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)

THE AMBERLOUGH DOSSIER, by Lara Elena Donnelly


Amberlough, Armistice, & Amnesty
By Lara Elena Donnelly
Tor Books — 2017 – 2019
ISBN 9780765383822  — 416 Pages — Paperback
ISBN 9781250173560 — 400 Pages — Paperback
ISBN 9781250173621 — 384 Pages — Paperback
Source: Publisher


In 2017 Lara Elena Donnelly published her debut novel, Amberlough, set in the imaginary region of Gedda and written with the point-of-view of three protagonists living in Amberlough City. Cyril DePaul works at home and abroad as an intelligence agent for the Amberlough nation-state. But Cyril’s professional responsibilities conflict with his personal life: he has passionately fallen for Aristide Makricosta, a stripper/performer at the Busy Bee nightclub who also happens to be a criminal running a small-time smuggling operation. Cordelia Lehane is another stripper/performer at the Busy Bee who sometimes does smuggling runs for Aristide, but who mostly occupies herself with illicit drug sales and sleeping alternatively with the club’s owner or its resident comedian.
While on a sensitive mission in a neighboring nation-state, Cyril’s cover is blown amid the rise of a fascist political party called the One State Party. Cyril learns that members of the party, known as Ospies, also have plans for gaining control of Amberlough. With few options available to him, Cyril strikes a deal to save himself, and Aristide, from the rise of a regime opposed to homosexuality. As the conservative Ospies gain power in Amberlough, those at the central countercultural hub of the Busy Bee must also figure out how to survive the ramifications of Cyril’s decision and Ospie control.
The plot and setting of Amberlough take unmistakable historical inspiration from Germany’s Weimer Republic and the rise of the Nazi party. The wonderful art deco design for the covers of the novel and its sequels reinforce this period; the spirits of the characters do likewise. With such close parallels to reality, it’s at first baffling to understand why Donnelly chose to place her story in an invented universe. There is little to the novel that could otherwise define it as speculative fiction: no magic of fantasy, no steampunkesque tech of SF. Donnelly wouldn’t have even had to make Amberlough an alternate history, it could easily exist as straight-up mainstream historical literature. 
Divergence from history and the need for an invented world become clearer with the sequels. In 2018 and 2019 Tor Books released Armistice and Amnesty, respectively, to complete the trilogy. Despite ending in a bit of a cliffhanger, Amberlough does work thematically on its own. But deeper appreciation for what Donnelly has created comes from reading the trilogy as three parts of one singular work. In fact, the concept of three-in-one serves as a structural framework on multiple levels of the Amberlough Dossier trilogy. Donnelly divides each of the novels into three distinct parts that essentially 1) set the characters onto stage, 2) introduce/develop the challenge they face, and 3) usher in a denouement and conclusion. Each novel also features three point-of-view characters that together create a whole perspective of the plot.
As the series progresses following the Nazi-like rise of the Ospies in Amberlough, the plot and action don’t develop as one might expect, diverging from parallels to German history and the onset of a world war. The starts of Armistice and Amnesty are also marked by time jumps where significant developments in the characters and their socio-political situation have happened off-stage. This generates a thematic impression where Donnelly is not directly showing us how her characters are changing the world. Instead, they do a great deal off-stage and then she shows us how they respond to and survive the new situations they find themselves in as a result. For example, by the close of Amberlough the three protagonists (Cyril, Aristide, and Cordelia) are forced to flee the Ospie rise or stay to face its oppression with imprisonment or worse. By the start of Armistice, Cordelia now leads in exile an armed opposition to the Ospies. Aristide has found safe haven abroad as an actor, but as much as he’d like, he cannot forget or completely walk away from what he has fled. Due to events in the first book, Cyril is absent from Armistice, but replaced by the point-of-view of his diplomat sister, Lilian, who is merely mentioned in the first book. Cordelia sits out from the trio of point-of-view characters in Amnesty, making Aristide the one constant throughout the trilogy.
Aristide represents a fitting character to serve as the series constant, not merely due to the alliteration of his name with the novels’ titles. Quite simply, he is the most fun. The Han Solo of the trilogy, he is the devilish rogue who secretly has a heart. The guy who feigns indifferent independence, but who has actually fallen in love and is willing to make sacrifices for those he cares about. Aristide is a performer through-and-through, a man who hides his true name and past, who puts on affectation off the stage, speaking with an intentional stutter and dressing with a fashion to appear far more frivolous than reality. As a reader you can’t but help being equally enthralled by Aristide as Cyril. Though all the characters grow between the three novels, Aristide is the one character whose growth mostly occurs on the pages, rather than primarily during the time that passes between the novels. 
With its time jumps and off-stage action, the plot of the Amberlough Dossier series is not the source of its strength or success. I honestly found this a bit of a disappointment, and while plowing through them I couldn’t quite figure out why I still found them to be enthralling page-turners. After thinking a bit, I realized that it was the characters that had captured my attention, it really was like a character-driven ‘literary’ novel that just happened to be in a made-up world. Each of the characters is gloriously imperfect and quirky in their own endearing ways. Despite their faults, they pull through and survive changing political landscapes and crises, or sacrifice themselves to allowing the others to survive. Donnelly achieves her idiosyncratic characters with her richly descriptive language, but also a knack at giving them their unique voices. Aside from the fictitious geo-political names, Donnelly also develops an endearingly distinctive slang that Cordelia, in particular, uses.
By the end of the series the only significant criticism that I still had remaining pertains to an absent sense of place in the novels. Donnelly invents this universe and Gedda and beyond, but the reader is largely left uncertain of where exactly events are taking place, how locations relate to one another, or how political changes that happen off-stage actually came to pass. This makes it difficult to really appreciate any of the world-building aspects of a series that otherwise has little in the realms of the speculative genre. Each novel also comes with an identical map of Gedda that has to be the most useless map I have ever seen in a SFF novel, particularly when events of Armistice largely take place elsewhere.
Nonetheless, like its characters the Amberlough Dossier series charms despite its imperfections. It says a lot about what common people can accomplish in a harsh world of setbacks despite being outsiders, counterculture to a system of power. It shows that those accomplishments become born of the small decisions that individuals make because of their relationship with and love for others, whether familial or romantic. And it shows that the consequences of those decisions can be both joyous and devastating, but in either way can be met with courage and compassion.

