chapter one!

Structurally, the tale runs a gamut from a slow introductory schema featuring densely-packed techno-babble details on the processes involved in the heroine’s creation, to a sense of urgency and ‘escape’, to related legalities (the author is a practising lawyer), to an action climax, featuring a savvy, slick fully-operational ass-kicking female Hollywood would be proud of.

Maria, a new being, is created from a metal skeleton, cloned tissue and nano technology; engineered to be faster, stronger, heaps more efficient and smarter than the average human but to pass as fully organic. To call a comparison to another iconic sci-fi figure, in common with the Fifth Element’s heroine, Leeloo, she is a super-soldier, a sponge for new information, a naif and innocent, soaking up moral and ethical behaviours from the humans around her. And like Leeloo she taps into the sad, long history of mankind’s failings, upon which she learns to break her programming, even Asimov’s Laws, to make her own, independent decisions. Given that hints as to the very personal origin of the DNA needed to create her tissues; from, we eventually learn, a person close to Dr Crane, her creator, it does feel as if Kepfield is making a stand about the triumph of the human spirit, in a story about technical supremacy. Endearingly, his ‘monster’, unlike Mary Shelley’s, carries a rather Victorian notion (still used in sci-fi and horror tales) that the spirit of a person now dead can somehow infect and direct the actions of another; the inheritor of their genetic blueprint. Under this all, and raised directly by the psychologist, Dr Kelly (brought in to bring out a coherent personality in Maria), is the question about the binding element of a being; that of the soul, and whether it can exist in a created being, not of woman born. The ghost in the machine. Maria’s determination to go her own way is Kepfield’s answer. The child grows up and takes her life into her own hands, guided by her own sense of self and right to be.

There is a strong undercurrent of religious thinking in the story, where faith is a supportive, ethical guiding source. Kelly takes comfort from her Catholic background, despite her free-thinking outlook, and encourages Maria to base her ethical and moral development on Christian ideals. It is a mark of Kepfield’s writing ability that this does not feel intrusive or strange. Instead, it is a neat flexibility that has the meeting of science and faith naturally melds in the mind of a semi-organic, artificially created form. If there is one weakness, it is that the characters seem remarkably emotionally calm on many levels; direct and to their points, they are not terribly conflicted. One might expect that Maria, an android programmed with technical informational data, learning about spiritual issues, might have issues grasping one and the other together. But in her the bridge between belief and science is somewhat effortlessly crossed. This is due to a revelation; a crisis moment, over her purpose (prototype) and what will happen next (semi-human ‘drones’ set to slave labour and to go to war; her ‘race’ in bondage; the most obvious ‘use’ of the eponymous ‘Other’), and leaps forward in development are often ascribed to crunch times (evolution as a series of leaps; adaptations to environment. Quiet complacency is seen in biological and social tracts as stultifying). However, given the nifty novella format of the story, too much soul-searching would bog down proceedings terribly. The wit of brevity in this instance can forgive this skipping-over of a lot of the ramifications of what is a pretty huge, social question.

Kepfield ascribes this breakthrough of rational-emotional maturity to deep-rooted genetic-level ‘memories’ from the woman Maria’s DNA came from, and as mentioned above, this is possibly one of the most far-fetched aspects of the story. The fact that this, among the rest, seems the most fantastic, speaks volumes about the authenticity of the style of writing. The story is, for the most part, very believable; set in a near-future where technology is different, but recognisable; and where human nature has undergone no profound changes, as a twenty-first century reader might reasonably expect. The ending, however, is a little too Hollywood; a big badda-boom is the ultimate deck-clearing plot-device. By this time Maria is on the run from her creators; defying their plans for her, she goes into deep cover, unfortunately discovered, and needs must make a final stand (in a mortal sense) to cover up her disappearance for good. Tapping into a well-known filmic gestalt so far as such heroines are concerned; the lean, smart, lovely warrior-woman is a far cry from the theoretical child at the start of the novella. Kepfield keeps it all moving along at a cracking rate.

The epilogue is the fulfilling of hope. Dr Franklin, a co-creator on the project, cherishes a higher purpose; a dream of making a better being to draw humans out of the new dark ages he sees approaching in an increasingly violent world (a shoe-in role for Morgan Freeman, if ever there was one, to give a filmic comparison), and indeed, here is the classical Greek, and non-religious Romantic poet’s, allusion to idea of a greater being’s concern and interest in the redemption of softer, more fragile beings; an ethical code learned from a Catholic psychologist. This new version of humanity, this potential ‘monster’ if humanity had its way with her, has a greater capacity to help mankind.

One of the biggest tropes that stories about robots often employ is the idea of segregation, of the difference between human and the non-human. Comparisons with known apartheid regimes based on race/ religion/ sexual preferences make such ‘discussions’ using the human/ non-human dichotomy direct forums for politicised comment by the author, adding gravitas. Adding to Kepfield’s proven credentials as a writer (solid prose, recognisable themes, and believable characters), depth is added by the continuance of the robot-human discussion. Interestingly, in such a technical story, he has chosen the question of soul. Kepfield stands on the side of soul being possible, but only due to a trace memory within genetics: a possession, of sorts, by a human spirit. This starts to create problems for Crane and his military backers as Maria develops her own identity and begins to want to same respect for her habeas corpus. In some respects, although direct allusion is made by Maria accessing information on, and Kelly and Franklin’s ideas on, the Holocaust and slavery, the biggest aspect of ‘us’ and ‘them’ this semi-robot stands for is the question over family; when to let go; can we make the beloved ‘them’ into a part of ‘us’? This is an unusual tack, and is a unique perspective into the question of difference: the inevitable gap between me (us) and you (them), which appears even upon our own hearths, before we progress into the world; hiding our own insecurities in the ‘big questions’ which are only big because it is a lot of people having the same insecurities and blaming it on others.

