UNWELCOME BODIES by Jennifer Pelland

Unwelcome Bodies
By Jennifer Pelland
Apex Book Company — February 2008
ISBN: 9780978867683
247 Pages — Paperback


This impressive debut collection from a Nebula-nominated author features enough moments of stunning brilliance to make a reader yearn for more of Pelland’s imaginative writing. Over the last decade Apex published her novel, Machine, in 2012, but no further collections of her promising short work have appeared. Until that changes, if you are unfamiliar with the unsettling plots that she writes in a beautifully flowing prose, you should check out Unwelcome Bodies.

Each of the stories in the collection is accompanied by a short note discussing the seeds of its creation, usually a random ‘what-if?’ thought that Pelland runs with to develop into a character-driven story, often featuring a female protagonist. The collection dwells among the thematically dark, with a current of personal introspection running throughout. Characters struggle to discover themselves, to define themselves, set against worlds that highlight their imperfections, situations that entrap them with limitations.

The collection begins strongly, with two stories that subverted my expectations, after starting with plots that seemed familiar. “For the Plague Thereof Was Exceeding Great” is an alternate history where mutations in HIV have enhanced its transmissibility and lethality, resulting in a strain that is almost guaranteed to pass through the air or general contact. The point of view of two women, who will soon come into contact, provide two societal reactions to the pandemic. Here, Pelland portrays the power of mortal fear and the actions that people can be driven to when faced with horrible disease. The story at first seems to be a run-of-the-mill post-apocalyptic story of disease, but Pelland takes it through interesting angles within the confines of her characters. She produces something horrific, but also with undertones of humanity and compassion. This quality ends up permeating all of her work here.

The second story in the collection, “Big Sister/Little Sister” ended up being one of my favorites. It shocks and disturbs, while also still leaving the reader with tremendous empathy for the tale’s protagonist, despite her abhorred actions. Not all of Pelland’s stories include monsters, but even here with the most evil, there is something there broken and sad that the reader can see in pity, and a realization that we all have a bit of similar injury in ourselves.

The third story, “Immortal Sin”, led me to begin worrying that Pelland’s horror (like Stephen King’s) would be largely drawn from very negative experiences with religion. (The first story on HIV features a religious cult.) Taken on its own, this tale is actually a great little work of theological musing, portraying a disturbed man with a simplistic view of absolution. The irony of the ending is fantastic. Thankfully the remainder of the tales did end up showing that Pelland was not relying on cliches of extreme religious fervor as her sole horror (or speculative) fuel.

Later stories in the collection demonstrate that Pelland has a wildly inventive mind, that while going toward the dark side of things, isn’t always going to produce something that one might classify as ‘horror’. With “Last Bus” she even provides a touch of sweetness. Speculative elements of science fiction also feature into several of the tales, particularly the world of “Brushstrokes”, a longer story featuring world building that could easily form the foundation for deeper exploration. Depicting a dystopic, caste-separated society of humans who have been taken from Earth, it focuses on a forbidden romance between two men of different castes.

“Captive Girl” and “The Last Stand of the Elephant Man” might easily be episodes of The Twilight Zone, or Black Mirror, and both stories rank with my favorites in the collection. The first tells the story of a woman whose body has been cybernetically connected since childhood to serve as a monitoring system for possible alien attack. The story tackles issues such as disability, body image, power differentials in relationships, exploitation, and objectification all while telling a heartfelt tale of basic human emotions: needing to be loved, a desire to sacrifice or serve, devoted affection. These can be good, but taken to extremes they can step into the horrific. The second story – a novella – flips the disfigured ‘Elephant Man’ of history into a future Earth where he is traded a ‘normal’ body so that his can be used by the wealthy in a culture where disfigurement is a la mode, even a fetish. The irony in this tale is superb, and it paints a poignant picture of what society considers ‘beautiful’ through the ages, and the differences between what selfishness and human compassion might engender.

I could go on and write more about each specific story in the collection – or even more words about the ones already mentioned. But suffice it to say I loved the collection with the exception of “The Call”, which even the author seems to dismiss in her notes on the story, as an experiment on second-person written entirely in questions that she now never will have to want to do again.

Fans of horror, or even just simple fiction on the darker side will find much to love in Unwelcome Bodies. The stories almost all contain something uncanny and discomforting, yet Pelland uniformly portrays all of her characters with compassion, writing in a haunting prose that lingers sweetly through any fears.


This review is part of the Apex Book Company back catalog blog tour, all through the month of September 2019.

They are offering 25% off everything in the Apex store all month long with discount code SEPTEMBER. So order now to support a great company and discover more of their catalog.