AMERICAN WAR by Omar El Akkad

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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.”

DEFYING DOOMSDAY, Edited by Tsana Dolichva & Holly Kench

Freshly posted yesterday, my latest review for Skiffy & Fanty

defyingdoomsday

 

“People with disability already live in a post-apocalyptic world.” – Robert Hoge

This crowd-funded anthology of post-apocalyptic fiction showcases the theme of disabled or chronically-ill protagonists. Edited by Tsana Dolichva and Holly Kench, the collection features many Aussie female writers (though not exclusively) and names likely both familiar and new to speculative fiction readers. With all of its diversity in characters, apocalyptic setting, and featured disability/illness, Defying Doomday is remarkably consistent in tone and quality

Read the entire review on Skiffy & Fanty here.

Contents:

And the Rest of Us Wait by Corinne Duyvis
To Take Into the Air My Quiet Breath by Stephanie Gunn
Something in the Rain by Seanan McGuire
Did We Break the End of the World? by Tansy Rayner Roberts
In the Sky with Diamonds by Elinor Caiman Sands
Two Somebodies Go Hunting by Rivqa Rafael
Given Sufficient Desperation by Bogi Takács
Selected Afterimages of the Fading by John Chu
Five Thousand Squares by Maree Kimberley
Portobello Blind by Octavia Cade
Tea Party by Lauren E Mitchell
Giant by Thoraiya Dyer
Spider-Silk, Strong as Steel by Samantha Rich
No Shit by K Evangelista
I Will Remember You by Janet Edwards

Disclaimer: I received a free advanced reading copy of this novel from the publisher tin exchange for an honest review.

FALLING IN LOVE WITH HOMINIDS by Nalo Hopkinson

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Falling in Love with Hominids
By Nalo Hopkinson
Tachyon Publications – August 2015
ISBN 9781616961992 – 240 Pages – eBook
Source: NetGalley


Contents:
“The Easthound”
“Soul Case”
“Message in a Bottle”
“The Smile on the Face”
“Left Foot, Right”
“Old Habits”
“Emily Breakfast”
“Herbal”
“A Young Candy Daughter”
“A Raggy Dog, a Shaggy Dog”
“Shift”
“Delicious Monster”
“Snow Day”
“Flying Lessons”
“Whose Upward Flight I Love”
“Blushing”
“Ours is the Pretties”
“Men Sell Not Such in Any Town”

“I didn’t used to like people much.” So starts Hopkinson in the forward to her third short fiction collection, Falling in Love with Hominids. The title comes from a line by science fiction author Cordwainer Smith, whose “Instrumentality of Mankind” work Hopkinson cites as an important influence on her own writing.
“I loved his imagination, style, the poetry of his writing, his compassion. Loved his sensibility in writing about a racialized, manufactured underclass and telling some of the stories from their context.”
The stories within this collection originate from across roughly a decade span of Hopkinson’s writing career; with varied styles and themes they are absolutely unified only in their author. So then who is Hopkinson?
Born in Jamaica and raised in Guyana, Trinidad, and Canada, Hopkinson writes speculative fiction and fantasy that typically includes elements of Caribbean culture and tradition. Many readers appreciate this perspective that her heritage provides the field, and she is equally valued for sincere inclusion of characters who may be any combination of people-of-colo(u)r, female, or queer. Such unique perspective alone shouldn’t define her work though. Above all Hopkinson is talented, attracting the respect of writers such as Junot Díaz and earning accolades such as the 1999 Campbell Award for Best New Writer.
 –
The uniqueness of her perspective also doesn’t mean that her writing is just for people like her. It’s really important to have books by all kinds of people, not just straight, white men. But that doesn’t mean that a book by a straight, white man can’t speak to a queer, black woman. Or in this case, the reverse. Hopkinson’s writing touches all those qualities that her quote on Cordwainer Smith mentions. She writes universal, core themes of what it is to be human, to deal with despair and to fight it. As her forward to the collection relates, this comes from her own evolution as an individual in society.

