Thursday, December 29, 2022

Sizemore and Connor, Apex Magazine 2021

Jason Sizemore and Lesley Connor (eds.), Apex Magazine 2021: The Companion Anthology. Apex Book Company, 2022. Pp. 544. ISBN 978-1-955765-06-0. $27.95 pb/$8.99 e.

Reviewed by Christina De La Rocha

Apex Magazine 2021: The Companion Anthology serves up 48 stories originally published in Apex Magazine in issues 121–128, representing the year the publication bounced back from a brief hiatus. Buying a copy, in either paperback or digital form, is a great way to support an award-winning speculative fiction magazine whose issues are otherwise free to read at the magazine’s website. On the upside, the stories are of generally high quality and come from authors from a variety of places around the world. One entire issue included in the anthology was devoted to Indigenous authors telling speculative fiction stories with Indigenous protagonists—a definite breath of fresh air. But, reader, I warn you, at 544 pages (or 626 if you include front and back matter), the anthology is a long slog through darkness. It's definitely not an anthology built for binge-reading.

Perhaps it’s ridiculous to complain about too much darkness from a magazine that bills itself as a dark science fiction and fantasy zine, but here we are. That’s the main thing I have to say. There are some great stories in the anthology, some fine but ultimately forgettable stories, and some stories that, in my dunderheaded literal-mindedness, I failed to see the point of. Among other things, there are tales of violent, supernatural revenge for the wrongs of genocide or slavery, psychedelic stories where the rules of reality cartwheel around, and stories of the apocalypse or shortly thereafter. Humanity pays prices over and over again for its sins. People die. Children get eaten. Protagonists fail. Rarely does anything turn out satisfactorily and what success comes, does so at great price. Maybe your temperament is better suited to unrelenting darkness, but I had to put the anthology down for days at a time, because after reading a couple of stories, I was in no mood to read any more.

Yet, there are beams of light in the story collection. Although it is possibly also absurd to focus on these stories in an anthology of dark science fiction and fantasy, that’s what I’m going to do, because these were the stories that reached me. Very possibly my favorite story of the anthology was “Your Own Undoing” by P.H. Lee. This piece explores, in a delightful way, the power of narrative to brainwash you, leaving you a slave to the whim of a tyrant—um, hello a good part of the world right now—but also to set you free. The story is enough to make you wonder if the lack of rousing narratives is where we’re going wrong in our attempts to protect freedom, human rights, and democracy.

A few stories later in the anthology comes Alix E. Harrow’s “Mr. Death,” a story I thought was going to be too grim to get through, but which turned into a heart-warming tearjerker about cherishing the object of someone else’s love all the more so because you’ve bitterly lost your own and, through that act, transcending. This also feels like a useful lesson for modern times.

“The Amazing Exploding Women of the Early Twentieth Century” by A.C. Wise is the most beautifully written story in the anthology. It is a cautiously hopeful story of women whose literal power and brilliance are overlooked by men who enjoy the act and the spectacle of destroying them, one after another. Ironically, the men can neither see women’s humanity nor that these particular women are not actually human. Ultimately, the story is a tale of the loneliness of being an other and a tale of burning down the social structures that confine you in a way that sets you free. That is the best sort of revenge, one that does more than just answer hate with hate.

In the don’t-underestimate-the-ladies department, the anthology also features Annie Neugebauer’s “If Those Ragged Feet Won’t Run.” This story pits a human mother and her newborn against the dreaded nightbird who is teaching her fledgling to catch its own food. As the author mentions in the note at the end, it isn’t often you read a rollicking adventure featuring a breastfeeding mother in action. Another story for the best sort of revenge department is “Throw Rug” by Aurelius Raines II. You’ll never look at white coaches aiming to disempower, humiliate, and defeat young Black athletes by demanding they shear off their hair before they compete in the same way again. Go, Throw Rug, go!

The Indigenous story that I most loved was Pamela Rentz’s “Security Breach at Sugar Pine Suites,” in which an insubordinate Indigenous maid cleaning rooms in an orbiting casino hides from kidnappers in the luxury suite of the resident rockstar. Although this story had things to say, it was also a fun read. The final story that worked for me was “Without Wishes to Bind You” by E. Catherine Tobler, the story of a man and his leprechaun on a journey through a post-apocalyptic landscape, looking for a lost love. The darkness here was at least tender.

I’m happy to recommend the Apex Magazine 2021 anthology on the strength of these stories alone. I also know that I am a grumpier reader than most, which means you’ll probably find even more stories in here to love and be awed by. All I can say is don’t binge them! Especially not now, during what, at the time of this writing, is the darkest time of the year (at least in the Northern Hemisphere).

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