NEXHUMAN by Francesco Verso

Nexhuman
By Francesco Verso
Translated by Sally McCorry
Apex Book Company — August 2018
ISBN: 9781937009656
228 Pages — Paperback


The discarded detritus of human civilization has overwhelmed the near future Earth, submerging society in kipple junk that many turn to scavenging for survival. This dystopic landscape of garbage has triggered further ecological misbalance, cultivating new endemic pathogens to menace humanity. Coupled with technological advances in bodily transformation and the expansion of immersive artificial realities, people are left disconnected from the natural world, and emotionally from one another.

Teenage Peter Payne lives with his mother and elder brother Charlie, but spends his time out working for Charlie by scavenging among the kipple, and running with The Dead Bones, a gang led by Charlie. Although his elder brother’s presence dominates his life, Peter doesn’t look up to Charlie with much respect. Sibling rivalry and Charlie’s abuse of Peter for personal gain span years, back to a horrific accident that left Peter with artificial limbs.

Whereas Charlie and other members of The Dead Bones look to the broken world and respond with further cruelty, Peter’s temperament eyes the world seeing the flashes of beauty that still remain, including a young woman, named Alba, who treats Peter with smiles, conversation, and a yearned-for general kindness that is otherwise absent from his existence.

However, one day that small spot of beauty in Peter’s life is savagely torn apart when Peter witnesses The Dead Bones take Alva and rip her into pieces. Peter realizes that Alba is a nexhuman, an advanced artificial human body that has had a human consciousness uploaded. Charlie and his gang have taken the one spot of beauty in Peter’s life to use for violent, carnal thrills, and ultimately profit from the sale of Alba’s parts. Society doesn’t consider nexhumans as really alive, and thus there is no murder, but Peter cannot see how this brutality could be any less heinous.

Peter sets out to recover Alba’s parts with the dream of restoring her to consciousness and life, to then profess his love and devotion to her. However this obsession places him squarely against his brother, alienates him from his mother and friends, and puts him at risk of more bodily harm.

Francesco Verso’s Nexhuman is thus a melange of Frankenstein and transhumanist cyberpunk, adopting the term kipple from Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick. The plot is relatively straightforward, but the short length of the novel is packed with grand ideas of biology, transhumanism, consummerism, and human interactions. Sally McCorry’s translation of Verso’s Italian into English flows lyrically and brightly even through passages of dark violence to contrast with the dim, dank rubbish of the novel’s setting.

As a piece of speculative fiction set in the near future, Nexhuman contains both scientific and technological details to enrich the story. As a microbiologist I was ecstatic to see microbes mentioned repeatedly, where changes in the microbial communities that form the base of all life end up effecting the human characters in significant ways. While praising this inclusion I have to also criticize the errors in some of those details though. The text sadly conflates different groups of microbes: protists, bacteria, viruses, etc. To what degree the confusion between a bacteria and a virus here (for example) is due to translation or in the original I’m uncertain. But even with those errors I’m glad the subject is there, with changes in other organisms highlighted alongside the changes in human biology that the Nexhuman setting provides.

The overarching theme of transcendence amidst global ecological changes sits central to all aspects of Nexhuman. The increasing separation of humanity from the natural world and traditional human relationships drives people further into existences of distance and artifice. The ultimate expression of this is, of course, the uploading of a mind into the nexhuman form to live past death. To overcome that defining natural relationship of mortal fate. How diverged from the human body can one be while remaining ‘human’? Can virtual relationships supplant the absence of physical ones? Can existence in the world still proceed when no longer balanced with the rest of ecology? Can we transcend the biological when that foundational ecology it is built upon breaks apart under the weight of human impact?

Verso writes his characters dealing with these questions in largely non-judgmental strokes, leaving it up to the reader to see a mixture of both the promisingly good and disturbingly bad in Peter, secondary characters, or the world of the novel in general. There is much nobility in Peter, yet his obsession over Alba is also disturbingly intense and possessive, bearing little consideration over whether she would actually be grateful for his help, have any romantic feelings for him, etc.

Peter’s relationship (or really non-relationship) with Alba thereby illustrates the separation that has occurred between people in Nexhuman. Individuals have a harder time understanding both the nature of themselves, and of the Other. Peter defines Alba solely through his own emotions and desires. A nexhuman woman who simply smiled and is kindly polite to him is now an object of sexual obsession, someone who he imagines with be beholden to him when he ‘saves’ her. The lack of emotional interaction between people has left everyone, even Peter, with an ability to look past selfish considerations. Though he occasionally wonders if Alba would stay with him or reject him were he able to restore her body to life, Peter never fully seems capable of looking at her realistically as someone apart from his desires.

