Humans and the Environment in Translation: New Event for the Calico Series from Two Lines Press

I’m always excited to see additional literature in translation, and this in particular caught my interest in its intersection with ecology and climate. I am lucky to be able to read this for review, so look for it in the future. But also I wanted to share the news, copied below from Two Lines Press releases, about an event that should be of interest to others holding a passion for translation. Follow the link below to learn more, including biographies on the three translators of this international eco-lit collection.

CELEBRATE ELEMENTAL

“Join Point Reyes Books and Two Lines Press on March 11 for a special event celebrating the release of Elemental with contributors Jessica Cohen, Allison Charette, and Brian Bergstrom. Moderated by Cristina Rodriguez. A whirlwind of fantastic new writing from Japan, Iran, Madagascar, Iraq, Germany, and more, this latest installment of the Calico Series maps the intimate, ongoing relationship between human civilization and the environment. Featuring fiction and reportage from eight authors working in different languages, Elemental is an awesome collection that speaks of climate catastrophe, geological time, and mythology; it’s a global gathering of engaged, innovative eco-lit. Register for the event on Point Reyes Books event page, and don’t forget to buy a copy of the book while you’re there!”

THURSDAY, MARCH 11

5:30 PT | 6:30 MT | 7:30 CT | 8:30 ET

About Elemental

A family’s heirloom stones unearth a story spanning war, illness, and radioactivity. A pipeline installed to protect a town from flooding results in a howling that disturbs the town’s inhabitants. A political prisoner embarks on an epic flight toward freedom, literally blown like a kite in the wind.

A whirlwind of fantastic new writing from Japan, Iran, Norway, Germany, Madagascar, Iraq, Poland, and Israel, this collection of fiction and reportage maps the intimate, ongoing relationship between human civilization and the natural world. Do we set the limits on our existence? Or is it wind, water, fire, and earth that define–even control–us? Borrowing from eco-literature and mythology, Elemental unflinchingly takes up the earth.

“Stone, earth, water, ice, wind, and burning heat. The stories here dig deep and unexpectedly into life’s fundamentals—the elements and the passions—bringing into English, many for the first time, writers of stature from across the globe. A celebration of both storytelling and translation, Elemental is essential, a gift that opens up the pleasures of new worlds.” —Hugh Raffles, author of The Book of Unconformities

About the Calico Series

The Calico Series, published biannually by Two Lines Press, captures vanguard works of translated literature in stylish, collectible editions. Each Calico is a vibrant snapshot that explores one aspect of our present moment, offering the voices of previously inaccessible, highly innovative writers from around the world today.

Humble Bundle Deal from Tachyon Publications for eBook Readers!

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HUMBLE BOOK BUNDLE: SUPERMASSIVE SCI-FI, FANTASY, & HORROR BY TACHYON

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Humble Bundle has teamed up with Tachyon Publications! You can get up to 47 Tachyon digital titles for less than $30! You can get ebooks like The Freeze-Frame RevolutionThe Very Best of Caitlín R. KiernanBeyond FrankensteinBooklifeAdventures of a Dwergish GirlThe Emerald Circus, and Sea Change.

Plus, you decide how much of your purchase will go to support two nonprofits:

Founded in 1999, The Carl Brandon Society‘s mission is to increase racial and ethnic diversity in the production of and audience for speculative fiction.

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$441 WORTH OF AWESOME STUFF • PAY $1 OR MORE • DRM-FREE & MULTI-FORMAT

UNCANNY MAGAZINE #38 (January/February 2021) Edited by Lynne M. Thomas and Michael Damian Thomas


Since its inception I’ve been one of the Space Unicorns supporting Uncanny Magazine. Yet, among all the genre outlets, it is probably the one that I’m most divided on among typical story content. The type of story they feature sometimes works fantastically for me, but then other times falls flat; this is even with authors who are typical favorites. I haven’t been able to put my finger on it to explain the reasons behind those personal tastes, but just accept that Uncanny will feature an even split for me.

“Tyrannosaurus Hex” by Sam J. Miller — One of my two favorite stories in the issue. For me, Miller can take a story concept that I’m not all terribly excited about and still turn it into something engaging and interesting; this is a case in point. At a dinner, a young girl joins an even younger boy in virtual reality entertainment through their implants, while the adults obliviously chat. The girl quickly realizes something is not quite right, and very dangerous, with the program the boy is running. Namely the malware that has infected it. An interesting take on generational tech divides, shared digital experiences, and lazy parenting.

