Interview with Karen Osborne (Author of The Memory War Duology)

I had the opportunity to review the first book in Karen Osborne’s excellent space opera duology, Architects of Memory, here back in March. I have my review of the sequel, Engines of Oblivion scheduled to post here next. But in the meantime, you can read Karen’s thoughtful answers to my questions regarding the duology and her writing experience. Whether you’ve finished the books already, started them, or haven’t started them yet, read on. And those are your only acceptable options if you are a space opera fan.

This is actually the debut interview for my site Reading 1000 Lives, though I have done some before as part of Skiffy & Fanty. More should be coming soon, so I hope you do enjoy.

Thank you again Karen! Onto the Q&As:

At least in part, the writing and marketing of Architects of Memory and Engines of Oblivion took place amid a pandemic that upended all sorts of interactions, including retail and publishing. How was that experience for you? Were there any surprising silver linings that came out of the bad situation of the pandemic for your novels? 

This year was an emotional rollercoaster. I felt a little like Schrödinger’s Author sometimes—alive or dead, who knows? My family locked down early and hard, so—no live events, no bookstore trips, no live signings, no childcare, no gatherings, no conventions, none of the stuff I’d been looking forward to since I was 12 and gawking at the sci-fi section in the Mohawk Mall Waldenbooks… well, we all know the drill by now.

I’m a gigantic extrovert, so the isolation has been hard to bear. That’s why I love online events. They are easy to attend, are no longer limited to a purely local audience, and make accessible conversations that would have been limited to expensive conventions in The Before Times. I even put together some events myself just because I felt like doing them—for example, a March series I ran with authors talking about how to write when you’re buried with pandemic sorrow and stress. It was quite cathartic for everyone involved.

My book launches were attended by people from literally everywhere, and I got to reconnect with friends from a theater group I was in back in the aughts, the writing group that kept me sane when I lived in Florida, my team from Tor, even relations from California. I also had a Nebula nomination in 2020, and SFWA ran an online awards show that felt like the real thing. It was all a real blessing in an otherwise dispiriting time. I’m sick of Zoom like the rest of the universe, but I’m also hoping that the online events don’t fade into the ether when everything opens up.

As for the rest of it? All I can do in a once-in-a-hundred-years situation like this is my best, and I just have to keep moving forward, writing new stories, and staying positive. That’s really the only way to g 

Engines of Oblivion necessitated a change in point-of-view protagonist from Ashlan Jackson in Architects of Memory to Natalie Chan. Did the returning focus on Natalie in more detail require any rewrites or expansions of her story? Was there anything you missed being unable to do with Ash in the sequel? 

Engines of Oblivion was always Natalie’s story. Ash’s intent to become a citizen began in a fairly utilitarian way—she wanted to find a cure for her disease and to be with Kate, to earn a centered kind of happiness in a life that hadn’t had a lot of it. But Natalie is a true believer. She’s paid into the massive sunk cost fallacy that is Aurora with her blood and her bone. She’s broken from the war, she’s lost people to the cause, she’s unmoored from her roots. To turn back on her investment at this point, Natalie would have to confront her own complicity in the system and navigate through coming to terms with that. I can’t ignore a story like that. It’s the kind of meaty, significant story I love to grapple with as a writer.

But not everything in the sequel was always set in stone from the beginning. I did pretty extensive rewrites to the second half of Engines—writing a book when you’re taking care of a newborn on two hours of sleep a night will do a number on your logic—and some of my favorite plot developments in the book came in that insomniac revision, because, it turns out, I needed to be a mother to write them properly. Architects of Memory was in final edits at Tor by that point, and my production team generously let me go back and support that revelation by making some changes in the first book. I’m immensely grateful.

The path not taken would have been delightful, too. The Ash-directed sequel idea had her and Kate on Tribulation, navigating their increasing illnesses while holding off rival companies like they were starring in Die Hard. It lost out to the fact that the Vai weren’t involved, and they needed to be involved. I might still write it. I think it’d make a good novella.

Most of the characters from the first novel return in the second, in one form or another. But their relationships have mostly turned opposite: complete trust in the team to thorough mistrust of everyone. Did you approach these two states in a different way or have more of a challenge writing the characters in one? 

I see them as the same state. The illusion here is that while the crew of Twenty-Five appears to be a found family at the beginning of the book, it’s really more of a pseudocommunity—a house built on sand, so to speak. I love found family stories as much as the next fan, but I’m also highly suspicious of them. Stories where found families fail are worth telling, too, for the same reason we write dystopias—to figure out how to keep that sort of thing from happening.

We use the word “community” interchangeably these days, from churches to Discords to lists of people on Twitter who like the same video game, and I’m not sure we should. Everyone on Earth has a story or two where we thought we were pretty tight with a group of people only to have the entire thing fall apart over a secret. And then we feel stupid and silly because, hey! We trusted those people with our very hearts! But when you haven’t done the very real, very tough emotional labor to create foundational bonds that last, that’s always what happens. And it becomes hard to for you to trust again in the same way, and it starts to feed into a cycle where trust becomes impossible.

In a way, the entire duology is about Natalie’s experience with that cycle and how she gets out of it. When you meet her, she’s traumatized, but she’s started to really explore the feeling of trust, with Ash and with Len and Keller, and when her world is upended, the cycle begins—and, of course, in Architects, her inability to trust Ash ends in some truly tragic circumstances.

But in Engines, she has to learn to trust again, to do the real emotional work that brings her through the hard times to develop a true community, a true found family, one that lasts through earthquakes and fires and secrets and aliens. Of course, this being a book I wrote, it doesn’t end up exactly like that…

Speaking of thorough mistrust, characters can’t even trust themselves fully due to memory issues. How did you try to balance (or play) with confusion for the characters, and reader’s memories, between books? 

Our memories are really the substance that drives our behavior as humans, right? More than beliefs, more than dreams, more than cash or status. We seek out situations that we remember as beautiful, and avoid situations that we remember as traumatic, from hot stoves to crucial relationships.

The problem is—with memory loss, you often don’t know what you don’t know. You don’t truly understand what you’ve lost unless there’s somebody there to guide you and help you. You think your mind is set in stone, that you are who you are and that it won’t change, but all you have to do is look at a person who has received a brain injury or developed Alzheimer’s or dementia to know that isn’t exactly true (ask me about the time I was driving around with a bad concussion and hit Annapolis before I realized I was supposed to be driving to Baltimore). The memories that remain write your behavior going forward, and the choices you make might not be the same. This happens a lot in the duology. Keep watching as to when the London weapon is activated in the duology, who is present, and what changes…

The book would have been easier to write if I hadn’t chosen close third person, where the narrator doesn’t know anything more than the character. So what I did was drop hints that the characters can’t pick up on but the reader would—for example, Keller looks at a picture of Sharma’s granddaughter while the doctor is on-planet, and after Sharma turns on the London weapon there, she mentions that she doesn’t have one, and the lack of that family information in turn informs Sharma’s decisions going forward. I wonder—would she have made different choices if she’d remembered? I had a whole spreadsheet for each character logging what they knew, what they didn’t know, and how their behavior would change when they found out. The books are littered with little clues like these for the reader. It was a really intricate juggling act and the result is decidedly not a beach read. I’m very proud.

Like many great space operas, your novels touch on multiple themes, including memory, friendship/trust, corporate politics, alien biology, war, oppression… Where did it begin/evolve for you? Did separate stories become one? 

