Tuesday, May 04, 2021

Little Blue Marble (Jan–Apr 2021)

Little Blue Marble, ed. Katrina Archer. Fiction from 2021 (Jan–Apr). Online at littlebluemarble.ca.

Reviewed by Djibril al-Ayad

Little Blue Marble is both a free, online magazine of news, opinion, fiction and poetry related to climate change and other environmental issues, and an annual print anthology of climate fiction. Published and self-funded by Canadian editor Katrina Archer, the web version is glossy and professionally designed, and apart from a small glitch in the responsive template that causes story illustration to suddenly pop up and hide text when scrolling down the page, it is pleasant and easy to navigate. Fiction is published sporadically throughout the year, and it’s not clear to me whether the end-of-year anthology will contain all or just a selection of the fiction, so this review will address just the fiction and poetry published between January and April of 2021. There is a nice mix in here, some (as might be expected in a venue that prioritizes activism, not literature) a little heavy-handed, but most enjoyable and some very high quality indeed.

Some of the stories are very cute and fun to read, hopeful rather than utopian visions of the future, with characters or settings that are compelling and likeable, even if the stories themselves are not necessarily all that challenging or complex. Case in point, R.D Harris’s “The Cats of Kruger” is a charming story of an engineer and three robotic big cats that are used to combat poachers on a South African wildlife park; beyond the light eco-adventure, there is some sensitive thinking about the nature of virtual life and autonomy, and a broadly feel-good conclusion. Similarly, “Sweeten the Deal” by Dan Mickelthwaite has the feel of a flash piece (although technically a shave too long) about a rustic girl try to fit in and contribute in a city apartment block and its obligatory rooftop vegetable garden, with a solarpunk ending that leaves the reader with a warm feeling. One of the cutest and most science-fictional stories in this lot is Cara Mast’s “Boundaries,” starring oceanic protection agents intercepting a scientist illegally descending to the chilly depths without a research permit; the characters of the robotic (or cyborg?) agents and their relationships with each other, with the denizens of the deep, and with the the interloper, are cleverly and inventively portrayed, and even the twist-cum-punchline at the end can barely spoil the effect.

A few of the pieces in this bunch are somewhat more heavy-handed, perhaps a bit one-dimensional in their storytelling, although still earnest and always with interesting ideas. “Kanohsa” by Cathy Smith is a fairly one-dimensional Dystopia → Utopia narrative, with no twists and very little tension, although it does play with the interesting contrast between high-tech but failing ecological dome-cities with Native American craftsmanship. Greg Beatty’s “A New Once upon a Time” is an earnest but pedestrian piece about primary schoolteachers trying to deal both with a changing world (the setting is the near future, with unfamiliar climates and artificially modified trees), and with the resistance to change in adults, policy-makers, parents, and even themselves. Probably the most interesting of this group is “Uphill Both Ways in the Snow” by Sheila Jenné, a slightly overbearing dialogue, involving a group of Earth politicos being told what-for by a Martian colonist who has spent their life making their world livable, which we were as assiduously destroying ours; it may not be great literature of subtlety, but it is both enjoyable and satisfying to read.

And then there are a small number of unusual and inventive pieces, perhaps more slipstream than speculative, that would not be embarrassed alongside the contents of a high-end lit mag. Deidre Suwanee Dees’s poem “Em Ontvlecetv / Invaded” speaks in the voice of the Muscogee/Creek, or perhaps of the Earth itself, both bemoaning colonial pollution and celebrating the ecological sustainability of the native stewards of the land. Like most poems, you will get more from reading it than from any review—and different things than I did, no doubt! Another complex, subtle, almost poetic piece is “Bleaching Event” by S.K. Campbell, told from the point of view of the not-altogether-sympathetic husband of a depressed and evaporating environmental scientist. There are elements of tell-not-show (a.k.a. “As you know, Bob, being a dog…”), but there is also a deeply affecting human drama, surreal blurring of reality and metaphor, and a story that I would rather you read than I try to summarize. This sort of story is what makes reading the online small press an exciting adventure, throwing up unexpected gems and allowing multiple readings.

In conclusion, it was well worth reading the fiction offerings from the first four months of this year’s Little Blue Marble, and I would urge readers to stick around for the next eight and see how the 2021 anthology fills out.

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