“One of the progressions I’ve made is from being a depressed teenager who saw how powerless she was to change all the ills around her to being a mostly cheerful fifty-something who realizes there are all kinds of ways of working together towards positive change… So part of the work of these past few decades of my life has been the process of falling love with hominids.”

The opening story of this collection, “The Easthound”, is an exquisite introduction to the range of Hopkinson’s writing. Set in a post-apocalyptic world where adults become ‘sprouted’ into creatures that kill and feed upon the living, the story uses setting and a minimized plot as backdrop to focus on characters and emotion. This balance – tending towards what typically gets called literary – is typical of Hopkinson’s stories. Also common for her work, here she takes a general premise that should be familiar to science fiction fans and puts on her unique twist. Her writing is not usually ‘light’ reading and some of her stories benefit from multiple reads because nuanced characteristics aren’t at first registered. Yet, “The Easthound” demonstrates that Hopkinson can write taut action sequences amid more quiet moments of deep character introspection. The language can vary from the straight-forward to a more artistic poetry, such as lines in this story that form part of a ‘Loup-de-lou‘ game that children play.
Because of her range as a writer, readers may not enjoy or appreciate all the stories in the collection. Some, like “Flying Lessons” or “Blushing” seem designed to challenge the author and reader alike. “Soul Case” puts a lot of complexity into a relatively small bit of space. (Not unlike, perhaps, fitting a  soul and intelligence into the limitations of a human body, the ‘soul case’ of the title). For some its explorations of politics, history, race, and humanity will work brilliantly. Others may wish its soul had more room to breathe, to develop within the novella length. “Shift” adds a Caribbean twist to The Tempest, another example of a story grounded in something familiar to contrast with stories that have elements more unconventional – and verging on bizarro, like in “Emily Breakfast” or “Snow Day”.
Overall this collection conveys a feeling of reading folklore. Readers particularly drawn to that style of fantasy will probably easily enjoy Falling in Love with Hominids, as Hopkinson uses the style effectively even in the context of a science fiction tale. Some of the stories here have been included elsewhere, including “Best of…” anthologies, pointing to Hopkinson’s success and recognition. If you haven’t yet experienced her writing, there is no better place to get a representative view of it as this.

Disclaimer: I received a free advanced electronic reading copy of this from the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

THE TERRANS by Jean Johnson

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The Terrans
(First Salik War Book 1)
By Jean Johnson
Ace Books – July 2015
ISBN 9780425276914 – 454 Pages – Paperback
Source: AceRocStars Street Team