It’s a big katamari ball. The crew has been around for nearly twenty years. I wrote little short stories about them in college, but never really hit on anything that fit, so into the round file they went. Ash’s disease came from my own experience dealing with blood clots—we both have timebombs in our blood. There’s becoming an adult in the wake of 9/11 in there, of watching everything we grew up believing fall apart in greed and violence. There’s my fascination with how space travel is developing, going private, run by corporations, who don’t have workers’ rights in focus and who are already planning de facto indenture/work-repayment programs (which Elon Musk has alluded to on Twitter). And my obsession with writing really alien aliens is in there, too. That’s from the ‘90s, too—the only aliens you got back then were the ones with the bumpy noses and I always wanted to go just a little bit further than that.

It all just kind of came together when started writing. I wish I could say something more interesting than that! That’s why I keep on reading widely, writing about my own experiences, and trying to have new experiences. Whatever you’re doing or going through, remember it all, write about it all, shove it all into the dusty recesses of your brain and don’t forget, because you honestly never know what you’re going to need. The tiniest things may become the most important.

Central to the novels, for me, is the issue of people from all walks of life (or species) just trying to survive. That simple survival often makes it hard for anyone to really change things. Do you feel that’s accurate, and how far did you want to delve into the possibilities of changing power structures?  

I think we as a society often forget that the working conditions modern folks consider bog-standard and normal today—the 40-hour work week, minimum wage, health benefits—were actually paid for in blood. People died. A lot of people. Every inch of it was a battle. It has never been in the interest of corporations and employers to pay a living wage or co-exist with worker movements.

I think corporations often do this because people who are expending their energies keeping a roof over their head or paying for the doctor or figuring out where the next meal comes from have much less time to take to the streets, form a union, or travel to Washington to lobby for change. But they do. They always do. Look at the fast food fight for $15 right now. They’re not stopping because they’re getting political pushback. The Amazon union movement isn’t stopping. Change always comes when the people push for it, and push the people do. It may take years, it may take decades, but it comes, and imagining change often starts in art, music and writing. It’s important for writers to embrace that, especially in science fiction.

The Memory War books as they exist right now concentrate on how Ash, Kate, and Natalie navigate the world they’re in, rather than a bigger-picture view of how the corporate universe they live in could fall or change. That’s partially because I spent most of my thirties in survival mode; I was still caught up in all of that when I wrote Architects. But by the time you get to the end of the duology, you know the days of the Joseph Solanos of this world are numbered. Their days are always numbered, honestly. And it’s part of our job as science fiction authors to imagine how that fall might go down, and what will take its place.

You’ve spoken elsewhere of a longstanding love of space opera, including classic works that were early influences for you, but now are problematic in some ways. There are so many newer choices now that you’ve also cited as influences. However, are there any older works that you think do still hold up relatively well and should be revisited? 

The first one I can recommend is C.J. Cherryh’s Cyteen. What a book. I think I get a lot of my obsession with identity and memory from that book, from watching the Ari clone figure out how close she is to the Ariane original. Cyteen is dense, and is definitely the origin of my obsession with the scientific/political science fiction novel. It has everything—great characters, lots of intrigue, a writing style that keeps you guessing. Reading it as a teen was a big influence, and it’s one of the books where I learned just as much about craft reading it as an adult, too.

I’d also put Iain Banks’ Culture series in this category, too. These blew my mind as a kid. They came out in the late eighties when I was absolutely obsessed with Star Trek: The Next Generation, and I read them around the time I read Cyteen, and it was like taking Trek’s Federation to a new level and exploding it with a literary bomb. They made me think about my own culture. They made me work to bend my mind around new ideas. I haven’t read them in a while, but I’m right now talking myself into giving them a second look.

And, of course, pretty much anything by Octavia Butler is on this list. A third look, a fourth look, a hundredth look. She was brilliant. She was the best of us. I was older—in senior year of high school!—before I even knew Butler and her work existed, which is a crime of my early education I might still be recovering from. It’s tough to admit, but I look back at those early trips to the library and realize just how white and male the shelves were, and how that affected me as a very young writer and a human being. We have to do better—for ourselves, and for our kids.

What is the most unexpected skill or revelation that you’ve gotten from participation in writing workshops? 

This is something to which I’ve given a lot of thought. When I went to Viable Paradise and Clarion, I’d come off a decade of extremely hard work running my own wedding videography business, averaging eighty hours a week. The business failed, as did the two jobs that came after it, and my health and self-esteem was in the gutter. The absolute gutter. I felt wretched. People would tell me “write what you know,” but I couldn’t write, because every single time I tried, I’d look inward and see an ugly failure. I told myself that I wasn’t interesting, that nobody cared about what came out of my head, that nobody would want to read anything I wrote.

The workshops helped to change that, especially Clarion, where I was given the time and space to grapple with it all, both personally and on the page. All I had to do for six weeks was write. I didn’t even have to cook or make my own coffee. And when people that have wildly different experiences than you—workshopmates and instructors—tell you that your work is valid and beautiful, over and over again, and the reasons why are the things that you thought were broken, you start to maybe change the stories you’re telling about yourself. And when that door opens, the rest of it is just practice.

Time and space to figure out what I did best as a writer—that’s what did it. Twenty years of writing and flailing and trying, and I’d never let myself breathe or think of myself as good enough. The workshops changed that. Now everything goes down the gullet when I’m writing—everything I learned so far as a journalist and filmmaker and human being. Some of it’s a little weird, but I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Do you still have interest in writing any kind of media-tie-in novel? If so, which series/character attracts you most? 

I’d love to write for Star Trek—a Romulan novel, specifically. I love the Romulans—the backstabbing, the passionately stiff upper lip, the cool swords, the political intrigue, the layers upon layers of duplicities… I’d just have a great time.

I’d also like to write Captain Janeway—specifically, how she exists in my head. I was fourteen when Voyager came out, and Janeway was just this massively outsized cultural figure in my world, incredibly important to me and to every teenage lady nerd at the time. I don’t think the creators really knew what to do with her—it felt like they thought she couldn’t be a truly complicated figure, like they fell into the same fallacy a lot of ‘90s media did when writing “strong female characters.” She had to pick love or duty, she was either caring or a bitch but not both, she leaves her salamander children behind on a planet to die

Ahem. I would love to get into her head and figure out what makes her tick, take away all her shuttles, and actually do something with the Maquis storyline. I mean, wasn’t it suspicious that Chakotay put on the uniform that fast…? I think it’s suspicious.

Can you say any more regarding the climate change related novel you are/were working on? And/or other future stories? 

Gosh, I wish I could. That’s the thing about publishing—the sheer amount of time you spend not being able to talk about the things you’re currently doing. I am still writing the climate change novel, and it’s going well. It’s a space opera of sorts, based off a short story that was published a couple years ago at Escape Pod, and it uses a lot of the feelings I’ve been having as the mother of a toddler who will be facing a changed world in forty years. I’ve been extremely emotional writing it, and it’s probably going to show. It needs to show. We’re not getting out of this situation with a stiff upper lip.

And then, after that, I’m going to tackle my Great American Novel! With exclamation points! I’ve had this massive idea percolating in my head for over twenty years, eating up my braincycles, but up until now I haven’t felt quite ready to tackle it. I’m still not “ready,” per se, but living through the pandemic changed me. I never want to write anything I’m not completely thrilled about ever again, and this idea thrills me. I’m really excited. There are aliens. (There are always aliens.)  It might burn some bridges. It might make some people mad. We’ll find out. I can’t wait.

And, I can’t believe that no one has asked you this yet from what I can tell: What are the chances of you writing an Alien Attack Squad episode/story?

