Friday, September 13, 2019

AE 2.0 (2019)

AE: The Canadian Science Fiction Review, ed. Helen Michaud et al. Vol 2.0 (Summer 2019). Online at

Reviewed by N.A. Jackson

In her editorial, Helen Michaud details the tortuous process of relaunching the Review, which promises “stories and analysis about worlds that might be.” It appears that, after its inception in 2010, AE has been ‘dark’ for the last three years. Clearly, blood has been sweated to produce this collection of fiction and non-fiction. The writing is of a high quality throughout, the illustrations and graphics are beautiful and there’s a good mix of stories essays and reviews. The focus is squarely on Canadian and North American voices. The authors are distinguished sounding, amongst them a philosophy professor, a journalist and a biochemist, all with impressive publishing credits. The majority of the stories featured on the site are dominated by technology and the stories are very much plot-driven. In terms of plot, there’s nothing outstandingly original. What we get is a fresh take on old ideas: alien invasion and time-travel, so the onus is on the writers to take a distinctive approach.

Two stories that stood out for me were those by B. Morris Allen, whose beautifully written story evokes a powerful sense of place and character; and Wendy Nikel, the only female writer currently featured, who has contributed a sassy and wry take on the time-travel theme. Her story, in particular, has the light-hearted quality that would make a serendipitous visit to an online zine a pleasure.

‘Island of Misfit Toys’ by C.R. Beideman speculates on the unexpected attachment or devotion of an android toy to a young human in the face of a threat to her/their survival. It focuses more on the character of the toy than the human whose shadowy presence is but hinted at. It is a suspenseful tale and very well-written supported by convincing scientific speculation which at times threatens to become incomprehensibly technical.

‘From One, Many; From Many, One’ by Matt Moore is a weird story featuring a race of Frankenstein-like creatures engaging in combat with ‘Victors’, presumably their human creators. It’s not often that monsters get to tell their side of the story and the different perspective brings an engaging quality to this story which might otherwise repel with its deadpan delivery, featureless landscape and video-game-style outbursts of violence.

David Baker’s piece, ‘Northern Cross,’ follows two men as they set sail in search of their families who have been ‘taken up’ by aliens. It’s a bit of a rehash of the old ‘kidnapped by aliens’ theme but the relationship between the men, their emotional bond, is its saving grace. Here, believable dialogue and vivid details of character and setting contribute much to the story’s success. There’s a nice incorporation of a Crosby, Stills and Nash song, which weaves into the narrative convincingly.

The same can be said of Wendy Nikel’s story, ‘I’m Sorry I Couldn’t Make it True,’ about a dysfunctional teenage relationship—the voice of the young female narrator lifts the story from what might otherwise be a rather hackneyed plot: two teenage boys invent a time-machine and persuade a younger sister to try it out. The consequences might be predictable but it’s all in the telling and here, Nikel employs a non-traditional narrative style to superb effect.

‘Memory and Faded Ink’ by B. Morris Allen unfolds in Lesotho where an immigrant’s relationship with a young tribeswoman is disrupted by drugs supplied to her by an alien race visiting to study the local population. The speculative element provides an interesting slant to a story that might play out in any contemporary developing country. The story is told from the point of view of the immigrant, a Serb. It’s the multi-layered depiction of social interaction that gives this story its edge: the local market traders, the worldly traveler and the god-like aliens. Allen is adept at interweaving socioeconomic issues with speculative elements and the story succeeds in packing an unsentimental emotional punch.

Aside from the fiction, AE includes some non-fiction essays. ‘When His Hydraulics Failed and Mighty Casey Did Strike Out: Sports Science Fiction’ is an editorial by JJS Boyce covering the little-known sub-genre of sports science fiction. I’d never have suspected there was such a thing, but here is an excellent summary of both literature and film. The quality of the research and writing is high and Boyce also provides a personal perspective, admitting that he’s only ever sat through two baseball games. Ah, a man after my own heart!

‘What Dungeons and Dragons Can Teach Us About Storytelling’ by Luc Rinaldi, on the other hand, is the kind of piece that annoys the hell out of me with its fatuous assumption that all you need to come up with a great story is a bunch of off-the-peg characters, some of whom are clearly ripped off from Tolkien (shadowy ranger nursing a drink), a setting (any old thing will do, what about a tavern?) and a series of plot choices that can be made by rolling a dice. Thank goodness none of the stories in this issue show any signs of having been co-created by a bunch of D&D proponents. That’s quite enough ranting, however. I’m sure D&D, as a game, is absorbing and fun and in some ways this a fascinating study with its gentle nostalgia for dungeon masters Rinaldi has known. It just seems odd to find it cheek-by-jowl with the literary science fiction featured here and I don’t think it teaches us about storytelling; rather, the game has studied how good stories work and tried to reduce them to a set of formulae—although I'm equally sure not all games of D&D are as clichéd and formulaic as those the author seems to be describing.

Then there’s a fine review by Jonathan Crowe, ‘An Exercise in Telling: Sylvain Neuvel’s Themis Files,’ a superb piece of reviewing by an expert who knows his genre. It’s the kind of writing that makes me feel like a schoolboy still in short trousers—elegantly written, critically referenced and free of rants. I won’t bother to read Neuvel’s work, however. It gets a slating.

So, a fine mix of fiction and non-fiction. I would have liked a few more experimental pieces and greater diversity of style and theme. There’s not much emphasis on beauty or light-heartedness, and also a preponderance of male writers. More work by some of the very fine female writers out there would have been very welcome. But the work is extremely high quality, it’s free and is a paying market. What’s not to like? Also, new stories are being uploaded regularly and featured pieces rotated, so the mix will be constantly changing. That’s the beauty of digital over print.

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