Strong issue with a nice variety of stories. Themes common to several of the stories seemed to be the relationship(s) between a man and woman and the concept of independence. In general I enjoyed the reprints over the newer selections, however.
“The Incorruptible World” by Anjali Sachdeva — A wealthy couple have an expensive vacation home built. Only this vacation home is a (very) small planet with geological features and a small empty city tailored to their aesthetics. Well, the husband’s. The woman lets him make the decisions, including the requirement that the planet be utterly sterile. No microbes for the germaphobe. However, the transport scheduled to pick them up at the end of their holiday doesn’t arrive, leaving them stranded. I enjoyed the changes in the couple as they are forced to spend time alone away from civilization, and apparently the distractions that had been previously making the guy an ass. I just couldn’t get past the absurd set-up of this long story. I imagine the physics of such a small planet is not realistic, but I know the biology isn’t. An ecosystem existing without microbes has no feasibility. Even with nanotech as the story uses to try and make it possible. Even accepting one could, those nanobots would effectively be equivalent to microbes, and hence still have all the interactions the man fears, so it would be no different.
“The Hard Spot in the Glacier” by An Owomoyela — Originally published in the collection Mechanical Animals. While mounting a rescue mission on the human-colonized Saturnian moon Enceladus, a woman and her AI-endowed vehicle/tool ‘centipede’ become threatened by an avalanche borne of active glaciology. Interacting with the centipede, she weighs the benefits/risks of continuing the mission to save her (possibly alive/possibly dead) colleague versus the odds of still saving herself and the base camp’s equipment. Really enjoyed the quandary here and the writing.
“The Memory Plague” by D. Thomas Minton — Wonderfully weird SF written from the point of view of a very alien biology ‘born’ with awakening collective memory so that an individual is never really lost. Spreading through space, feeding on other sentient species considered beneath them, they have come and fed on Earth. A ‘newborn’ remaining on Earth discovers the consequences of this biology and its species history. Great concept and great execution.
“On the Fringes of the Fractal” by Greg van Eekhout — “Be cool, or be cast out!” “Conform, or be cast out!” I could just hear “Subdivisions” by Rush going through my mind while reading this story, originally published in a collection of tales inspired by the Canadian progressive rock band, particularly drummer Neil Peart who wrote their lyrics. Like Peart’s writing, a story of individuality and discovery asserting itself amid stifling conformity. It also reminded me of the “Nosedive” episode of Black Mirror. Here though, the journey of a boy to help his friend whose family has lost all ‘stat’ follows a more light-hearted and joyful route, with a lovable Dalmatian named Miss Spotty Pants.
“The Orange Tree” by Maria Dahvana Headley — Originally published in the collection The Weight of Words, this fantasy is based on two historical poets and a lesser-known instance of the Jewish golem tradition where the creation is female. An Andalusian poet hires a carpenter to make a very special ‘cabinet’ from an orange tree. Given life, but not speech, the resulting golem is forced into domestic and conjugal servitude. The feminist theme focuses also on human loneliness in general, and despite the melancholy nature of the tale, it ends with a joyful beauty. The language of the beautiful writing by Headly shines throughout.
“Answering the Questions You Might Have About the Kharbat” by Adam-Troy Castro — You don’t have any questions about the Kharbat, so you don’t read this, even if it is by Castro, whose work you mostly do enjoy very much.
“The Mushroom Queen” by Liz Ziemska — A reprint originally published in the (dearly missed) Tin House literary magazine, this fantasy involves a swap between a wife and fungus that takes her form. The story features a fair amount of science in it too – though fungus is NOT the most prevalent form of life as claimed. (Maybe this is just the Mushroom Queen’s propaganda bias?) Really it seems to be about independence, growing free, and having the chance to change up one’s life. Written from the point of view of the original woman turned fungus, the fungus turned woman, and also two of the family dogs, there is a nice touch of humor in the story too.
“Frost’s Boy” by P H Lee — A baby left in the woods to die by its father is spared due to his exceptional beauty, so that not even the winter frost is willing to take his life. Instead, the frost adopts him, turning his heart to ice. Later, as a young man, the child of frost uses the attraction good looks and to prey upon women, killing them with an icy kiss. No woman has the power to resist. It takes a “good girl, raised honest and pure”, her loving father, and his wife ,who is “cleverer [than her husband] by three times or more”, to outwit and overcome Frost’s Boy’s curse. This fairy tale reads very traditional, at first glance, but the words from the narrator at the start and end make you give it a second look.
The issue also features an excerpt from THE UNFINISHED LAND by Greg Bear (John Joseph Adams Books), Book Reviews, and Author Spotlights. It can be found and read online for free, but I’d encourage all fans to subscribe and support if able.