Chances are 100% with added fairy dust and nuclear fallout. And it’s going to be weird. When I first put Alien Attack Squad into the book, it was just this funny little throwaway line, and then I started to wonder what aspects of the show that Leonard liked so much, what aspects of the show would have appealed to Natalie and brought both of them together initially, and then I was inventing characters and sketching aliens and doing a lot of worldbuilding. What kind of show would a traumatized, highly structured capitalist society like Aurora Company make? How much was entertainment and how much was propaganda? Were there spangles? What is the role of an entertainment, when you’re weeks away from port? I imagine it’s one third Thundercats or Jem, one third prestige Netflix murder show, and one third The Wellerman. It’s going to be bloody and delightful.

VEGETABLE SIMPLE by Eric Ripert

Vegetable Simple: A Cookbook
by Eric Ripert
(Photography by Nigel Parry)
Appetite (Random House) — 20th April 2021
ISBN: 9780525610793
— Hardcover — 256 pp.


I received a copy of this through a Goodreads Giveaway and was excited to discover some new ideas and inspiration for vegetable-centered dishes from a chef I’ve seen appearing on various TV shows. At first glance the stunning photography by Nigel Parry really pops out and grabs the appetite. However, flipping through the recipes made me realize this didn’t only have the type of cookbook recipes that I first thought there would be.

Popcorn… plantain chips… toasted coconut… cucumbers with some salt…

Well, I guess ‘simple’ is right there in the title.

You microwave some popcorn and add an interesting spice/herb/fat mixture. You cut some plantains, or buy some shaved coconut, and put them in the oven. You take cucumbers and put on some salt.

Do we need a recipe book for this?

Well, perhaps one does. Some out there don’t really know many vegetables. You might see them in the store or get adventurous and grow them in a garden, but have no real idea how best to possibly enjoy them. Even if you have had them, that doesn’t mean you know each technique – even if simple – that might change them subtly into a delicious surprise. I’ve never had a rutabaga, for instance, but maybe I could try this rutabaga gratin now.

The salted cucumbers are a good example of a simple thing that seems obvious and needless, but reveals its import upon inspection. Ripert describes a Japanese technique that enhances the cucumber flavor while also providing a firm texture to them. How do you apply salt? How long? What do you do after, leave the salt on, or remove? Simple things, but it might change how you enjoy cucumbers, or cause you to realize you like a vegetable that was always insipid for you before.

For the popcorn recipe Ripert even recommends just using the microwave, but then gives ideas for flavorings that will elevate into something that would easily impress a movie-night date. It’s meant to take something obvious and common, and inspire it toward something unique and memorable.

Now, not all the recipes in here are so simple, and despite the title, some are actually somewhat complex, particularly in terms of number of ingredients. But there are soups, salads, dips, stews, quesadillas, dumpling, savory parfaits, foams, desserts, and those single vegetable showcases. I look forward to trying the French breakfast radishes (from my garden) with butter and salt. I’d also like to make the Vietnamese Pho or Herb falafel for a dinner one night.

Some of the recipes in here don’t really feature vegetables – particularly in the deserts (e.g. chocolate mousse), but could classify as vegetarian at least. Carrot cake of course makes it in, as well as several fruit-based items.

The recipes are followed by a tips and guidelines section that echo some of the main points made in Ripert’s introduction. An index is included at the end. The one significant criticism I have of the cookbook is that there is neither a table of contents, nor is the book clearly divided into sections. The recipes do follow an order that contains elements of category of dish or seasonality, but this doesn’t seem completely consistent or clearly demarcated. The index can help, but a list of recipes at the start would have been useful as well.

This is a cookbook I’ll be keeping and turning through often to find easy little ways to enjoy my vegetables in novel ways.


ELEMENTAL (Calico Series)

Elemental
(Calico Series)
Two Lines Press — 9th March 2021
ISBN: 9781949641110
— Paperback — 240 pp.
Cover Design: Crisis


The eight stories of this anthology span the globe and language, but also span a wide range of approaches to the Elemental theme. Most approach the term from in the classical sense of the Four Elements: Earth, Wind, Fire, Water, but others also incorporate actual physical elements from the Periodic Table. Though not ever speculative, the literary tales frequently incorporate magical realism into the plots, with nods to mythology. Some of the authors chose to make the elements into something akin to characters themselves. Many place the elemental theme into the central turning point of the plot or character development. Others treat the theme of elemental more subtly, and some also approach it in broad terms of how humanity is impacted as a part of nature – even when humanity tries to bend nature to its will.

In this sense Elemental is very much an ecological anthology, a look at how humans impact the abiotic environment and vice versa. Like all literature, it’s also at heart an investigation of humans, their interactions and foibles. More particularly to the anthology’s theme, it’s often about humans trying to find connection and freedom in the natural world.

The stories span vastly different styles, but all appear beautifully rendered into English. Each story begins with a title page, featuring a duo-toned photo and a quote from the story that both connect to the Elemental theme. Most enjoyably, the quote is rendered not just in the English translation, but in the original language script as well.

I enjoyed and appreciated some stories more than others, of course, but I would not say there’s a bad story in this bunch. For most it’s their first appearance in English, but from what I’ve read elsewhere, many are actually excerpts from novel-length works. In retrospect after reading, this isn’t surprising, as many of these worked for me as themed mood pieces, but the ‘plots’ often felt unresolved, fragmentary. I dislike excerpts for precisely this reason. On the other hand, I can give a pass to excerpting in this case of literature in translation, given the full texts are otherwise just not accessible to me. This has given me a chance to discover several new voices. However, now let’s get the actual full works published. I wish the editors (who are the editors by the way? – it’s not actually credited anywhere) had indicated when works were excerpts or not. An appendix does provide nice biographies on the authors and their translators.

On to thoughts on the individual selections:

“Precious Stones” by Erika Kobayashi, translated from the Japanese by Brian Bergstrom — The anthology starts with the longest work, one of the best, and one representative of the varied styles and approaches to the elemental theme. Its length is particularly well used to explore a varied complexity beyond what the other shorter works here have room to offer. It’s a hard one to summarize. A woman experiences vivid dreams of her deceased grandmother, who simultaneously in those past moments has visions of a future granddaughter there regarding her. The two seem linked by an inherited jewel, the last real remnant of a jeweler family that previously lost all. With her family beset with cancer across generations, the woman, her mother, and her sisters visit a spa/shrine with a radium pool that is fabled to cure all sorts of ailments. But the sisters also trade urban legend tails of an ageless man who wanders a housing development near their home and tunnels being drilled into the Earth. A man who it is said can also help cure diseases through sex. How does this all come together? You’ll have to read; it is fantastic. The theme tackles themes of family, illness, and inheritance in a cultural context that references a famous, mythical poet who is linked to the shrine. It introduces elements that crop up in other stories in the collection: the magical realism, nods to mythology, and of course approaches to the theme of elements earth and water.

“Dog Rose in the Wind, the Rain, the Earth” by Farkhondeh Aghaei, translated from the Persian by Michelle Quay — After meeting an Iranian man while abroad, a woman returns home to familial expectations that she will marry him. The parents of the couple arrange her to visit the home of his parents and make a good impression, despite her lack of enthusiasm. During a visit, a sudden storm and flash flood sweep her away to the banks of a river, where other moss-covered women have been deposited. What begins as a very conventional story goes into fantastical, symbolic directions with a feminist viewpoint. A later story uses a similar idea of natural climatic elements sweeping someone away.

“Ankomst” by Gøhril Gabrielsen, translated from the Norwegian by Deborah Dawkin — A touching fragment featuring a woman who has been deposited at the Northern edges of the world, 100s of kilometers from any other human contact, to study birds and climatic patterns. Despite this isolation, she keeps contact with her partner who is scheduled to soon join her there, but she also uses this isolation to become reawakened by the natural world and its staggering power and beauty.

