Tuesday, April 06, 2021

Apex #122 (March 2021)

Apex Magazine, ed. Jason Sizemore. Issue #122 (March 2021). $4.99.

Reviewed by Gwen C. Katz

Apex, one of the champion racehorses of the SFF promag world, has been out to pasture for a couple of years, and many of us have been eagerly awaiting its return to see if it’s still a winner or if it’s lost that spark. (Yes, I have discovered metaphors. No, I will not apologize.) Well, I was in the press box, and I’m happy to report: Apex has still got it.

With one notable exception, the collection focuses on intimate, personal stories, often exploring people with marginal places in society, almost all women. The stories are mostly on the long side, speculative elements are given a back seat to the exploration of themes and emotions, which is the correct choice, though no doubt it will draw harrumphs from some of the hard-sci-fi old guard.

We open with “Barefoot and Midnight” by Sheree Renée Thomas, a dark and earthy revenge story set in the Reconstruction era. While the voice is strong, there’s a distance to the prose that I found intriguing, as if the events being described are too horrible to approach too closely—which doesn’t in any way diminish the visceral power of the story.

Next up, “The Amazing Exploding Women of the Early 20th Century” by A.C. Wise is the tale of not-quite-human actresses in the early days of film, navigating a predatory and exploitative studio and their feelings for each other. It’s the longest story in the collection, giving the understated emotions plenty of time to develop to their deeply satisfying crescendo.

Here the collection takes a break from personal stories to explore the polar opposite end of the scale. Barton Aikman’s “Black Box of the Terraworms” is a global-scale narrative of terraforming biomachines. This story went a surprising direction I didn’t expect, ultimately having less to do with space colonization and more to do with civilization’s changing relationship with what came before it and our tendency to evolve towards our own destruction.

Classic fantasy isn’t something I see a huge amount of in SFF magazines today, so I definitely enjoyed “If Those Ragged Feet Won’t Run” by Annie Neugebauer. A mother and her newborn baby must escape from flying monsters that stalk the night—who themselves turn out to be an adult with a young offspring. The tension is taut, and the action feels even more heart-pounding knowing what a small and helpless life is at the center of it.

Sam J. Miller’s “A Love that Burns Hot Enough to Last: Deleted Scenes from a Documentary” again returns to the world of stardom with the story of a now-dead pop star, narrated through vignettes by the people in her orbit. Miller surely couldn’t have known that his story would be released as “Framing Britney Spears,” which only underlines how omnipresent our cycle of deifying and discarding pop stars really is.

Wrapping up the original fiction comes Apex’s first venture into hypertext fiction, “Las Girlfriends Guide to Subversive Eating” by Sabrina Vourvoulias. Presenting the story as a food truck website is brilliant, and the execution and photos are pitch-perfect. The story weaves through timely issues ranging from ICE to gun violence to heroin, all while maintaining a lively and uplifting tone that will leave you with hope in the power of people.

The issue finishes off with two reprints from masters of the genre, “She Searches for the Storm God Within” by Khaalidah Muhammad-Ali and “The Eight-Thousanders” by Jason Sanford. Muhammad-Ali’s piece is wildly imaginative and powerful, resonating with any woman who’s ever been told to make herself smaller, quieter, and less herself. The reliably brilliant Sanford presents one of his shorter and more focused works, capturing the strange blend of peril and tourism that characterizes climbing Mount Everest.

All in all, Apex #122 hit the track running with an excellent set of stories from a wide range of mostly experienced voices. My only preference would be that I’d like to see them showcase more new voices in the future, but perhaps we’ll see more of that now that they’re back and open to subs. In any case, this is one horse worth placing money on.

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