“A House Full of Voices Is Never Empty” by Miyuki Jane Pinckard — You stopped reading this early in.

“Pathfinding!” by Nicole Kornher-Stace — A second story on children in simulations, with a director and individuals named with numbers, à la Stranger Things. Written in third-person present across 31 numbered sections, it felt long to me. I had no serious problems with it, but didn’t take to its themes or style particularly either.

“In That Place She Grows a Garden” by Del Sandeen — A reprint from a story I first read in Fiyah Magazine, from an issue themed around ‘hair’. A young African American girl is disciplined at school for failing to conform to discriminatory codes that ban traditional Black hairstyles. Despite their attempts to control her body, her head has other plans for what it will grow. Really adore this one, even a second time.

“Beyond the Doll Forest” by Marissa Lingen — My other favorite new story in the issue, again by an author I often enjoy. A nanny ponders her young charge who fears curses, the miniature forest that the girl has built in her playroom that seems to show small changes and fleeting glimpses of creatures, and the absent siblings the girl speaks of. A creepy fantasy of magic, illness symbolized, and the strength/powers of childhood imagination.

“Femme and Sundance” by Christopher Caldwell — Two men start a passionate relationship and plan a bank heist, utilizing charmed masks provided by a curandera one of them knows. Then starts a wild ride on the run with the money, but the magic of the masks still vibrating, and others in pursuit. A fun urban fantasy adventure.

“Distribution” by Paul Cornell — This one certainly fits within the ‘uncanny’ moniker. It’s filled with deep themes of human nature, memory, and social obligations, and it’s set within a vaguely post-disaster setting where fragments of rebuilding occur that hearken to the past, but amid continued near-future technology from our present. Mostly consisting as an interview conversation between two characters, I found it hard to get into and appreciate despite themes that usually resonate.

The issue also features editorials from the editors and “Imagining Futures: Where Our Works Go from Here” by Elsa Sjunneson; poems “Medusa Gets a Haircut” by Theodora Goss, “Kalevala, an untelling” by Lizy Simonen, “bargain | bin” by Ewen Ma, “What The Time Travellers Stole” by L.X. Beckett, and “Fish Out of Water” by Neil Gaiman; essays “Weird Plagues: How Fear of Disease Mutated into a Subgenre” by John Wiswell, “Milk Teeth” by Octavia Cade, “Hayao Miyazaki’s Lost Magic of Parenthood” by Aidan Moher, and “Trash Fantasias, or Why Mass Effect 3‘s Ending Was Bad Actually” by Katherine Cross; interviews of Miyuki Jane Pinckard and Paul Cornell by Caroline M. Yoachim; and thank you messages to Patreon supporters and Kickstarter backers.


CREATIVE SURGERY by Clelia Farris (Translated by Rachel Cordasco and Jennifer Delare)

Creative Surgery
By Clelia Farris
(Translated from the Italian by Rachel Cordasco and Jennifer Delare)
Rosarium Publishing — September 2020
ISBN: 9781732638839
— Paperback — 172 pp.


Last night I started reading a new ~250 page novel. Even with Food Network on in the background, I plowed through and enjoyed half of it with no challenge. It’s conventional literature with a contemporary setting, straight-forward plot, and an unadorned, conversational voice. What a drastic shift from what I just read prior. Creative Surgery by Clelia Farris may be a slim volume, but the collection of seven short stories packs a density and intensity that demands vigilant attention and careful reading. But, that requirement for focus will be greatly rewarded: with profound and provocative insights into her characters, wonderment at the speculatively imaginative worlds she paints, and dazzlement at the literary finesse she employs to accomplish it all.

The title Creative Surgery comes from the final tale printed in this collection (reflected in the cover art), but it can also be taken to apply to what Farris does with genre literature through her writing. She does not settle for one speculative item to focus on, but creates multiple layers of details to combine into one adhesive whole. The opening story of the collection “A Day to Remember” illustrates this in ways better than any generalized attempt could: The story is set in climate change dystopia, where floods have inundated a city and created a patchwork of humanity separated on small makeshift islands of detritus or remnants of buildings still high enough for now to clear the water’s reach. Grafted to this setting is the protagonist Olì, a woman who is an artist with the technology to work on the personal canvas of memory. But she also uses other media for more public display of her art. Already enough in theory to feature in a short story. But not for Farris. Albeit a short story on the longer novelette size, she is able to put a ton more into this one tale: water-bound marauders geared up like sharks, family strifes, class divisions, experimental cooking recipes (cakes with candied clams in the middle – yum!), food-based bartering systems, deadly shifts in temperatures from the climate crisis, orphaned children… Where one might expect these disparate bits to clash like a cat’s head on a tortoise, Farris somehow makes it – the weird absurdities of it all – seem completely natural, surgically placed together into a brief work of literature delving into the theme of human commitments to one another, and the memories we choose to keep or lose of those connections.