“We Have Lived Here Since We Were Born” by Andreas Moster, translated from the German by Rachel Farmer — A man visits a mining operation to oversee/check up on their status/progress. This is another example of a story that starts somewhat conventionally, but proceeds into directions increasingly surreal and perhaps magical. It also is one heavily influenced by mythology. The man arrives accompanied by a group of women who hold much of his attention, but then as he sees more of the mining operation, his focus turns to a ferryman there on the site. The story climaxes with a scheduled blasting at the mine that wrecks havoc and a howling (an element in common here with the final story in the collection). In the final pages the mountain itself becomes personified as a character. It’s a strange story, and I wish I got the mythological references more, but it also serves well for the themes of humanity trying to plunder the Earth and the effects.

“Lalana” by Michèle Rakotoson, translated from the French by Allison M. Charette — One of at least two stories in the collection particularly tied to location in a way that stresses how much a local landscape can change over time. Yet, some things never change. This story, set in the author’s native Madagascar, touches (among other things) on AIDS and its effects on society and individuals there. The native location (earth) and how it affects people touches the Elemental theme here, but in a way so to does HIV as a natural element of ecology.

“Jamshid Khan” by Bakhtiyar Ali, translated from the Kurdish by Basir Borhani and Shirzad Alipour — A second story with a prcharacter being swept away. In this case a man, a political prisoner and uncle of the story’s narrator, who escapes prison and subsequent troubles by simply catching his emaciated frame up in the wind like a kite to blow away. Similar to Aghaei’s prior story, it’s a story of politically symbolic magical realism.

“Place Memory” by Dorota Brauntsch, translated from the Polish by Sean Gasper Bye — Like “Lalana” this story also has a strong sense of place. Brauntsch touches more firmly and simply on the concept that humans can alter landscapes into things unrecognizable. It’s a melancholy story on things that can be lost, but also sweet in terms of memory that can still be held and ways that environment can still persist despite alteration. More of a mood piece than any other in the collection, but one of my favorite offerings.

“The Weather Woman” by Tamar Weiss-Gabbay, translated from the Hebrew by Jessica Cohen — A story that again touches on the theme of how the natural world resists human attempts at taming. In this case it revolves around the concept of a weather forecaster, how meteorologists can understandably get things wrong. But the general population refuses to accept the unpredictable nature of … well, nature … and demands our advanced civilization should bend things to 100% accurate foresight if not absolute control. A town facing flooding installs a pipeline to help prevent disasters, and the meteorologist becomes involved more in this when the engineering infrastructure ends up producing an annoying howling they want gone.

This is the first offering from the Calico Series put out by Two Lines Press and the NEA that I’ve read, but it is the third to be published in their roughly year-old, biannual series.

“While each Calico book will zoom in on specific styles, topics, and regions, the series will build into a composite portrait of today’s vast and rich literary landscape. What’s more, Calico books explore aspects of the present moment without the usual limitations of book publishing: genre, form, style, or a single author. We asked ourselves: What would we like to read that’s not being published? The result is Calico. We hope you enjoy it too.”

—Sarah Coolidge, Associate Editor

I’ll have to go back and read the first (Chinese speculative fiction), and though I’m uninterested in the second, poetry fans should appreciate its new Arabic poetry selections. The fourth volume, due out in September 2021 is Cuíer, a collection of Queer Brazil writing (fiction, poetry, and nonfiction alike). It can be preordered here, and I’ll look forward to checking the fiction and nonfiction in it out at least.


APEX MAGAZINE Issue 122 (Mar./Apr. 2021) Edited by Jason Sizemore


A really stellar issue from Apex again for these two months. Aside from the interactive story I had no interest in (so cannot speak on) there is not one disappointing story here.

“The Amazing Exploding Women of the Early Twentieth Century” by A.C. Wise — Two actresses in the early silent era of film find they share pyrokinetic abilities that enable them to set themselves on fire without harm. A useful talent for an era where many did their own stunts; also a talent that can be turned against abusive powers in the industry. The main story is bookended by short sections set in the recent present, with one of the women relating things to a granddaughter (if my memory serves in details). I always get appreciation/enjoyment from stories about film, including the silent era, which I love. The only downside to this story is the length: longer than I felt it needed. The framing scenes add some extra themes, but not sure they were essential or needed.

“Las Girlfriends Guide to Subversive Eating” by Sabrina Vourvoulias — An ‘interactive’ story with which I chose to not interact.

“Barefoot and Midnight” by Sheree Renée Thomas — A standout story of the issue due to its subject matter and power, but above all because it is written so amazingly well, horrific and melancholic and beautiful all at once. Like a lamentation the story surges with righteous wailing against injustices. It shows how pain and sacrifice can continue even amid processes of healing, and suggests that sometimes revenge is just as damaging as an original hurt.

“Black Box of the Terraworms” by Barton Aikman — Terraforming machines sent by humans to an alien planet consume some of the native organisms and through it learn from the creature’s memories of the planet’s previous inhabitants that worshiped the creatures. An inventive story of biotechnology and ecological themes, but which then also takes of mythical tones. Fascinating grand-scale fiction.

“A Love That Burns Hot Enough to Last: Deleted Scenes from a Documentary” by Sam J. Miller — A series of interviews about a pop singer and a Christian parent who campaigns against her music, being convinced she is in reality a witch. Almost always enjoy Miller’s work, and this was no exception. I feared that the stereotypically bigoted Christian would make me sour, but Miller actually handles it well. (I still wish more authors would introduce Christians who AREN’T this way at all.) The story more speaks to themes of hero worship and unreasonable expectations that fans place on talent.

“If Those Ragged Feet Won’t Run” by Annie Neugebauer — A fantasy where a mother and newborn try and escape from bird-like monsters that kill those who stray from the village. Great atmosphere and tense plotting here. It recalled to my mind the thoughts I’ll sometimes have watching nature programs where I see a predator about to strike down prey, a cute little juvenile who’s just trying to survive. But then after the predator fail and I celebrate continued life, the camera cuts to the starving offspring of the predator that now have no food.

“She Searches for God in the Storm Within” by Khaalidah Muhammad-Ali  — A reprint originally published in Sword and Sonnet, edited by Aiden Doyle, Rachael K. Jones, and E. Catherine Tobler. It features a powerful female protagonist surviving against harsh unjust treatment. The theme of the anthology where it appeared was “women and non-binary battle poets”. I’m not a fan of the poet aspect, but this is another story of righteous anger, but taken in a more positive way, speaking to the unleashing of a ‘storm’ of suppressed rage that women (and women of color in particular) become told to endure.

“The Eight-Thousanders” by Jason Sanford — I never expected to like a story about climbing Mount Everest so much. Turning it into a horror featuring a vampire who ‘prey’s on those who succumb to the mountain is brilliant, and Sandford uses that plot to explore familiar vampire tale themes in novel ways, as well as cultural aspects of the mountain climbers and the natives who make a living catering to them. The story originally appeared in Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine at the end of last year.

With editorial by Jason Sizemore, nonfiction articles “Jimi Hendrix Sang It” by ZZ Claybourne and “Telling Stories of Ghosts” by Wendy N. Wagner, book reviews by A.C. Wise, and interviews with Sabrina Vourvoulias and Annie Neugebauer by Andrea Johnson, and of cover artist Thomas Tan by Russell Dickerson. Cover design by Justin Stewart.