The basic premise of this story is instantly recognisable: man makes something amazing. The being rebels, and a struggle ensues during which it is proven that man has much to learn from his creation, which turns out to be pretty awesome in more ways than anticipated. Pygmalion Unbound is a solid, entertaining story that stands solidly on this archetype. It does incorporate a few neat, new visions of its own, which are welcome in an otherwise well-trod genre. It was an interesting and entertaining read: intelligent, competent, and fresh, and I would look out the author’s work again.

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Sunday, January 22, 2012

Holt & Leib, Fat Girl in a Strange Land (2012)

Kay T. Holt & Bart R. Leib (ed.), Fat Girl in a Strange Land. Crossed Genres Publications, 2012. Pp. 125. ISBN 978-0615569710. $11.95.

Reviewed by Peter Damien

The premise of this anthology of short stories is very simple and is laid plainly in its title: stories about women who have some weight on them (varying from obese, to merely heavy, or solid) put into stories of speculative fiction where, usually, it’s rail-thin women, or men. I was excited to get my hands on the anthology, first because I had already reviewed a previous anthology from Crossed Genres—titled Subversion—and had found it excellent. But I was also excited because something I take frequent issue with in books, movies, TV shows and comics is the lack of thought put into how people look. Yes, someone in a film might be having a rough life, but they look like Reese Witherspoon, so there’s that going for them.

On the whole, this is a strong anthology, although my one problem with it straight up front is that it’s tiny. It’s 130 pages long. Not only because it’s a terrific topic that I would’ve liked to have seen explored at even greater length, but also because it is quite expensive. That’s nobody’s fault—being a small publisher means money is tight. I merely note it up front. Some of the stories work, and some don’t. When they do, they’re excellent. When they don’t, they really don’t. But we’ll see what I mean as we dive into the stories themselves.

Opening the anthology is ‘La Gorda and the City of Silver’ by Sabrina Vourvoulias, a brief story about a heavyset, strong woman who enters into the world of Luchadores—Mexican Wrestlers—and also the world of costumed heroes, in a way. Both of these are fundamentally men’s fields (“but there are female superheroes” you might argue, and I could argue quite easily that no, there actually aren’t). The story is brief in length and spare in how it’s told, but works beautifully by including only necessary details, full of excellent and telling brush strokes.

Although La Gorda, and all women, are excluded from the world of Luchadores and their wrestling, none of the male characters in the story are actively repressive or particularly sexist. There is no hostility, it just hasn’t occurred to them, really, to make any changes to the way things have always been done. I like this in a story, when you can feel the author’s sympathy and interest in all of the characters. It reminded me of Love & Rockets, a very long-running comic series of which I’m a tremendous fan. They share many elements, from strong women, to the Latin influence, and female wrestlers, to the topic of weight gain and actually treating the weight of the woman as a relevant detail and not just an unsightly handicap. All of this leads to an excellent, well-done short story.

We follow this with ‘The Tradeoff’ by Lauren C Teffeau, which is a very clever science fiction story about the mission which precedes the colonization of new worlds. We follow a group of scientists who go to the mostly uninhabited world and trigger reactions that will make it become habitable over time. Part of the required preparation for this mission, we learn, is to gain a lot of weight. In a world of controlled rations and thin people, this is a crew of people who are very obviously fat. It provides not only warmth, but extra calories.

The main focus of the story is the mission itself, and also the lives and relationships traded for the job... but the matter of weight hangs over the whole story and is somewhere inside nearly every scene and conversation we witness. We get some very smart observations, never harped upon, but brought clearly to light. For one, the way someone carrying a lot of weight can feel trapped in their own body, constantly self-conscious. And secondly, we look at how very differently society treats men and women with some weight on them. The weight will be ignored on a man, but fixated on if it’s on a woman, and this will in turn lead to all sorts of unfounded judgments about her. This is as true in a science fictional future-based story as it is in the modern world we live in, and it’s unpleasant in both.

The only problem I had with the story was that in the moments when events took a turn for the worst, the writing maintained its tone and pacing without a single waver, did not quicken or convey the urgency of the moment to me at all. But this is a brief problem, and leaving it aside, we still have an excellent piece of straight SF.

Unfortunately, moving onward, this small anthology begins to stumble with ‘Cartography, and the Death of Shoes’ by AJ Fitzwater, a story with too many problems to ever take off. First, it’s hampered very badly, I feel, by the second-person point of view. It’s distracting and contributes nothing to the actual narrative itself, but serves as a distancing device for no reason. The story never engages with its own main character, or the world around her. The plot simply occurs, then stops, leaving no particular emotion or idea in its place. Somewhere underneath the problems are the pieces of a clever story, but they never click.

Clever ideas that never click is the problem of our next story too, a piece called ‘Survivor’ by Josh Roseman. It’s a good premise, which suggests that running to avoid the approaching dawn of a burning hot alien sun might not be so easy if you don’t actually look like Vin Diesel. A starship has crashed on the world, and the only survivor is a teenage girl who is overweight, and who has no choice but to try and run the long distance from the crash site to a bunker where she’d be safe from the approaching sun.