Each story within the collection needs to be approached completely anew, readers need to get their bearings on what kind of world they now find themselves thrust into. At times, the answer to this is not fully clear, perhaps, until the end has been reached, meaning that several of the stories benefit from rereading and thought based on the first impressions. There are some small flourishes that Farris returns to within each story to give the reader some soupçon of familiarity, often humorous eccentricities of character’s personalities. One of these is mention of food that the character’s mentioning enjoying (or using as currency), particularly fish and shellfish; not a surprise given Farris’ native Sardinia. Another is misanthropic secondary characters that complain about their no good, bastard, cheat relatives, business partners, or neighbors. The de Sade company shows up mentioned in at least two stories. Though really small details, they nonetheless serve to help anchor the reading experience as something unified between the seven very unique stories.

“Gabola” features a man of that name, who specializes in recreating objects from the ruins of the hills where he lives on the edge of the city. The antiquity thieves that end up unwittingly taking his relatively worthless recreations don’t care for that much. But, what is most concerning for Gabola is that plunder is the only attention that the ruins, and the priceless history contained within them are getting from the community at large. Now, plans to raze the ruins to make room for new buildings are proposed, with only Gabola seeming to care to prevent it. The name Gabola is also a slang term, that from context one gathers means something worthless – junk. Both what Gabola produces, and what he himself represents in the eyes of others that look to progress and not the past. Like the protagonist of the previous story, and many others in this collection, Gabola exists as an outsider, doing his own thing.

Of all the stories, “Gabola”, is perhaps the most difficult to first get one’s bearings. It begins with a third-person passage from the point of view of a thief, and then introduces Gabola in the third person before abruptly switching to first-person. Thereafter first- and third-person portions appear, with occasional second-person declarations from Gabola. It makes for jarring transitions, but I can imagine how this is symbolically consistent with the theme of the story that contrasts Gabola’s point of view of the ruins and history with that of his contemporaries. As much as I found the story interesting, I did feel this one could have been abbreviated while achieving the same impact.

“Secret Enemy” and “Rebecca” both feature characters who are kept prisoner in one way or another. The first of these is the one story I want to go back and read again, as I’m still trying to make sense of it all. In it, a man is kept behind a bathroom mirror (in another room?) to serve as a sort of physician/nutritionist for his captor. Through first person narration he details the interactions with his captor, observations of guests to the house, and the Japanese flower art arrangements he does to pass time. Despite being a prisoner, he comes to realize (and act upon) the power he has over his captor’s health. Whether this man is actually a separate entity or a part of the captor I am still uncertain of, and there are worlds of analysis that still could be done with the brief story.

“Rebecca” is one of my favorite selections from the collection – probably along with the first one “A Day to Remember”. I love the Du Maurier novel, and the Hitchcock adaptation. that form the inspiration for this tale. But I adore Farris’ story not just for drawing from those classics, but making a fabulous story from the characters and themes of Rebecca that works in its own speculative right. This is one where the progression of it – and its ending – really reveal the clever idea behind it all, so I don’t want to spoil that. But it again involves that ‘creative literary’ surgery of Farris’: physics and feminism stitched onto the gothic framework.

Each of the proceeding stories mentioned, along with “Holes” and “The Substance of Ideas”, are translated for this collection from the Italian by Rachel Cordasco. I don’t know Italian to be able to technically comment on the translation details, but the English presented here flows beautifully, even with those jarring moments of shifting voice or perspective in some of Farris’ more complex writing. I should also mention that Rachel is a dear colleague and friend whose Speculative Fiction in Translation site I contribute to. So I probably am biased. Nonetheless, I’ll be honest and say that my one critique with this is that I’d wish for footnotes explaining more about certain passages or translations. “Gabola” is one example that could have benefited. On the other hand, I imagine some readers might find footnotes obtrusively annoying.