CASTLE IN THE AIR by Donald E. Westlake

Castle in the Air
(Hard Case Crime Series #148)
By Donald E. Westlake
Hard Case Crime (Titan Books) — 30th March 2021
ISBN: 9781785657221
— Paperback — 208 pp.


A beautiful woman named Lida from the (fictitious) South African nation of Yerbadoro has come to ‘master criminal’ Eustache Dent with a proposition. Escobar Lynch, the president of her nation has been ousted in a coup. The former dictator faces exile to keep his life, but cannot bring any of the tremendous fortune he has amassed off exploitation of the masses.

Lida has inside information that Escobar has a cunning plan to get his riches outside of the country: smuggling the fortune hidden in the bricks of his castle, an architectural attraction that is being disassembled and shipped to Paris to be reassembled for a special international exposition. Lida wants her people’s money returned to the people, but is willing to split the treasure with Dent, the nefarious thief who might just be able to pull such a heist off: taking a whole castle.

The novel begins with Dent starting to assemble his international group of thieves needed to coordinate such a complicated caper. He enlists a top thief from England, France, Germany, and Italy and instructs them each to recruit goons to help them. Each team is to simultaneously steal the castle blocks (edifices) as they are transported en route to Paris. None of the criminals are too happy about half the spoils going to Lida and back to to Yerbadoro, but Dent assures the team leaders that they will be cheating her out of any money as soon as they are able.

There are a couple problems. First, none of the thieves share a common language, so coordinating proves to be quite a challenging task! A bigger issue is that no one knows with part of the disassembled castle will hold the loot until after all are separately stolen and searched. Once one team discovers their pieces of the structure hold the valuables, what’s stopping them from taking it all and running? Is there any trust among criminals? Or will the fear of being chased by their fellow colleagues be a deterrent against greed? When there’s so much money involved, none of them can manage to say no, and all simply push doubts aside.

As I started reading Castle in the Air I became reminded of Rowan Atkinson’s The Black Adder, particularly a first series episode where the Prince Edmund goes throughout England to enlist the most ruthless bandits and criminals for help in seizing the throne. Things don’t go as planned. After all, you can’t really expect criminals to play well together.

The novel proceeds similarly, with farcical takes on each nation’s thieves that includes silly sounding names and clichéd eccentricities, all for comedic effect. With a fast moving pace the story proceeds through all the introductions and then spends a chapter on the actual theft. Then the really zany aspects of the caper begin, the double, triple, and quadruple crosses between each of the international teams. The humor of idiots trying to deal with the language barriers gets amped up through this all, until things finally settle with the loot ‘won’ by one and the others discovering themselves with unexpected successes of a different kind.

Castle in the Air is a much lighter sort of fare from Hard Case Crime than normal, but that doesn’t make it less entertaining. Just in a different way. There is very little violence, more just inept bumbling. No one dies, they are just humiliated. There is also very little sex or femme fatale type interaction, and brief bits that are present are also mostly played for comedy by poking fun at the stereotypes, and making the playfully seductive language extremely corny.

The success of the novel then is really going to depend on the reader’s potential enjoyment of a silly caper romp. It’s a pulp crime version of It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World. It may not be as laugh out loud funny, but some chuckles may come. The other potential interest for Castle in the Air may come for fans of the author. The prolific Westlake first had this novel published in 1980 and it’s pretty much disappeared since then. Hard Case Crime does a great job reissuing forgotten works such as this. It’s certainly not Westlake’s best, or usual kind of offering, but it is a worthwhile quick read, a curiosity worth a rediscover by genre fans.


ANALOG SCIENCE FICTION AND FACT Vol. CXXXI #s 3 and 4 (March/April 2021) Edited by Trevor Quachri


Another overall impressive issue from Analog, which is nicely becoming more diverse and balanced in their offerings. I wouldn’t say they have lost the core mission of the hard SF that they tend to go for, but they have broadened the representation of authors and interpretations of what that means beyond what had in past become a somewhat cliched standard. A wider range of readers will find things to enjoy in issues these days.

“Invasive Species” by Catherine Wells — The wife of a man goes missing on an alien world where humans are kept in a small enclave by the native intelligent population to limit human damage to the ecosystem (and also supposedly for human safety.) When the missing wife cannot be found anywhere, the man seeks permission to go search beyond the enclave’s walls, and takes in a native nanny to watch his newborn while off looking. The ideas in the story are wonderful, and it’s entertaining. However, by its end I was left wondering about the alien actions and I can’t help but think a lot of action/lack of communication occurred simply so the story could happen.

“Flash Mob” by Meg Pontecorvo — Too much science fiction spends efforts being speculative or focusing on technology. I adore a nice story simply focusing on doing science. In this one, a researcher tries to balance single parenthood with the demands of academic research. Her research into squid behaviors allows an opportunity to observe a rare, inexplicable mass of Japanese squid gathering off the coast of CA. She thinks there may be something to their bioluminescent signaling. Fantastic ending for this as well.

“Tail Call Optimization” by Tony Ballantyne — AI stories aren’t inherently my favorite. However, this one manages to put a spin and unexpected twists into the story to make it very entertaining and thought provoking. An apparently malfunctioning alien AI comes into contact with a human intelligence that forces reconsideration of the situation.

“Damocles” by Sean McMullen — An alternate history story of higher technology in WWII, specifically an invention that could be a devastatingly dangerous weapon in the wrong hands. Those that like this genre of story will likely really enjoy this one. It’s written well, but didn’t really capture my interest.

“Problem Landing” by Sean Monaghan — A story of Mars, drawing inspiration from private-funded space exploration corporation like Musk’s SpaceX. As the title suggests, landing on the red planet goes awry. The existing Martian colonists try and come up with a rescue plan for any survivors among the new arrivals. A classic sort of Analog story where human ingenuity is needed to solve a technical problem. It works well as that, but I didn’t find it as compelling on the level of the characters so much. Hard SF fans should really love it though.

“The Trashpusher of Planet 4” by Brenda Kalt — Excellent story that balances seriousness and humor, the familiar and unexpected, with things alien and human. It’s told from the point-of-view of Awi Trashpusher Nonnumber, a lower caste worker on a spaceship traveling through our solar system. Though Awi sits as low-rung as one of his People can, he aspires to more. While his fellow species members give him no respect, the ship’s AI starts giving him greater tasks in secret. The protagonist may be alien in appearance, but the social and personal struggles of the tale are all very familiar to us humans.

“It’s Cold on Europa” by Filip Wiltgren — Two isolated ice miners on Europa live with artificial constructs of their spouses, which have personalities/memories updated as part of the slow communication from their real counterparts based elsewhere in the solar system. The protagonist becomes increasingly concerned that her spousal construct is acting colder and distant, but she has no indications of why. A really fantastic story that postulates new iterations of time-old communication problems in relationships. It takes the concept of ‘ghosting’ and anxiety to larger scales.

“The Acheulean Gift” by Matthew Claxton — A camp houses children born from a now defunct program that used genetic engineering to express genes of extinct humanoid species (like Denisovans and Neanderthals) in H. sapiens. It’s an interesting, and good, story that explores the biological basis of things like cooperation, tool use and problem solving, but also then of fear of the other and racism. I wish the story delved into the genetics in more detail with more believability though.

“If a Tree Doesn’t Fall” by Jerry Oltion — A hiker in Wyoming comes across a floating tree, and he investigates how the heck this could possibly be happening. Nothing much to this short story at all, but a pleasant enough diversion.

“Thh*sh*thhh” by Aimee Ogden — Another story with not much to it, but just the right amount given this is flash fiction. A human researcher (xenoanthropologist?) attends the exceedingly rare funeral for a member of an extremely long-lived (practically immortal) alien species. At this she learns the painful emotional downside to their exceptional life spans. High quality flash fiction.