I mentioned Vin Diesel, because this was more or less the premise of a scene out of The Chronicles of Riddick, a movie which I dearly love, no matter how dumb people might think it is. I liked the idea of a story which might have looked at that scene and questioned how it would work if everyone wasn’t Vin Diesel-fit. Unfortunately the story never engages with this central idea, or indeed with its central character. She never gives any indication that she’s out of shape—she doesn’t seem to move slowly, doesn’t seem to run out of breath, or actually have any problems—and she never seems to be frightened, or hesitant in the slightest. This means we just can’t connect emotionally with her at all, and thus, it winds up being an action story about Vin Diesel, in the end.

The stumble continues with my least favorite story in the collection, ‘The Right Stuffed’ by Brian Jungwiwattanaporn, a story which I spent a great deal of time puzzling over after I had finished reading it. I can’t quite decide if it’s actually offensive, or was trying to make a point and failed, or if I somehow failed to make sense of it.

The plot as I see it is this: Two overweight women are recruited by the military to be intel-gathering agents in a Matrix-style virtual reality. The best way, we are told, to get information out of the virtual reality intact is to eat it. Regular soldiers, with their fitness and nutrition are just no good at it, so they bring in two fat women ‘cause they’re good at eating a lot.

Not only did I find it an offensive idea, it also doesn’t make a lot of sense. The story is full of holes. While reading, I was given a very blurry view of the real world, the virtual reality, how people fit into any of it, and why this information needed retrieving. I’m entirely unclear on the impetus behind any of the events in the story. But the biggest problem is that recruiting two non-soldier fat girls made no sense. I’m a skinny guy with a very high metabolism. Much to the consternation of my wife and our food budget, I eat more or less constantly. Surely, within the ranks of these soldiers, there must be a few already-trained men or women who can eat a ton? Is there a legal system in the world of this story? Because I can only imagine the lawsuits and repercussions of the military trying to recruit people based on their weight. Whose information is it? Why is it food? None of it adds up, and that left me, briefly, dreading continuing my anthology-reading.

But happy, that dread was dispelled instantly by the next piece, called ‘Tangwystl the Unwanted’ by Katherine Elmer. Tangwystl lives in a tower, kept there by a witch, and the story is about what happens when circumstances force her to leave and go out into the world for the first time, searching for a family she hasn’t seen since she was a baby.

I loved everything about the story. It begins as a riff on the story of Rapunzel (or, as I will forever happily think of it, Tangled) but quickly moves into its own unique territory, as she heads into a world full of wonderfully inventive, genuinely clever creatures and ideas. I am not much for high fantasy stories or fairy tales, full of creatures and made up lands (it’s just not my cup of tea), but was quickly enamored with this world, here presented in a clear-eyed writing style which I would expect from someone who had sold a lot more than one story. It’s a beautiful piece. I wish it were longer, but that being said, it doesn’t actually need to be. There’s not an ounce of flab in the story, and it ends precisely where it needs to. I just wanted more.

From there, we roll into another stronger story, the anthology having regained its stride for the moment. In ‘Flesh of my Flesh,’ Bonnie Ferrante introduces us to Alina, one of the few humans who can psychologically manage to live on the world of Seth with the alien inhabitants, and we see what happens to her life when her fiancé—an appalling, controlling man—comes to town.

The story is well-written, and the twist at the end is well-executed. It’s an interesting look at the great trouble we’d have coming to terms with alien races, especially if some of their social practices are considered tremendously wrong by humanity. It has the feel of an old-school science fiction story by someone like Damon Knight (who wrote a similar piece, the title of which has escaped me). The problem I have with the story is, as with many stories in this anthology, they are barely connected to the anthology’s central theme. Here, it seems mostly irrelevant that Alina has gained some weight during her time on Seth. There were a number of stories in this anthology, and this is one of them, where one could remove the matter of weight entirely from the story and it wouldn’t suffer any collapse at all.

‘How Do you Want To Die?’ by Rick Silva is a very small story about a gladiator woman who has escaped and is dying in the desert. Very little happens in the story, save for glances back at her life. Again, as with the previous story the reference to her weight is maybe one line long, and then plays no further part in the story. But then, there is virtually no story for it to play a part in.

Of the stories mentioned on the back cover of the anthology, ‘Nemesis’ by Nicole Prestin was the story I was most looking forward to reading. I have a deep love of superheroes, tightly woven with an intense dissatisfaction at how shallow and cookie-cutter the characters and stories frequently are. The premise of this short story, though, is very much like superhero plots I am endlessly dreaming up. A woman from Omaha—45 years old, size fourteen—joins a superhero team in a big city, and the first problem she has is that she isn’t 19 years old and size zero (with a DD-cup chest size, of course). Also, she doesn’t want to wear a spandex costume (and is therefore sane. I mean, who would?)

The story proceeds from this initial conflict and does not disappoint. It is exciting and well-written, and best of all, she remains not only a compelling superhero, but also a consistent one. We are given what is nearly a right-of-passage crime for her to deal with (a bank robbery turned into a hostage situation), and when the action kicks off, she doesn’t suddenly begin moving and fighting like a 19-year-old action star.

So it’s an excellent story. I not only left it wanting more, but wanting more in an ongoing comic form. When I finished reading the piece, I spent the rest of my afternoon not only writing this short story as a comic script in my head, but also making up other stories and plot-lines and ideas for what would come next. In the comic medium, in the super-hero genre, this premise would have some razor-sharp things to say, and would also be funny and a blast to read. I really hope this isn’t the last I get to read of Flux.