I already reviewed both “Holes” and “The Substance of Ideas” on Speculative Fiction in Translation when they were published in short fiction outlets last year. If interested, you could click to read those reviews there and find links to the stories. A new read through them actually led to new insights and appreciations of the stories, again verifying just how well these stories hold up to multiple reads.

Jennifer Delare translated the final story of the collection, the eponymous “Creative Surgery” features a pair of outsider artist-type characters: in this case a creator of animal hybrids or chimeras who can cut, and her assistant, who can join. The story stands apart as going from the speculative edge toward horror, like the Mary Shelley story it uses at least in part as inspiration. It is used though to examine the central themes that pervade several of Farris’ other stories: human interactions and creations of beauty even amid exploitation.

The blurb quote on the cover of Creative Surgery by Cat Rambo is very apt. Firstly in the adjectives she uses to describe the writing. But also apt in that it’s Rambo providing it. The complex, detailed speculative creativity and style of Farris and the voice of her characters actually does remind me of what I’ve read from Rambo. Worlds seeming so bizarre, yet wholly believable. Creative Surgery has already gotten great reviews from Publisher’s Weekly, Strange Horizons, and Locus Magazine as well. My voice may not ring as far as those get, but if you happen to hear it, do give this a look. It deserves attention from the SF genre world, as well as any who appreciate literary short fiction in general.


THE ECHO WIFE by Sarah Gailey

The Echo Wife
By Sarah Gailey
Tor Books — February 2021
ISBN: 9781250174666
— Hardcover — 256 pp.


If you haven’t read anything yet about the plot to Sarah Gailey’s The Echo Wife, you might consider starting it without indulging in any summaries, not even what’s on the cover jacket. And long story short, I strongly recommend The Echo Wife. I received the novel and placed it on the ARC shelf with all the others, entering into my notes for potential review. As time passed I saw more word-of-mouth posts praising the novel; mentions included it being featured on several Best… or Most Anticipated… of 2021 lists, both within the SF genre and pop-culture wide. I still didn’t read what the book was actually about, and as for Sarah Gailey, I couldn’t recall ever reading their work before to know if I would like it. Despite the broad hype (which always makes me leery), I decided to start reading The Echo Wife – probably because specific authors and reviewers I’m fond of also hyped it. I cracked the ARC open and began reading, still without even reading the back cover synopsis, only expecting something SF that somehow involved genetics.

Not until approximately page 50 of the novel does the The Echo Wife fully reveal one of its major themes and plot elements. It takes a few more chapters still for an event to occur that sets the rest of the novel into motion. For certain there are hints to these things earlier in the novel, but Gailey gradually reveals details about their protagonist and the speculative world, details that the synopsis just flat-out states, lessening the reveal.

Now this is understandable, potential readers have to be told something about what this book is about, and even knowing these details, there are still a lot of surprises and discoveries for the rest of the novel until its ending. But, if a reader can be convinced to give this book a try without knowing any details, well, it makes it even all the more a satisfying read. Prior to any plot ‘reveals’, here is what Gailey establishes in the earliest pages of the novel:

The novel begins with genetics researcher Dr. Evelyn Caldwell attending an awards reception/banquet in her honor. Brilliant, but feeling out-of-place in this social setting, Evelyn cooperates in the engagement only because of its necessity for securing continued support for her ground-breaking research in growing human tissues in the lab. While tolerating the spectacle of the present by keeping her eyes on her future plans, Evelyn also reflects upon her past struggles to get here. Throughout professional and personal hurdles, including recent separation from her husband Nathan, Evelyn has persevered, sacrificed, and found success.

Following the reception and rest to recover, Evelyn returns to her life: the laboratory. Fired up to keep things moving forward and squashing all uncertainties or self-doubt that still rear their heads in her psyche, Evelyn gives orders to her lab assistant, the only other person that Evelyn trusts as competent and reliable. About to start on the research, Evelyn’s assistant informs her that she has received a phone message from a woman named Martine. This stops Evelyn with a shock: Martine, the new fiancée of Evelyn’s former husband Nathan, a woman whose existence she has even kept secret from her trusted assistant. Hesitant, Evelyn decides to go meet Martine, where she – and the reader – find their first surprise.