“John Henry Was a Steel Driving Man” by Shane Halbach — Another classic Analog problem-solving story, set on a space station, where workers have to deal with potential disaster. Complicating matters are divisions among the poorly treated workers who want to strike, and the corporate powers above them. Sometimes the actions of fellow co-workers can make the situation worse. If not great, a decent story that preaches the virtues of hard work that one takes pride in, and attention to detail, no matter the situation.

“Recollection” by Elise Stephens — When the status and destination of many stories in Analog can be known from very early on, it’s nice to have a more slow building story included here that at first puts the reader in uncertain waters. Set in a barren dystopia, a government representative (Harvester) arrives in town to look into aid that they might need. A teenage girl there becomes intrigued by technology the woman uses that holds memory and images of the time before. An interesting look at the ethics of uneasy decisions.

“The Burning Lands” by Tom Jolly — Strange, seemingly spontaneous wildfires are breaking out and killing people. A detective and arson investigator try and solve the mystery. For methanogenesis playing such a key role in this, was very disappointed archeaea were not properly discussed in such a ‘hard’ SF venue.

“Hillman, Charles Dallas, Age: 35, No Partner, Parents: Deceased” by Ron Collins — A former finance broker on the run decides to enter into a clinical trial to go off the grid with free room and board. The brain scans they do on him have unexpected consequences for someone trying to maintain a low profile. An ironic cyberpunkish kind of story that felt as jumbled by its end as the protagonist seems to be.

“I Have Loved the Stars Too Fondly” by James Van Pelt — A very short story (flash?) where a social program provides the homeless with a new chance and home as lunar colonists. Among other possible interpretations, the tale illustrates how such programs can be mistrusted and also taken advantage of. Parallels to how different societal groups react to SARS-CoV-2 vaccination spring to mind.

“The Pond Who Sang” by Charles Hand — Many have combined the mathematical aspects of music with concepts of neural networks (biological or other), such as Hofstadter. Here, Hand puts such musings into a very inventive short SF. I’m not sure this works as is without further development, beyond being intriguing and a speculative ‘mood’ piece.

“Second Hand Destinies” by Marie Vibbert — SF with symbiotic creatures helping animate a humanoid body aren’t new, but Vibbert does interesting things with the concept in this story (more parasitic perhaps) of a small family eking out survival on a dilapidated space station. Vividly written and great characters.

“The Shadow of His Wings” by Ray Nayler — Transfer of consciousness into animals (that still allows total control) forms the speculative crux of this story that explores issues of obligation and power. Strange, but written in a way that makes it seem completely ordinary.

Includes science fact article “From Atmospheric Rivers to Super Typhoons: The Future Looks Bright for Weather Disaster Fans” by Christina De La Rocha and poems “Mostly Hydrogen” by Jack Martin and “First Scientist (?-?) by Jessy Randall. With guest editorial “Better Than Being Fossilized!” by Ian Watson, The Alternative View by John G. Cramer and Guest Alternative View by John J. Vester. Reference Library by Don Sakers and Upcoming Events by Anthony Lewis.


CROSSROADS by Laurel Hightower

Crossroads
By Laurel Hightower
Off Limits Press — August 2020
ISBN: 9780578723563
— Paperback — 110 pp.
Cover Art: Alfred Obare


When Chris’ son Trey dies in a car accident, a part of her is taken along with him by a rapacious, inescapable grief. Chris continues though her life keeping an emotional distance from other relationships, including a friend/neighbor, Dan, with whom she shares potential romantic interest. She regularly visits the roadside site of Trey’s crash, leaving trinkets in memorial and conversing with her son in her mind. Even upon returning home from that ritual, the echoes of his voice continue in her mind, a whisper of his physical reality now vanished.

Until one day the conversations become more difficult, as if Trey’s voice has gone silent in her mind, even if not memory. Panicked with further loss, she awakens in the middle of the night to see her dead son standing in the streetlight below her bedroom window, waving to her. A brief moment later and the ghost is gone. Chris comes to speculate this change might be linked to a prick on her finger that happened while visiting Trey’s memorial, and a drop of blood that fell to the earth there, beside the tree where he died.

Chris thinks about those stories of magic, blood, and sacrifice that she’s heard. And wonders. Can she keep Trey returning to her? If so, what horrific forces are behind it, and what will be the cost? And could it be worth it? Her grief and pain demand that she try, especially as she begins to find her actions may be linked to Trey’s peace and rest.

I don’t know as I’ve ever read a story that is so unflinchingly heart-wrenching and brutal as Crossroads. Hightower is not telling a new type of horror story here. But she does make a well-trod horror story of sacrifice into something that is far more uncompromising, focused, and honest than any I have ever seen before. As a reader I kept wanting her to give clear answers to the forces behind Trey’s ghostly appearances. How much is in Chris’ head? Does a demon have control of Trey, and if so why? Or is this apparition of Trey actually a demon? Hightower doesn’t go down any of those roads of ‘easy’ fulfillment and instead stays centered on the heart of this novel, how a mother handles grief and love.

Now I’m not even a parent, let alone a mother, but Hightower makes Chris’ anguish relatable and felt on a more general human level for any compassionate reader. As Chris becomes pulled more into the belief that her sacrifices will not just give her comfort, but will also provide Trey relief, she willingly ups the intensity to give more of herself. Though she questions whether her actions will even work or not, she barely hesitates to go on because the simple matter is that it doesn’t matter. If there’s even a slight chance that Trey will be helped by this, she will do it. The reader looks upon this and wonders if this is real, or delusion, and thus is thrust into this with as much uncertainty as Chris. The reader doesn’t have enough information to judge her, and is left only with the ability to read on with pained sorrow and the sense that they might be pulled down a similar role for someone they love.

Horror is a genre that is not just for entertainment and scares, but also a way of approaching trauma and mortality, of symbolizing difficult and draining emotions within a realm of the fantastic. Hightower does this while showing that sometimes people never can fully escape or recover from that trauma. It’s an ugly and difficult truth. While Chris and her love for Trey form the core of the novella, Crossroads also forms a story of how others can love and support people who live amid such devastating trauma and grief.

The father of Trey, Chris’ ex-husband also is going through grief over the loss of his son. The former couple remain on relatively good speaking terms, even after the ex’s marriage to a new woman. They avoid confronting each other with things that might overwhelm the other, yet make it clear that they are each there to support. At one point in the novella, the ex-husband visits Chris and tells her about similar dreams/voices of Trey that also haunt him, voicing concern for each of them.

A central pillar to Chris’ support network is Dan, a man who listens rather than quickly acts to try to ‘solve’ things. He loves Chris, and knows she’s equally attracted to him, but can’t handle much from a relationship at the time. Dan gives Chris everything, and only, what she needs of him. As he watches her destroy herself, for ‘only’ a glimmer of hope that it might be real/benefit Trey’s soul, he still supports her in every mood. He does his best to prevent her sacrifices from consuming or ending her life completely. But, he also realizes he lacks the power/ability to ‘save’ her. She’s an autonomous adult individual who seems perfectly clear-thinking despite the fantastic, unbelievable situation. Ultimately, the decisions are hers, and he can only do his best to be there for her in them.

How phenomenally difficult that is. Dan ends up seeming to doubt himself, questioning if maybe he should do more. But ultimately, his love for Chris is much as Chris’ for Trey. As devastating as a place that love leads, together they prevent it from dragging them into despair or fear.