Onward we go, to ‘Davy,’ by Anna Dickinson, which is a simple story that conveys a great deal in a few pages. It’s the story of Laura, who has just had a baby and is now dealing with all the excess weight that didn’t just disappear when her son was born, not to mention a deep depression which keeps her mostly in bed, and also the frustration, despair, and occasional fury that comes along with trying to deal with a newborn. And also, the strange gray things which are coming out of the painting on the wall, fixated on her son Davy.

This is an extremely well-written piece which—like ‘Nemesis’—makes a topic out of Laura’s weight and uses it thoughtfully and properly throughout the story. This is also a story I found genuinely frightening and harrowing to read, something I just hadn’t expected anywhere in this anthology. I have two young sons myself and am their stay-at-home parent, have been since infancy, and thus identified very much with the exhaustion, despair (which is accompanied by the certainty that one is an unfit parent, both in life and in the story). Like all parents, the thought of something coming and taking my children is the stuff of my nightmares these days. So I was immersed and spooked by the piece. Dickinson deals with a lot of plot and a lot of characters and ideas in a very small space, and ends the story perfectly. It’s a story I can see myself re-reading more than once, which is always a high compliment for a piece of writing.

Another stumble in the anthology is ‘Sharks and Seals,’ by Jennifer Brozek. This is a very small story, in which the leader of one magical order is brought to talk to the leader of another magical order, and that’s pretty much it. It’s a problematic story, which never adds up to anything. Major events are hinted at—a failed ceremony in the past, the calling in of a debt sometime in the future—but neither event appears in the story or is elaborated on.

Nominally, this is a story about self-confidence, but this doesn’t work either. Corelli is worried they won’t take her seriously as the new leader of her magic order—because she’s not only new, but a woman and overweight—but this is an unfounded concern, because except for one henchman in the story, everyone takes her completely seriously. And there’s no element of actually standing on her own, either, because at each instance where she might need to, she uses magic to quickly deal with the problem. (And the use of magic is also irrelevant: one instance of magic makes her seem cold and cruel, another instance of magic is meant to help her speak correctly in a tricky conversation, followed by a very brief and completely clear conversation which requires no magic at all.)

I’m pleased to report that this was a one-story-long stumble this time, because next up we get ‘Marilee and the S.O.B.’ by Barbara Krasnoff, which is an unbelievably catchy title to say out loud. The story begins very simply: Marliee—who is a bit overweight and unnoticed—has made a hobby out of following strangers to their destinations without them seeing her, for no other reason than to find out where they’re going (and really, to give herself some special knowledge and a special ability over which to have power). One day, she follows a beautiful young man off the bus, only to discover that he is well aware of her, and also not at all what he seems.

The story and its characters are easily likable and engaging. This might sound like an odd comparison, but Marliee reminded me of the character Annie Wilkes from Stephen King’s novel Misery, but without the insanity or the terror. She is big, solid, practical, under-estimated, and seems a bit simple as a result (a mistaken judgment to make, we learn). I’ve said this before in the course of this review, but the one failing of the story is that it stops. I don’t just mean that as a compliment, either. I mean that there are interesting characters and ideas on display here, and it feels like the first chapter of an excellent novel, the surface of which this story barely scratches. Something along the lines of War for the Oaks by Emma Bull. I finished the story not only wanting to read more, but plotting how I’d write it as a novel as well.

Following the light-hearted previous story, we now come to ‘Blueprints’ by Anna Caro, which is an extremely powerful piece. Earth is an old, used up husk of a planet, and Terra Nova is a brave new world where dreams come true and the streets are surely paved with gold. Unless, of course, you’re poor, or sick, or overweight (how overweight? who cares?) and then you can stay behind on Earth, with the rest of those who are unfit.

This is a very powerful story which is nominally science fiction, but talks about nothing which hasn’t happened somewhere, sometime in our own history (and is happening even now). The story deals with a range of topics, from the feeling of being left behind, to the difficulty (and brutality) of the legal and illegal immigration experiences, to the inevitable discovery that the new world you’re escaping to is no paradise and might be much worse than what you left behind. The story is not only well-told, but handles these fairly heavy topics with an easy touch, never becoming tiresome or preachy. A very strong piece, which runs as long as it needs to, no more or less.

Finally, we have ‘Lift’ by Pete “Patch” Alberti, a short piece about a girl who is a bit heavy, and not rich, and who is not popular because of these things. So she works and patiently builds a spaceship of her very own, no matter how much the world seems to want her not to. There isn’t much more to the story than that, and that’s just fine. This is a wonderful story for the anthology to end on. It’s a fun, sweet, wholly optimistic story, which finishes off the book on a light note. Beyond being upbeat, though, it’s also well-told and engaging and if I don’t wind up saying any more about it, it’s only because I had no complaints.

So there we have it, a look at all of the fourteen stories in the book. My overall reaction was enjoyment. There were a lot of very strong stories in the book. Unfortunately, there were also a number of weaker stories, and in an anthology of only 130 pages and fourteen total stories, five weak ones is quite a lot. There simply isn’t room to spare for them. My overall complaint was, as I mentioned throughout the review, that too many of the stories seemed not to have much to do with the central theme of the book. The whole premise of the book is right there in the excellent title, Fat Girl in a Strange Land, but it seemed like some of the stories forgot to include both of those elements within the piece. If I can remove the weight issue from the story without causing any damage at all, then I don’t feel it’s had any relevance in the story.