The thematic depth and elegant prose of Nexhuman make it a powerful and throught-provoking read that will also entertain without requiring a large time commitment. I originally picked up a copy of this on Rachel Cordasco’s recommendation (Speculative Fiction in Translation), as a possible text to use in a Biology in Fiction course I teach. With all the discussion this book could provoke, I certainly intend to use it. I hope you’ll check it out too if you’re intrigued.


This review is part of the Apex Book Company back catalog blog tour, all through the month of September 2019. Look for one more review of an Apex title here later this month.

In the meantime, they are offering 25% off everything in the Apex store all month long with discount code SEPTEMBER. So order now to support a great company and discover more of their catalog.

Skiffy & Fanty BookTube Roundup

If you didn’t already know, I contribute reviews to the Hugo-nominated Skiffy & Fanty Show, and sometimes they even allow me to take part in their podcasts. The gang has recently started adding features to our YouTube channel, including BookTube recordings. If you like SciFi and Fantasy (yes, that is where the name comes from) and don’t already subscribe to the podcast and/or YouTube, what are you waiting for?

So far, I’ve only contributed two BookTube reviews, and I have one more to record. I tried to pick shorter books received, so two of these are novellas I had been sent from the Tor.com press. I hope more will eventually come, but in the mean-time I thought it would be worthwhile to also post short written reviews here on the three books I covered:


Vigilance
By Robert Jackson Bennett
Tor.com Publishing — January 2019
ISBN: 9781250209436
208 Pages — Paperback

I’ve wanted to start The Divine Cities trilogy from him (hearing nothing but great things about it), but bookstores always seem to have all but the first book. So, I was happy to see this in the mail and have a chance to read something else by him. On the other hand, I immediately was put off by the cover and title. Like Batman and MacGyver, I loathe guns, and didn’t feel particularly eager to delve into a story about gun violence, even if satirical and critical. However, once started I couldn’t put it down, drawn into this near-future America where reality TV, terrorist threats, and cultural/moral apathy merge into a frightening, violent landscape. Bennett’s writing is brutal and unsubtle in both action and politics, the setup at first seems so over-the-top to appear unbelievably absurd as any type of realistic extrapolation for the future. But as you continue through the story and consider where we are, and how that trajectory could continue into the future if unchecked, it begins to seem horrifyingly more plausible were people to continue to lose hope and fall into despair. Even with all of its darkness, the satire and absurdity of it also makes for some humor, albeit dark humor. Short, powerful, and well worth reading.


©1998 EyeWire, Inc.

The Revenant Express
(Newbury and Hobbes Investigations #5)
By George Mann
Tor Books — February 2019
ISBN: 9780765334091
256 Pages — Hardback

Making the mistake of just glancing at its size and cover, I opened this book expecting it to be a young adult novel. Scant pages in with the grisly description of a murder victim, I realized the error. A lack of – or misplaced – expectations did nothing to dim my enjoyment for this exciting adventure, even without reading any of the previous books in the series. It took me a little while to understand the timeline of events that start this book, and their placement relative to those from the prior book in the Newbury & Hobbes Investigations series. A fair amount of character quirks and development also became lost to me because I began this mid-story, and this book 5 of the series is in fact the conclusion to a book 4 cliff-hanger. Thus, even though I enjoyed the steampunk/horror/mystery/spy adventure mashup of this, if you aren’t a reader of this series, it probably would be best to start at its beginning. I liked the mashed-up elements, despite not being a huge fan of steampunk, and in large part the enjoyment came from the story’s engaging female characters. If I come upon the earlier books of this series I’d pick them up without hesitation to read more.


The Test
By Sylvain Neuvel
Tor.com Publishing — March 2019
ISBN: 9781250312839
112 Pages — Paperback

Another dystopic vision from Tor.com, Neuvel’s explores speculative technological advancements to probe human psychology and the themes of immigration, community, and family. While answering examination questions for British Citizenship, Idir’s nervous anticipation and hopefulness are blasted away when a team of terrorists enter the immigration office, take hostages, and begin executing people. What this story says about psychology, morals, fear, and power is a brilliant commentary on immigration, nationalism. At the same time the story serves as a cautionary one on the dangerous ways that technology could be turned. Reading The Test, you might think you can see where Neuvel is taking things, and how he will go about it, but you begin to suspect what in the story might be really happening or not, forcing you into the same position of uncertainty as the characters find themselves. A reviewer I follow on Goodreads, Emily May, calls this a Black Mirror episode in novella format, and having now finally seen the show, I’d 100% agree. In fact, this should just be adapted into an episode, it would pack one hell of a punch. But for now, go read this touching and disturbing masterpiece.