If you happen to still know nothing more of this novel, do consider leaving it at that. The Echo Wife is a speculative fiction thriller that predominantly focuses on themes of women in research and the personal life that a woman is expected to have versus that which they may choose to have. The speculative aspect involves genetics, though do not expect it to be fully fleshed out science. Dr. Caldwell’s award-winning research and techniques are vaguely described in terms of epigenetics and development, but not in believable detail that a biologist could imagine this speculative technology as actually existing. The reader is just asked to accept the science (fiction) as a set up for the social issues and character relationships that lie at the heart of the novel. That seems intentional by Gaiely, and that’s perfectly fine to a reader like me. In fact, a lot of the details in the science are things that Evelyn herself doesn’t at first understand completely, things she’ll have to look into further. The unexpected, seemingly ‘impossible’ aspects of the speculative elements in the novel are thus kind of the point, part of the mystery.

And mystery/crime/thriller is a category that The Echo Wife fits into just as comfortably as science fiction. However, it is not about solving a mystery, nor is it filled with taut action. It’s about how characters deal with secrets, mysteries, and uncertainties; how crimes can be covered up, and with resilience, moved past to still find some sort of success. It’s a psychologically driven thriller around the characters of Evelyn and Martine, women with a shared history, yet very unique. The Echo Wife speaks a lot to the experience of women in science – or professional lives in general. It raises a lot of moral questions, but doesn’t seek to provide trite answers. Again and again Evelyn writes: I am not a monster. The reader is left to conclude the truth to that statement. Gailey writes their characters in ways that blur the lines between hero and victim and villain, and they capture them with prose that never becomes oppressively dark, yet always has a foreboding shadow of secretes and deception lying behind it.

If you have already read other reviews or synopses of The Echo Wife to know more specific details, I’ll go into a few of those things, particularly biology aspects I find interesting as a biologist, here after this Gram negative:

SPOILER OUTER MEMBRANE

SPOILER PEPTIDOGLYCAN (PERIPLASM)

SPOILER CELL MEMBRANE

So, Martine is a clone of Evelyn; after voicing resistance to Nathan’s desires for her, and then being attacked by Nathan, Martine kills Nathan. Evelyn is willing to help, both in physically hiding Nathan’s body in the garden, and supporting Martine, who Nathan has biologically programmed with limitations and kept in ignorance. Bodies in the garden will return in multiple ways before novel’s end.

Gailey handles all of these twists fantastically well, plus others like Evelyn’s betrayal in the lab and Evelyn’s relationship with her parents. All disparate elements filter in for the same theme, the formation of a woman. Who is Evelyn/Martine, and why? How much is her and how much is conditioning and the will of others? Gailey takes this beyond the whole nature/nurture kind of debate when it comes to speculative genetics in a more modern way.

What I mean is: Clones are not a new theme to science fiction. The term ‘clone’ in this context means an organism that is genetically identical. Science fiction has used clones – even furthered to include the copying of memories and experiences. What Gailey does a bit differently here is playing with that term ‘identical’, in ways that more closely match actual biological reality. In that classic SF sense of ‘clone’ Martine isn’t really a clone of Evelyn at all. She is a genetically modified creation built upon an Evelyn template. And really, that is what all human cloning would result in.

After all, all of our cells are clones of each other. They all contain the same DNA (or lose it). Yet one cell can form part of heart tissue, another lung, another a neuron, another a leukocyte, another osteoclast. Very, very different, yet with the same blueprints. And that’s just in one organism through developmental variations in gene expression. Between two that share 100% of the same genetic material there is a complicating factor of epigenetics – changes that occur through DNA modifications, inherited protein structures, inherited microbes, etc.

Somehow, Dr. Evelyn Caldwell has found a way to not just let those processes proceed, that create variability even in a 100% DNA identical genetic clone, but to exert directed changes in them. Moreover, she has somehow found a way to map memories and selectively impart those. Nathan has taken her techniques and purposefully made changes she explicitly set out to not allow in the clones. This creates a lot to ponder regarding bioethics, even if Gailey doesn’t really go that classical direction in their novel.

Instead Gailey takes it to that level of the ethics of Nathan purposefully making an Evelyn replacement adhering to his desires and plans that the actual Evelyn did not make a priority. These physical actions mirror what men (or really spouses or even relationships in general) do to one another in s symbolic sense all the time. Within a relationship, what are the balances between sacrificing versus selfishness? Are professional concerns different from others? And what are the differences between the genders for these decisions/expectations?