Still, this is the second anthology I’ve read and reviewed from Crossed Genres Publications, and I’m happy to say that my esteem for them remains unchanged. They are publishing excellent collections of mostly strong stories, based around creative topics which I learn about and immediately want to read stories about. Two books later, I’m still of the opinion that I’d pick up any Crossed Genres anthology if I came across it.

Whether you wind up liking or disliking it in the same ways I did, I think Fat Girl in a Strange Land is well worth your time and money, if only so you can make up your own mind.

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Saturday, January 21, 2012

O’Rourke, Pieces & Stems (2011)

Stephen O’Rourke, Pieces & Stems: Stories by Stephen O’Rourke. Stephen O’Rourke, 2011. Pp. 303. ISBN 978-0-615-54300-0. $11.95 print / $7.20 Kindle.

Reviewed by Brian Eisley

Over the last forty years, the postmodern trend in literature has upended long-standing notions about the basic assumptions of the writing process itself, such as the boundaries between author and reader, between reality and fantasy. In Pieces & Stems, Stephen O’Rourke explores these strange new worlds in a variety of ways, creating fascinating self-referential scenarios despite some severe technical deficiencies in his writing.

A surrealist author based in New York, O'Rourke has previously written four unpublished novels and a poetry collection. Now, in his first collection of short stories, O'Rourke makes extensive use of magical-realist situations and imagery to examine these conceptual issues to a far greater extent than many writers. Repeatedly, O'Rourke's characters find their worlds folding in on themselves, often swallowing their own tails like the famous Ourobouros.

An example is ‘The Cadaver and the Scholar’, in which an arrogant young student is writing a story by this title, in which a student much like himself is writing a similar story; the inner story is meant to illustrate some aspects of nihilistic philosophy. As the reader is led to expect, the outer story unfolds in much the same way as the inner story, but the ending provides a final twist that subverts the student’s argument. The student characters in both the inner and outer stories appear to be loosely based on O’Rourke, and so he appears to be using the act of writing as a device to examine these philosophical ideas just as his characters are.

In another piece, ‘Wrong Number’, the necessary distortion of reality involves time, rather than stories within stories. Here, the protagonist encounters a mysterious woman at the same time as he is bothered by a series of wrong-number phone calls; through a complex chain of events, he discovers that the caller is none other than himself, and that the woman plays a central role in the mystery. O’Rourke effectively conveys the character’s frustration as events become more complex and inexplicable.

In addition to these self-referential tales, there are several stories that provide a range of nicely surreal imagery. ‘Secret Sentient’ posits a tradition in which the bodies of the dead are preserved and displayed in their descendants’ homes, silently observing the flow of life around them; O’Rourke illustrates here the secret lives of the objects we carry with us. ‘A Bad Day for Bob’, one of the most successful stories, features a man convinced that his wife and neighbors are intelligent mannequins; this short, surprising story effectively describes a most unusual world. And the final tale, ‘The End Never Means THE END’, revisits all the characters of the other stories, along with a thinly disguised O’Rourke, and brings them together in a bizarre apotheosis that recalls Pirandello’s ‘Six Characters in Search of an Author’.

The ideas on display are engaging and intriguing, and O’Rourke shows much potential as a storyteller. Unfortunately, however, it must be said that his writing suffers from a number of flaws. For instance, O’Rourke often breaks the widely known rule of ‘show, don’t tell’; instead of presenting dialogue, he might describe what was said during a conversation, or he might end a story by telling what happened to the protagonist, taking the reader out of the story. Additionally, his tone is generally quite flat and descriptive, and this dispels any sense of empathy for his characters; they often feel more like experimental subjects. Given his postmodern approach, it is possible that this alienation is intentional, but this doesn't make the stories any easier to read.

Also, O’Rourke sometimes has little sense of when to end a paragraph and begin a new one. Many of his paragraphs stretch for a page or more and may combine plot, exposition, and descriptions of character interaction substituting for dialogue. Finally, the volume as a whole is badly in need of editing to weed out spelling and grammatical errors.

Whether these problems completely spoil the book will depend on the reader. There are fascinating ideas here about the interconnectedness of fantasy and reality, and about the ways in which art reflects the obsessions and prejudices of author and audience. O’Rourke also shows that he can create complex yet economical plots that delve into these connections. Given his distracting technical issues, some readers will likely feel that Stephen O’Rourke is not quite ready for prime time; but those willing to look beyond these flaws will discover an interesting mind just beginning to develop its powers.

[Editor's note: author's biography corrected in paragraph 2 above. We apologise for the error.]

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Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Maughan, Paintwork (2011)

Tim Maughan, Paintwork. Amazon/Smashwords, 2011. Pp. 103. ISBN 978-1463570460 / ASIN B0058IY35M. £3.87 print / £2.99 e-book.

Reviewed by Djibril al-Ayad

Paintwork is a self-published chapbook containing three fairly substantial cyberpunk-themed, near-future short stories by Bristol-based Tim Maughan. The production values are very high: the cover design, showing a grey tower-block on a digital background with splashes of paint, is professional looking; the content is very well proofread and copy-edited; the promotional campaign (as much as I’ve seen online and in social networking sites, at least) has been restrained and elegant. The only thing I missed in this volume was an acknowledgment that at least one of the stories herein was previously published elsewhere (‘Havana Augmented’, in M-Brane SF two years ago). The content is as glossy and professional as the packaging: well-written stories with beautifully handled computer game and VR settings and gritty urban themes. There is little to criticise in this little collection.