A LARGER REALITY, Edited by Libia Brenda

A Larger Reality:
Speculative Fiction from the Bicultural Margins
Edited by Libia Brenda
Kickstarter — Cúmulo de Tesla — 2018
190 Pages — eBook


A bilingual anthology available for FREE download in English or Spanish, A Larger Reality: Speculative Fiction from the Bicultural Margins (Una realidad más amplia: Historias desde la periferia bicultural) arrived via a Kickstarter campaign initiated by The Mexicanx Initiative, with help from Fireside Magazine.

Awhile back I discussed this collection with Trish Matson and Brandon O’Brien as part of the “Reading Rangers” series of short fiction review/discussion for Skiffy & Fanty. You can listen to the podcast here for all of our varied thoughts on it.

Edited by Libia Brenda, the collection has a diverse selection of stories that span speculative classifications from science fiction to fantasy to horror. Some are lighter adventures and some are more serious in tone, or more experimental in style. At least among the three of us in the “Reading Rangers” discussion, we differed on which we enjoyed most versus didn’t appreciate. But readers are likely to find several stories here of interest, and all give a unique Mexicanx perspective. Approximately half are translated from the Spanish for the English edition, with the remainder presumably translated from the English for the Spanish one.

The highlights for me were:

“Fences” by José Luis Zárate and translated by Joey Whitfield is a post-apocalyptic story that makes a great start to the collection by introducing a theme that pops up in other stories as well, the falsity of being restricted to or choosing between binary identity. Caught between two worlds both literally and figuratively, the protagonist of the story is a character that can be recognized by anyone who has lived abroad.  

“Aztlán” Liberated” by David Bowles is a science fiction military adventure featuring chupacabras that features indigenous characters in empowering roles. Reading it gives you feeling of watching an action movie.

 “A Truth Universally Accepted” by Julia Rios features themes and a plot that aren’t unfamiliar, but Rios uses them to create a potent exploration of identity and subjectivity. I’m not a fan of things written in the second person, but somehow this still worked for me.

“Kan/trahc” by Iliana Vargas and translated by Adrian Demopolus is a fascinating work that features a loss of coherence in both the protagonist and the text. Dark and surreally weird, the story has many levels of interpretation and is one that bears rereading.

“Ring a Ring ‘o Roses” by Raquel Castro and translated by Ruth Clarke involves a young girl who brings her pet zombie to school. One of a couple more comedic stories in the collection, this was both funny and touching, revealing the insecurities of childhood and how adults so easily ignore what children are up to.

“It All Makes Sense Here” by Alberto Chimal with translation by Jesse Ward, and “Music and Petals” by Gabriela Damián Miravete with translation by Megan Berkobien represent two of the more horrific stories in the collection. Many of Chimal’s stories deal with ambiguity, and here it is with what constitutes ‘monsters’ and how they are perceived and feared in society. Miravete’s story is a psychological horror of family secrets that is also quite disturbing.

“Clean Air will Smell like Silver Apricots”, written and translated by Andrea Chapela, with editing by Kelsi Vanada ends the collection with a poignant science fiction look at grief and memorials. Its bittersweet tone makes a nice palate cleanser after the stories that preceded.

As a contributor to Rachel Cordasco’s Speculative Fiction in Translation empire and champion of more translated fiction in general, I really appreciated the endeavor that this anthology represents. The high quality of the stories made it a success, and if you haven’t read it yet, you should go download a copy now. You can’t beat free.

CONTENTS:

  • “Fences” by José Luis Zárate (Translated from the Spanish by Joey Whitfield)
  • “Aztlán” Liberated” by David Bowles
  • “A Truth Universally Accepted” by Julia Rios
  • “Matachín” by Felecia Caton Garcia
  • “Kan/trahc” by Iliana Vargas (Translated from the Spanish by Adrian Demopolus)
  • “The Binder” by Angela Lujan
  • “Ring a Ring ‘o Roses” by Raquel Castro (Translated from the Spanish by Ruth Clarke)
  • “Shoot” by Pepe Rojo
  • “It All Makes Sense Here” by Alberto Chimal (Translated from the Spanish by Jesse Ward)
  • “Music and Petals” by Gabriela Damián Miravete (Translated from the Spanish by Megan Berkobien)
  • “Clean Air will Smell like Silver Apricots” by Andrea Chapela (Translated from the Spanish by the author, and edited by Kelsi Vanada)