No one gets to end happy here, and for that reason Crossroads concludes as a very ‘difficult’, harrowing novella. But one that therein perfectly encapsulates its themes and the emotions it dares to explore. Horror readers are typically willing to allow fiction to help them explore those darker realms, and Hightower does an exceptional job at facilitating that.


Tara Bush Cover Art for Luna Press Harvester Series Debut Collection by Steven J Dines

Upcoming from Luna Press Publishing

Cover Art by Tara Bush

In the most recent mailing from Luna Press Publishing I noticed this stunning cover art image by Tara Bush for an upcoming entry in their Harvester Series, a debut collection from Steven J Dines.

From Tara Bush writing about her cover art:

“I knew early on I wanted to use the colours and tones to portray emotion and feelings, and during the process, I allowed the colours to wash organically over the face. Colour was mainly applied digitally, enabling me to keep the detail of the underdrawing. I knew I wanted yellow tones in the image and the blue washes felt right as the artwork was nearing an end.

The result is a combination of traditional and digital, which I think can work in harmony with each other. Steven’s writing is so evocative and haunting, that it really helps translate those deep emotions to the page for an artist.”

You can read more about this cover on the Luna Press Blog, or on the artist’s site.

I’m also looking forward to this book. From the publisher:

Look Where You Are Going Not Where You Have Been is a stunning debut collection of dark literary fiction exploring grief, regret, and hope. A family is torn apart by tragedy and misadventure, their future creaking under the weight of judgment. Old men play at being ghosts while a young boy sees real ones wherever he turns. A wandering immortal desperately seeks an end to his pain. Intimate, unflinching, and poignant, these eleven tales of the broken and the unmade include the two previously unpublished novellas, dragonland and This House is Not Haunted.”

You can read more about the collection here.

FARTHEST SOUTH by Ethan Rutherford

Farthest South
By Ethan Rutherford
A Strange Object (Deep Vellum Press) — 13th April 2021
ISBN: 9781646050482
— Paperback — 184 pp.
Cover Design: Nayon Cho; Illustrations: Anders Nilsen


I have such a fondness for surreal short fiction, stories on the edge of familiar and unsettling. If dreams are the product of the mind’s processing of events and emotions, dream-like fiction represents an ideal format for writers to pierce the veils of the human condition, the assumptions and ignorance of our everyday interactions that shroud from insight. In Rutherford’s new collection Farthest South, his stories provide a foundation for magical lyrical prose intermingling with a frugal simplicity. Like bedtime stories, his style cuts to the core of the mundane while still meandering into asides, conveying tantalizing flashes of the fantastic.

Rutherford frames the collection with two stories that integrate that concept of a child’s bedtime story into the plot itself, with the same characters. Both are outstanding stories that start and conclude Farthest South in a perfect way, introducing readers to Rutherford’s style and leaving them with uncertainties to ponder. In some respect, the stories feel more unsettling after their conclusion, as they stick with you.

“Ghost Story” (originally published in Tin House) begins things, where a father is asked by his son to tell a scary story before bed. Prior to this ghost story getting underway, the father and mother discuss normal marital concerns; the father considers the art of telling a story, how to strike the right balance between something being ‘scary’ for a child, but not over so, and how to still include a valuable lesson. Soon the story settles in with the father telling his story of the ‘Seal Woman’, a witch-like creature he encountered when younger while working one fishing season on his dad’s boat. “Ghost Story” is two stories in one, meta-fiction in a way; though I enjoyed all the parts (the relationship side between the parents, the father-son interaction, the Seal Woman tale) I still am not sure how they all fit together.

The final story in the collection, “The Diver” (originally published as “The Soul Collector” in Conjunctions) returns with the same story for another ocean-set tale featuring ‘Old Gr’mer’. Shorter than “Ghost Story”, “The Diver” doesn’t feature the mother-father interactions as much, and that tighter focus made it seem more cohesive in comparison.

These, and the other stories in Farthest South, are reminiscent of fairy tales in style, but with important functional distinctions. Most focus on adults, over children without guardians. And they aren’t written to convey a morale, so much as invite insights, subtly. The stories all revolve around family matters, the anxieties of people not acting just for themselves, but also for a unit, a pack. “Fable” takes this most literally in a story where a fox couple without any kits of their own adopt a human child. However, like in “Ghost Story”, this fable becomes nestled within a larger framework of friends coming together. One, a translator and storyteller, relates the fox fable to her friends.

The uncertainties and unease of families, of parenthood in particular, crop up again and again in Rutherford’s stories. “Family, Happiness” delves into that specific theme in a very short, but lush and emotive handful of pages. “The Baby” (originally published in Post Road) uses the same theme from an opposite, almost nightmarish, perspective. A couple bring their feverish child into the hospital emergency room:

“The weather outside is feral and snow-clotted. And when the doctor says hold the baby, they do.”

In probably my favorite story of the collection, Rutherford depicts the frightening unease of any patient putting their trust into a doctor, having no choice but to do what the doctor says, even amid doubts or evidence that the doctor can’t be expert in all. The story is the most absurd of the collection, with details that will ring familiar to anyone who has ever faced a medical bureaucracy that seems to prioritize everything but patient care and communication.

“Holiday”, approaches the parenthood theme from yet another angle, the haunting of possibilities and chance encounters. This eerie tale almost reads like a horror story, but never goes into full darkness.

A couple of stories do focus on the childhood perspective of the family relationship. In “Pools, I am a Hawk” a young girl goes with her mother to a fancy club where the woman’s more affluent friends have invited them as guests. There, the girl goes off on her own and encounters other children who think she’s a ghost of a dead classmate. In “Angus and Annabelle”, two siblings deal with the trauma of a lost mother. Amid a flutter of sparrows, Annabelle practices a skill that their mother had taught them, making stick-and-berry dolls that disquiet Angus (and perhaps the reader.)

The title story of the collection, “Farthest South” first published in BOMB can still be read there. It’s a fitting one to pick for the title of the entire book, as this story combines many of Rutherford’s elements into one tale. It’s surreal and has bits of comic absurdity, yet also is chillingly haunting. It also is a story nestled within another, though done far more quietly. It recounts the experiences of a man across the inhospitable terrains of Antarctica, a survivor among children and animals that inexplicably were among an expedition team. The survivors are plagued by the ghostly skulls of those from the team who died. But the man has a companion to help him in this ordeal: a talking Emperor Penguin named Franklin. Told from the perspective of a grandchild of this man, only a brief line(s) of the story suggest that what the tale in reality represents. While that detail may not be essential, it is a touch that lends added layers of appreciation to “Farthest South”.

Layers of appreciation is something that all of Farthest South offers readers. It’s imminently readable, neither dense nor pretentious. It capitalizes on key tricks of genre fiction to build something that’s certainly more in the literary camp – entertaining but giving things to intellectually unpack and ponder, even over multiple reads.

Ecotheo Review, a blog on ecology, theology, and art hosts an interview with Ethan Rutherford on Farthest South and his other work. It offers additional insights into the collection and what readers might take from the stories. It’s something that could be read after reading the book, but might also be useful to potential readers who still haven’t made up their minds if this is for them. There are also multiple upcoming events with Rutherford, including one at Madison’s Books in Seattle. If you happen to live near there, you can find more information on the event here.


LOVE. AN ARCHAEOLOGY by Fábio Fernandes

Love. An Archaeology
By Fábio Fernandes
Luna Press Publishing — 26th March 2021
ISBN: 9781913387426
— Paperback — 164 pp.
Cover: Francesca T Barbini


What exactly is a translation? For a multilingual writer, does every piece become a sort of translation within the creator’s mind, or is each story pre-filtered though one linguistic route of the brain?