The first story, the titular ‘Paintwork’ is a tale of urban culture and street art in a very near future Bristol, a city whose geography and physicality are starkly embodied in the words on the page. 3Cube is a digital graffiti artist, a counter-cultural ninja who defaces QR codes on advertising hoardings so that viewers who activate them with their augmented reality ‘spex’ are treated to a sumptuous, animated, decaying cityscape instead of the Coca Cola cowgirl intended by the corporate owners of the billboards. But throughout his midnight raids on the animated street displays, his journeys through virtual nightclubs and all-too-real homeless dens, 3Cube is being stalked by another artist, an old-school peddler of 2-D monochrome images, defacing our hero’s graffiti as quickly as he can deface the commercials. There is a real tension to this piece, not so much because 3Cube is at risk of arrest because of the illegal nature of his work, but because of the atmosphere and the mystery, the implied danger on these streets with no honour among artists. The story ends with an anticlimax, a whimper rather than a bang, but it is somehow the most satisfying ending that one could have imagined, and in the spirit of the artistry and aesthetic of the story.

Following this is the slightly less atmospheric ‘Paparazzi’, another story which starts in the sharply visualized Bristol streets, in which John, a digital documentary film-maker, is on a rare trip outside of his cyberspace to meet a contact with an offer of much-needed paid work. Most of this story is set inside the game world, however, as John sets out to secretly record and publicly embarrass one of the most prestigious gamers in the world—a mission which, in this future of multinational (and multi-platform) gaming guilds carries real dangers. The reader is never as engaged with John as we were with 3Cube, however, and the relentless climax therefore lacks some of the impact of the first story, just as the game world—however gloriously detailed—lacks the physicality of the nocturnal city streets.

The final story, the longest and certainly the best, is ‘Havana Augmented’ (nominated—but not shortlisted—for a BSFA award in 2010). This piece combined the best of the hard, physical geography of the first with the intense and immersive virtual imagery of the second, as the flawlessly described streets of Havana, Cuba are populated with augmented reality mechs: larger-than-life humanoid fighting robots from the Rolling Steel AR computer game. This is a story in which the real-world repercussions of a computer game really matter, not just commercially but politically (although it’s the geeks playing the games we empathize with more than the politicians or activists), where street kids can take on (and maybe even beat) world-famous guild gamers, and where hacking is an art rather than a scam or a pastime. As well as watching the low-tech Cubans hold their own against the world, in this story we see them struggle with how to recover from the totalitarian socialism of the past without falling for glib commercialism of much of the rest of the world. A truly inspiring story.

The themes that recur in this volume include the importance of the street: not only as a space in which to travel from one venue to another, but as a place where people live (in some cases literally under road junctions). As a place where identity is situated and explored, where culture evolves organically, often orthogonally to mainstream and commercial trends; where language is coined and invented; where lives are broken and grow. These are very sensitive stories, bubbling with language and emotion and artistry, warped by the digital and the human. The one disappointment is the lack of interesting women characters in these stories: at least as many gamer geeks I know are female, but in this book the only named women are a nagging housemate, a honeytrap, and an ‘ice queen’ who throws a tantrum when she loses a game. Other than this the characterizations are strong, inclusive and believable.

As a collection, this 100-page book displays not only its author’s mastery of writing science fiction, his love of urban culture, electronic music and gaming, but also his keen intellect and ability to build a story that is both entertaining and edifying at a single stroke. Very impressive stuff, and we should all look out for more cyberpunk fiction by Tim Maughan.

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Thursday, January 05, 2012

Jahns, Kodachrome (2011)

Jason Jahns, Kodachrome. North Star Books, 2011. Pp. 352. ISBN 978-0984749102. $12.99.

Reviewed by Jessica Nelson

A global revolution against capitalism... definitely good subject matter for the times. Kodachrome is a story of just such a revolution, its key players, and how all of their lives intertwine, even though most of them never meet. It is a story of human relations and love found in unexpected places.

Kodachrome opens with one of the main characters, a Chinese man named Zhuli Cai, playing a video game called This Life, which bears passing resemblance to the real online game Second Life. In This Life, players start out playing as who they really are in real life; their identities, avatars, and positions are equitable with their real lives. From there, they are introduced to other people and fall into storylines in which they may become whatever they want to be. It is a place where players are encouraged to follow their dreams, unhindered by the ties that tend to bind so many of us in our real daily lives.

More than that, though, This Life is a social experiment that aims to change the world. The game designers, Jeff and Taruko Ross, are paying attention, looking for players they believe would be suitable to help a global revolution in real life using skills learned in This Life. Zhuli Cai and his team are just such players.

On the other side of the world, biologist Miranda Carter gets an odd assignment from her mentor and dissertation advisor. She is charged with going to Utah to meet a grandmother she didn’t know she had and study a problem she is said to have with her eyes. Upon meeting her grandmother, Miranda discovers that there is nothing wrong with Bea’s eyes; indeed, she sees far more than most people do. It is this strange talent that interests not only her mentor, but powerful political figures, business executives, and people throughout the Mormon church.

Kodachrome skips from character to character with each chapter, told mostly in the third person perspective. In Miranda’s chapters, however, the story is told in a first person perspective, as we are basically reading her lab notes (which rarely read like lab notes). This jump between perspectives throughout the book lends it a loose, unorganized feeling, without seeming to have much purpose to it.