Although set in the same universe as Johnson’s Theirs Not to Reason Why series of military science fiction The Terrans marks the start of a new series, with a different thematic focus, which can be read on its own. Having never read anything by Johnson before I can attest that the start of this series does work on its own, though doubtless fans of her science fiction universe will find nods and gems that I couldn’t pick up on. The novel also works effectively enough without its sequels. Its followup, The V’Dan, was published this past winter and the series conclusion, The Blockade, is slated for this coming November.
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This is one of those books that I wouldn’t likely pick up on my own. A mass market paperback of an author I’m not familiar with at all. The start of a series that could compel a commitment to read more. A subtitle and cover that brings to mind military SF, a sub-genre I’m unlikely to get much enjoyment in. Without a recommendation or reading reviews that suggest some compelling part to the novel, I just wouldn’t risk the time.
The Terrans did not blow me away, but it is a better-than-average space opera with some strong assets that will get me to seek out the second book in the series. Unlike the five novels to date in Theirs Not to Reason Why, this first book of The First Salik War focuses on first contact diplomacy more than military culture and conflict. Had that not been the case I likely wouldn’t have finished the novel because the other aspects of the novel I did enjoy would not have made up for an undesirable plot and theme.
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Set two hundred years prior to the events of her other series, the Terrans features protagonist Jacaranda (Jackie) MacKenzie, a diplomat and translator with powerful psychic abilities and training. The prescient members of humanity have foreseen alien first contacts and the coming of a terrible war. Jackie is recruited back into the Space Force to serve as both soldier and politician in a team sent to investigate the threat of the alien race and find a way to delay or prevent conflict. While dealing with bigotry, prejudice, and internal conflicts among the team she has been designated to lead, Jackie must find a means of cross-cultural communication with the V’Dan, a long forgotten branch of humanity that already has been targeted by the predatory Salik aliens.
The Terrans is superb in concept and genre balance. I enjoyed the mixtures of action, romance, social commentary, and politics in the novel. Johnson does a phenomenal job in making her novel diverse in character. She includes technological and psychological details that provide a hit of ‘hard’ science fiction among the space opera and the fantastic. I loved the considerations of quarantine, and the struggles of even communicating with fellow humans, whether the distant V’Dan or fellow members of the same planet with vastly different points of view.
However, the novel really fails in how it executes its grand ideas. The dialogue and exposition are heavy handed, even tedious. The writing is geared more towards celebration of its ideas rather than a more artistic side of literature that would use well crafted lines for nuanced exploration of themes. Seeming almost ‘preachy’ in some regards Johnson makes her characters too clear-cut, idealized or criticized. Jackie in particular is a Renaissance woman type, excelling at so many skills, yet bearing the patience of a saint in the face of harsh, unjust treatment. A small dose of such perfection contrasted with villainy is fine, but here it begins to get frustrating, drawing the reader out of the story itself into a view of the novel as a constructed image of the author of how people treat one another versus how things should be.
And so if you are reader who would like space opera that affirms diversity with feel-good idealism, then this is something you’d probably really enjoy. I wouldn’t want to just read something like that, but I did overall enjoy The Terrans despite its heavy-handedness. The story was compelling enough and I liked the dilution of action with inter-human and human-alien communication. If you, however, feel time away from action makes a novel drag, then Theirs Not to Reason Why may be more the series for you.

Disclaimer: I received a free advanced reading copy of this from the publisher as part of the AceRocStars Street Team in exchange for an honest review.

THE NIGHT OF THE LONG KNIVES by Fritz Leiber

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The Night of the Long Knives
By Fritz Leiber
Dover Publications – July 2015
ISBN 9780486798011 – 112 Pages – Paperback
Source: NetGalley


Originally published in a 1960’s issue of Amazing Science Fiction, this Fritz Leiber novella gets a nice thrifty paperback edition release from Dover Publications as part of their wonderful new Doomsday Classics series. If you are like me you’ll vastly prefer reading these as actual copies rather than poorly formatted digital versions.
I have limited experience with Leiber, so I was intrigued by this just as an excuse to read something by a classic, well-known name in SFF. And as a post-apocalyptic story it intrigued even more.
The post-apocalyptic field has become overcrowded, particularly with a boon in entries by mainstream authors who for whatever reason reject classification within the speculative or fantasy genres. In most cases I’ve been disappointed by these newer works because they fail to add anything significant to the corpus already built by genre and mainstream authors alike. Reading Leiber’s story I did not have this feeling at all. A part of me realized that this was written at a time before these stories were a dime a dozen. So to a degree I gave it grace. Still, I enjoyed the novella regardless of any thematic novelty because while familiar, Leiber writes it with remarkable skill, with elements neither overly complex nor simplified.
The Night of the Long Knives comes from an era full of post-apocalyptic imaginings: the Cold War. As typical throughout forms of media, disaster comes to the world via nuclear annihilation. The United States has been transformed into a waste, the Deathlands. Radiation-scarred survivals struggle for resources in competition and deep mistrust. Two drifters, Ray and Alice, meet upon the site of a crashed flying ship that has made an emergency landing in the barren wilderness. The two form a fragile alliance of mutual benefit faced with the opportunity before them: a possible way out of the Deathlands into one of the few pockets of civilization that may remain.
Along with the survivor of the crashed craft, this makes just three characters in a novella with a rather straight-forward plot. Leiber creates a journey for the reader with explorations of the character’s psychology, their words and actions. As with most post-apocalyptic fiction the key interest is how humans react to one another. The most frightening aspect of The Walking Dead is not the zombies, but what the characters – good or evil – are capable of. The most frightening aspect of The Night of the Long Knives is not the nuclear devastation, but the destroyed basic humanity, the impossibility of bonding. The most frightening aspect of the Cold War is not the nukes, but the nationalism of humans.
The dialogue in The Night of the Long Knives is particularly strong, making each of the characters into people that readers can relate to, at least in some significant, deep fashion. Leiber makes you feel the devastation, the hope and the despair in ways that Donaldson’s Thomas Covenant series would later do in Epic Fantasy – or Stephen King of course would with his epic post-apocalyptic The Stand. The emotional and physical struggles of the characters in Leiber’s novella will probably not be anything surprising to a reader. Despite that general familiarity, Leiber’s words remain compelling and still relevant to our hearts over half a century after they were written.

Disclaimer: I received a free electronic advanced reading copy of this from the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.