These question came to mind as I read Love. An Archaeology, the first collection of short fiction from Brazilian writer Fábio Fernandes, just released from Luna Press as part of their “Harvester Series.” The books in this series intentionally gather a collection of old and new works from a writer, along with authorial reflections as an appendix. For Fernandes’ stories, language becomes another layer to that harvest of past and new works.

Two of the stories in Love. An Archaeology were originally written in Portuguese and translated into English by Fernandes for the collection. One of those two was translated into Spanish for its original publication. One, Fernandes wrote in English for submission to an anthology. When it didn’t make the cut, he then translated into Portuguese and published that. Though the majority of the stories in the collection were written and published originally in English, they still exude an aura of being cultural hybrids. While the characters and plot do contribute, Fernandes’ English also adds to that flavor. Though technically correct, he often turns his phrasing in a way that feels slightly off from that of a native speaker. And that is absolutely wonderful, fitting perfectly with the unexpected turns of his stories, and those moments of surreal wonder particularly found in his forays into New Weird.

But as Paul Jessup notes in his introduction to the collection, the stories here are more than a literature of atmosphere. They are “an exploration of idea with depth. Each story is poetic, at times spiritual and transcendent.” That depth permeates into realms both emotional and intellectual. Love. An Archaeology will make you think. Though pointing out the uniqueness of Fernandes, Jessup also compares his writing to that of Gene Wolfe, Jorge Luis Borges, Eugène Ionesco, Jeffery Ford, and Ted Chiang.

The name that pops to my mind first, however, is Samuel R. Delany. In part that’s because I first encountered Fernandes with “Eleven Stations” in Stories for Chip, edited by Nisi Shawl and Bill Campbell. Reading Love. An Archaeology I increasingly noticed the shared fundamental elements between Delany and Fernandes: the intensity, the intellect, the curiosity, the subtle complexity exploring a basic idea. Both can leave readers disoriented one moment, only to lead them to startling revelation the next. Throughout that all, a love for – and power over – language.

I didn’t appreciate all this when reading “Eleven Stations” in Stories for Chip. I ended up relatively ambivalent to the story then, certainly not disliking it, but not enjoying either. Starting Love. An Archaeology I at first felt similarly. The opening story “Seven Horrors” revolves around a fascinating premise taking the idea of time travel in truly unique and mind-bending directions. A man simply called the Time Traveller and a woman known as the Assassin hop across the eons of time, locked together in an immortal struggle for/against death and love for one another. In this tale Fernandes takes the contradictions inherent to time travel stories and simply runs with the trope’s bewildering anti-logic. The framework becomes an opportunity to meditate on themes of spirituality, love, and persistence.

On the one hand, I loved the concepts of the story and its gentle luscious prose, which contras with the apocalyptic settings and chaos through time. On the other hand, I found it dense to get into with a formality to its tone that almost clashes with the personal nature of the character interactions at its heart. A lot of the references were lost on me. (The first section of the collection contains four stories ‘to the memory of Harlan Ellison’ and this must be Ellisonesque in some way I wouldn’t be able to grasp.) It’s a hard story to start things off with, yet appropriate and easier to appreciate as one digs deeper into the collection and becomes familiar with what Fernandes is doing.

Aside from showing how he approaches classic speculative fiction themes, “Seven Horrors” introduces readers to the themes of metaphysics/spirituality that Fernandes draws upon, especially Buddhism. Both “Eleven Stations” in Stories for Chip and “Seven Horrors” that opens Love. An Archaeology represent titles that invite speculation for numerical symbolism. Fernandes uses this type of title in additional stories in this collection, and dates. These numbers are yet another example of the cultural depths that he digs for details in his stories. Numbers mean something equally as much as words, and they are in some ways the purest form of science fiction, even more so than physics as they underlie the language of the universe and the sciences.

By the second story of Love. An Archaeology, I became hooked. Its plot is more conventional, yet still contains the elements that Fernandes plays with so effectively. It’s also a fantasy/horror as opposed to a science fiction, and I feel they are so much easier for me to get into. “The Emptiness in the Heart of All Things” may be my favorite story of the collection. It draws from the Matinta Pereira folklore of the Brazilian ‘northern wilderness’, but Fernandes works with political and feminist themes inspired by the legend of this witch-like creature, and he casts it into a crime plot. Though it contains elements of Weird, the linear narrative gives the early reader a bit more stability in navigating Fernandes’ references and themes. I wish he wrote more in this genre, because this is exceptional.

Though still in the section dedicated to Ellison, “The Remaker” is a meta-tribute to Borges, a near-future remake of Borges’ “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote.” The original apparently being a story about a fellow (Menard) who recreates (not copies) Cervantes’ classic. So this is a remake of a remake concept, and we are several recursive layers deep here. Again the concept is intriguing, and now a few stories in, I had begun warming to Ferndandes’ style. As the backdrop to that, Fernandes gives his “Pierre Menard” lovers, allowing rich character development while also tapping into diversity of sex and gender. Originally published in a collection titled Outlaw Bodies, the rawness of biology, love, and sex in the story again recalls Delany. Such a wonderful ending for this story as well, and though the title has no numbers, the numerical fascination continues within chapter headings and the remade books of the plot.

A cyber-punk story that mashes up 3D printing technology with dreamscape exploration follows in “WiFi Dreams” to conclude the first section of the collection. It’s another trippy one, where I had a hard time seeing how the 3D printing idea actually integrates in.

The next two sections of stories in the collection consist of relatively shorter works. The first, dedicated to Cordwainer Smith, includes “Tales of the Obliterati”, a series of connected stories Fernandes writes about ‘lost discoveries’ and future eras where humanity faces annihilation. “Nothing Happened in 1999” is a piece of solid, if not remarkable, flash fiction. My interest really picked up for “Mycelium”, a story set in a hidden enclave of surviving humanity where a fungal symbiosis might be the key to save the human remnant. “Nine Paths to Destruction” approaches spiritual, existential matters of an individual and a species facing extinction. Beautifully and emotionally resonant.

The second of short fiction sections bears dedication to Fredric Brown and presents “Three Snapshots”, further flash fiction. Fernandes comments in the appendix that he feels very short fiction is one of his strengths, and with these I’d largely conclude. “Other Metamorphoses” is great and “Who Mourns for Washington?” is a profound take on the persistence and loss of memory.

“Archaeologies” the fourth and final section of Love. An Archaeology contains additional stories on love and includes the short story that gives the collection its title. “A Lover’s Discourse: Five Fragments and a Memory of War” returns to surreal New Weird tones, with a plot that’s hard to peg into any particular sub-genre. “The Unexpected Geographies” is notable in that it is another fantasy, darker than the prior one and more firmly in the realm of horror. Though I liked the story overall, I felt this was the most uneven and in need of further editing to make it cut more effectively.

The concluding story “Love. An Archaeology” ends things with another high point. Sisters use a new device that allows experience of alternate history timelines to discover what may have happened between their father and mother. But alternate, after all, is a relative term. The story reinforces what Fernandes excels at: taking well-worn SF ideas for a ride in new and fascinating directions. Some of those may verge into confusing dream-like realms, and others – like this one may be more standard. But they all use that platform to delve into base human relationships/emotions, like family, partner, love to see both the ecstasy and the cracks.

Fernandes is both a graduate of the prestigious Clarion West course, and a former slush reader for Clarkesworld Magazine. His appreciation for classics of the SF genre and of literature, mythology, and philosophy in general should be obvious. This is a debut collection that literary speculative fiction fans should not pass up, and I believe they will look forward to seeing more from him in the future as much as I do.