The novel centers heavily on topics important to anyone following or involved in Occupy Wall Street. In fact, I wondered more than once if this book was started before or after the protests began organizing. While the goals of the This Life revolution and the Occupy movement may be the same, though, they take somewhat different paths. The possibility of protests and war are mentioned numerous times, but the main actions in the This Life revolution are all played out in the video game, creating partnerships between everyday people (Skillz) and business owners (Stakez), while stock market movers and shakers (Specz) are off in their own little world, taking no notice of anyone but those more influential than themselves.

Game designers Jeff and Taruko share their visions of the future with players, who learn the value of these ideas by trying them out in the This Life game. Once seeing it work in the game changes popular opinion about the importance of each person’s role in a capitalist society, it is only details that need be taken care of in many parts of the world before the lessons learned in the game are implemented in real life.

Don’t let all of this talk of video games fool you, though. This not a cyberpunk novel. I am not even sure if it’s trying to be. In fact, while the basic plot does revolve around the video game revolution, we learn more about the history and inner workings of the Mormon church than anything. From the earliest founders on, the history of the church and scandals therein are detailed heavily, ostensibly because Bea and Miranda Carter are said to be descendants of Hyrum Smith, prophet and brother of Joseph Smith, by way of one such scandal. Having a natural fascination with religions, I did find this interesting, but it is not what one usually expects to find in this type of novel. Not only that, but I often wondered how relevant any of this half of the story line really was.

Relevance turns out to be a bit of a stickler in Kodachrome. The author takes an exceedingly long time forming points and building characters. Once built, however, the author tends to beat the proverbial dead horse by adding annoyingly large amounts of irrelevant details. One case in point is the juvenile behavior of game designer Jeff Ross. He can be serious when he chooses to be, but the author takes such great pains to show us how fun-lovingly immature he can be, that readers must endure reading, in detail, how Mr. Ross not once, not twice, but three times moons the top executives of his company with an anatomically incorrect avatar in a single meeting. I would expect the intended point was made after the first mooning. Similar incidents continued to be scattered throughout the book without apparent reason, detracting from the story rather than adding to it.

The storyline brings us details about some characters that make us wonder about their intentions and the parts they are playing. Whose side are they really on? Who is this mysterious person? By the end of the book, these characters just drop off, their stories completely forgotten, becoming more extraneous information serving only to confuse the storyline in general. The overall effect of this was to make the book feel amateurish and inconsequential, despite the potential of the idea it started off with.

When I read a book for review, I generally like to find out as much about the author as I can. Knowing about the author of a book can bring more to the story, adding insight and giving the reader clues to the author’s intentions and meanings. Any number of social networking sites usually provides readers with an opportunity to learn more about the author, and in the best cases, even interact with them. Not so with Jason Jahns. He can be found neither on Facebook, nor Twitter. Google+ is a slightly different story, but all that is published under the name there is “wisdom” from various characters of Kodachrome. He has circled few people, and even less have circled him.

Goodreads.com gives us a bit of an idea why this might be. It claims, unequivocally, “Jason Jahns, is a fraud...” It goes on to assure us, however, that although the author uses a pseudonym, his “expertise” is “very real,” even “considerable.” The Goodreads profile takes great pains to tell us what an experienced, knowledgeable person the author is, without ever letting us verify any of it for ourselves. One thing the Goodreads and Google+ pages have in common, is a Mr. Dan Baird. Mr. Baird introduces himself on Goodreads as the author’s publicist, offering eBook copies of Kodachrome to people who add it to their ‘to-read’ shelves. On Google+, Mr. Baird is a businessman, working for ConAgra Foods. I draw no conclusion from this here, other than to state that I do not believe what I am assured of by the Goodreads author profile for Jason Jahns.

Kodachrome doesn’t feel like a book written by an established writer, even an established writer of nonfiction, as the Goodreads profile claims. Kodachrome feels like a first effort book that never even attempted to get traditional publication. It may have never even attempted more than a first draft, for that matter. I will assume the copy I received was an unedited ARC, so that I can skip over typos and punctuation errors as if they must have been fixed in a later version.

I can only hope, though, that said hypothesized ‘later version’ would take care of the vocabulary issues, as well. We are all aware that underuse of a thesaurus can bite a fledgling author in the rear. In Kodachrome, it is overuse of the thesaurus that poses a problem. At times, characters suddenly take on a pompous stance, using words rarely used in anyone’s everyday conversation. Most of these words are archaic or otherwise somewhat obscure. Sometimes they are appropriate (though unnecessary). Other times, while the definition certainly fits, the word is used in a way most people do not recognize it as usable, such as describing a grant as “sumptuous.” The definition certainly fits the point being made... but generally, the word is reserved for conversations about food or other tactile decadence, rather than a large sum of money.

Most of the time, though, the conversation is that normally expected. Then again, the characters will make a point to ‘dumb down’ their choice of words for someone they deem ‘less learned’ than themselves, but in a strange twist of irony, the words they choose to replace are usually quite common, such as using ‘event’ in place of ‘stimulus.’ At still one more point, Zhuli “glimpsed” something put over his head. If something is put over your head to the effect of limiting your vision, it is itself the only thing you see, and you therefore get more than a glimpse of it. I am certain that all of the big-money words were looked up with the sole purpose of making the characters—and perhaps the author himself—seem more knowledgeable than he really is. They don’t fall into everyday conversation often (if at all), and they don’t work here. I found this idiosyncrasy to bring a certain feeling of insincerity to the book that could not be overlooked.