April Short Speculative Fiction in Translation

cropped-Fomalhaut_planet-crop4-gill_sans_bold


 

Each month, I will be reviewing new translated short works of SF, fantasy, and horror that appear either online or in print for Speculative Fiction in Translation, a site run by the wonderful Rachel Cordasco (@Rcordas). A podcast recording of her updates is now also appearing as part of Skiffy & Fanty. Each month I’ll post a link to my reviews here as well.
In the April debut edition I review:
  • “Deep Sea Fish” by Chi Hui, translated from the Chinese by Brian Bies (The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction)
  • “Fifth: You Shall Not Waste” by Piero Schiavo Campo, translated from the Italian by Sarah Jane Webb (AkashicBooks.com)
  • “The Wings of Earth” by Jiang Bo, translated from the Chinese by Andy Dudak (Clarkesworld)
  • “Taklamakan Misdelivery” by Bae Myung-hoon, translated from the Korean by Sung Ryu (Asymptote Journal)
  • “Aspirin” by Park Min-gyu, translated from the Korean by Agnel Joseph (Asymptote Journal)

AMERICAN WAR by Omar El Akkad

32283423.jpg
American War

By Omar El Akkad
Knopf — April 2017
ISBN 9780451493583 — 352 Pages — Hardcover


My latest review for Skiffy and Fanty is on Omar El Akkad’s debut novel, American War. Check out the complete review on the site, here.
My condensed review:
“A powerful & dark literary character study on the atrocities that war can breed in an individual, but fails in its speculative foundations and in its relevance to America.”

Kickstarter for 2084: An Anthology of Eleven Science Fiction Short Stories

I’m pleased to help announce the start of a Kickstarter campaign for a new SF anthology inspired by Orwell from Unsung Stories titled 2084: An Anthology of Eleven Science Fiction Stories (Print ISBN: 978-1-907389-50-4; Ebook ISBN: 978-1-907389-53-5)

To my recollection I previously reviewed two of their publications,  The Arrival of Missives by Aliya Whiteley (which I really loved) and Déjà Vu by Ian Hocking (which I didn’t enjoy as much, though others did). I have a new novella by them on deck to review, and I’m really looking forward to this collection, which will feature a new story by Whiteley, as well as stories from many other notable SF authors.


From the publisher’s press release:

“Unsung Stories have gathered eleven leading science fiction writers who have looked ahead to 2084, as Orwell did in 1948, for a new anthology – writers such as David Hutchinson, Christopher Priest, Lavie Tidhar, James Smythe, Jeff Noon and Anne Charnock, who are already famous for their visions of the near future.

As the events of 2017 reveal an ever more complex relationship between people and their governments, classic dystopian literature is proving its relevance once again. But as readers turn to classics, like Nineteen Eighty-Four, writers are also looking to our future, and what may lie there.

Speaking about the anthology, George Sandison, Managing Editor at Unsung Stories, said, “We knew when we first started work on the anthology that the idea was timely, but the start of 2017 has really hammered home how important writing like this is.

“Dystopian fiction gives us a space in which to explore today’s fears, and the nightmares of society. For many people the events of the last eighteen months have brought those dark futures much closer, so it’s inevitable that we turn to literature to help us understand why.

“The ideas at work in 2084 range from the familiar to the fantastic, but all are bound by a current and relevant sense of what we could lose, what’s at stake. As with Orwell’s work, decades from now, we will be looking back to our stories, to better understand today.”

2084 will be published by Unsung Stories in July 2017.”

The full contributor list is:

  • Desirina Boskovich
  • Anne Charnock (author of Sleeping Embers of an Ordinary Mind and A Calculated Life)
  • Ian Hocking (author of Deja Vu)
  • Dave Hutchinson (author of The Fractured Europe Sequence)
  • Cassandra Khaw (author of Hammers on Bone and Rupert Wong: Cannibal Chef)
  • Oliver Langmead (author of Dark Star and Metronome)
  • Jeff Noon (author of Vurt, Automated Alice, Pollen, and more)
  • Christopher Priest (author of The Prestige, The Dream Archipelago, The Gradual, and many more)
  • James Smythe (author of The Australia Trilogy, The Echo, The Explorer, and more)
  • Lavie Tidhar (author of A Man Lies Dreaming, Osama and Central Station)
  • Aliya Whiteley (author of The Beauty and The Arrival Of Missives)

Head over to the Kickstarter  page now to help support this anthology and take advantage of backer rewards! Also be sure to share the news with your social networks.