At the outset, I was excited to read Kodachrome, but it disappointed me almost every step of the way. Its sociopolitical points are completely lost in the insincerity of the characters, the awkward flipping between perspectives, the sheer bulk of main characters, and the completely extraneous rubbish that should have been cut after the very first draft. This story could have been a fantastic springboard of ideas for the Occupy movement and its sympathizers, but it simply doesn’t live up to that potential. Should Hollywood get wind of it, though, I would love to see what a good screenplay writer could do with the basics of it. That could be a beautiful thing.

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Sunday, January 01, 2012

McHugh, After the Apocalypse (2011)

Maureen F. McHugh, After the Apocalypse. Small Beer Press, 2011. Pp. 200. ISBN 978-1-931520-29-4. $16.00.

Reviewed by Georgina Bruce

Small Beer Press have made a name for themselves by steadily putting out titles by talented and original authors, on the literary side of genre writing. The latest collection by Hugo and Tiptree winning author Maureen McHugh is no exception. The short stories in After the Apocalypse range from the surreal to the nightmarish, but are united by the theme of what happens afterwards. What happens after the story climaxes—after the economy collapses, the world explodes, the epidemic gets out of control, the zombies walk? What is life about, when the world has ended? Some of the apocalypses here are personal ones, a few are global, one inevitably involves zombies. Their settings range from urban America to plague-devastated China, from the ‘Cleveland Zombie Preserve’ to the post-apocalyptic road. What they have in common is the fact that the crucial moments are already done and over with before the story starts. It is left for the writer, and readers, to pick through the remains. This makes After the Apocalypse an intriguing but bleak read.

If the stories here are anything to go by, author Maureen McHugh thinks we should be very afraid of the future. What awaits us is desolation, meaninglessness, and an abnegation of all progressive values. There is no more hope, no more possibility. Nothing major is going to change; there will be no more fighting for the big prizes, no more beautiful transformations, no more prayers. All that is left, in the wreckage, is the blind need to go on. The characters in these stories are not even desperate, for to be desperate means that you must have a sliver of hope that you can achieve what you are desperate for. Now it is just about survival, at it’s most basic level. These stories are about the life that continues when everything is over.

McHugh is a writer of great sensitivity, who refuses to make easy choices with her characters. Often they are morally ambivalent, unsympathetic, even unlikeable. In the opening story, ‘The Naturalist’, criminals are imprisoned in an abandoned city, where zombies roam the streets, looking for flesh. Cahill breaks away from an alliance in order to strike out on his own, yet despite this independence he is ultimately just as soulless as any zombie, and harder to sympathise with. Despite the familiar territory, there are no heroes in this story, no one whose side you feel comfortable taking. In the main, McHugh’s characters lack self-awareness and insight, perhaps because they are living from hand to mouth, merely surviving. They do not inspire love, awe, or wonder. There is no emotional pull from the characters; rather, you are galvanised by the direness of their circumstances.

Likewise, the structure of McHugh’s writing is not simple—there is no ‘good versus evil’ or redemptive three-act story here. She lays out complex, intimate details on the page, but never attempts to give moral guidance to the reader. Things are what they are, in all their many aspects. The reader is given a lot of imaginative space, a lot of space in which to question and judge, but the stories themselves give few values with which the reader can anchor herself, and as a result there is a sense of formlessness, a looseness of narrative that is almost post-modern.

‘Post-modern’ might be a good word to sum up this collection in general. The humanist, progressive ideologies spawned by the European Enlightenment meet their final demise here. Humanity has no potential, no redeeming features. There is no battle for our souls, no grand narrative, no historical drive towards greatness. In the end, McHugh renders us all separate, unmoored, brutal, and headed for oblivion.

A few of the stories are have a lighter touch. ‘The Kingdom of the Blind’ is exceptional here, in that it takes us to a world where possibility still exists, and choices still matter, although we sense that it is already too late to make a difference. In ‘The Lost Boy,’ a young man suffering from memory loss has found a way to live with the trauma of his experience, although it compromises his very identity. ‘Going to France’ is a surreal tale, in which the characters are overcome with the compulsion to travel abroad, though to what purpose and with what meaning, they do not know. Yet even these stories manage to convey the bleakness of a world where people act without knowledge, and live without meaning.

Society persists in these stories. Even in the most desolate of landscapes there are other people, other travellers on the road. Yet, despite the persistence of society, there is no friendship. Even where interests and feelings are in concert, there is no community. There is no protection, no goodness, no small enclave of hospitality, only unrelenting misery. In the least grim of these stories, ‘Special Economics’, two young women escape wage-slavery and work to free others from the same fate. Working together, they overcome their circumstances and create something better for themselves—the progressive project humans have been undertaking throughout history. Yet even this outcome is undermined in a scenario where freedom is a dubious good, and wage-slavery promises a nice home, plentiful food, and companionship. Freedom is very much a minority pursuit, perhaps even an eccentric one.

But in a world without freedom, love, kindness, creativity, passion, faith, or history, I was left wondering where the urge for survival comes from, and where it might lead us. Is it only self-interest—greed, fear, addiction—that will keep us alive? McHugh seems to think that this is, at our core, all we have.

In the final story of the book, the title story, a mother and daughter walk the road through the post-apocalyptic landscape, seeking refuge and a return. The love between them becomes eroded and finally destroyed by the pressures of the journey, and their story ends the collection on a decidedly pessimistic note. It is a culmination of the themes that run through the book: a sense that humans lack the ability to keep loving one another; that family is weak; that hope is foolish; that we are all separate, alone and struggling. Reading this collection is like experiencing a small apocalypse of your own hopes and dreams. I came away hoping that my essential faith in humanity could still be salvaged from the wreckage.

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