With the foundation of speculation around ‘cloning’ Gailey forms all of these questions (and more) through their fascinatingly flawed characters and engaging plot. Whether all, or just some of it, represents a surprise to readers shouldn’t affect one’s overall appreciation of the novel. If you go into this expecting an action-driven SF murder thriller, you might be disappointed, because that’s not what it is. If one lets The Echo Wife speak on its own terms, I believe readers will find it has a lot to say and provide one to consider, and it will entertain. And that is what good speculative fiction and a thriller does.

I’ve now had the chance to also read a short story by Sarah Gailey in the Escape Pod anthology, which I’m reviewing for Skiffy & Fanty. I’ll definitely keep my eyes open for more of their future work, and hopefully have a chance to also read some of that prior.


CLARKESWORLD MAGAZINE #172 (January 2021) Edited by Neil Clarke


There are some excellent stories in this issue, complex and imaginative, but there are some let-downs compared to the best of what Clarkesworld has offered (for my tastes at least). Unfortunately, there are no translations in this issue, something that this outlet can almost always be relied upon to support. The novella here falls into a category that Clarkesworld novellas often are in (again for me): far too long for e-format and too short for a story I could best get into. And, with one third of the stories written in the second person that you of course will skip, you end up with a mixed bag for January’s issue.

“Intentionalities” by Aimee Ogden — Saddled with crippling debt and few options to dig herself out to secure any kind of stable future, a woman decides to apply for corporate support by offering her womb, carrying and delivering a child that will then be contracted after five years with her to go work for the company’s off-world mines. She comes to regret this decision and begins a campaign to fight a system that allows coercion of this horrible choice and ownership. Well written commentary on existing capitalist conditions that aren’t too far off from this scenario, all but literally.

“Deep Music” by Elly Bangs — Probably my favorite story of the issue for its themes and tones. Quinn takes care of aquids, squid-like water-creatures that have begun to appear on dry land and come into contact with humans. While some consider them as annoying pests that need to be removed or exterminated, Quinn is convinced they have intelligence, so gathers them and cares for them, trying to make sense of their communications. However, the owner of a rival aquid-removal service who treats the aquids with disdain begins to target Quinn (and the aquids) with hateful harassment. Quinn’s actions in response help solidify an understanding with the aquids in her care. Though the bones of the story and its ending will be recognizable to many readers, its lightness and familiarity feels welcome amid the rest of this issue, and the themes work in more modern ways as commentary on ‘troll-like’ relationships of harassment.

“Philia, Eros, Storge, Agápe, Pragma” by R.S.A. Garcia — I’m slowly growing to appreciate the novella-length story more when published on its own. But I still struggle with them in the contexts of short fiction magazines, particularly when having to read it on an e-reader or – even worse – a computer screen. This story is complex, organized in alternating passages between different times in the characters’ history. It serves as a prequel to a previous story by the author in Clarkesworld that featured the couple Dee and Eva. This recounts their meeting, when Dee rescues Eva who has crashed landed on a planet after a conflict that has left her paired AI “Sister” apparently malfunctioning. While dealing with loss of/changes in Sister that she had always been accustomed to, she begins romance with Dee and faces the enemy. I would have much preferred these two stories just as a novel, on their own. Nothing wrong with the writing here, so for readers who do love this novella length, the story will be successful and appreciated.

“The Last Civilian” by R. P. Sand — You did not read this story.

“Aster’s Partialities: Vitri’s Best Store for Sundry Antiques” by Tovah Strong — The most imaginative and magical of the stories here, reading more akin to fantasy than science fiction, it’s also the story that I felt benefitted from rereading. A magician named Syd who works in magical secrets of space and time is executed by the officials of Vitri. From drops of her blood upon the text of speels, her death gives birth to the narrators of the story, a ‘we’ that forms a house, with mirrors within that a form of Syd inhabits. The house consumes a man who dares enter, but then a curious child arrives, carrying with a necklace talisman that belonged to the magician. A fun story to read as I tried to figure out the nature of things as it unfolded. On some level about the persistence of a person’s influence beyond death on a city and its inhabitants, discovery of forbidden things by a new generation, and likely much more. Subsections are titled with a series of four numbers, but I haven’t figured out their relevance. Certainly a story to analyze but also just enjoy.

“Leaving Room for the Moon” by P H Lee — You start this story and all seems fine, only to realize it is yet another story to skip.

The issue also features “Science Fiction and Schmaltz: A Conversation with Connie Willis” and “The Ten-Year Journey: A Conversation with E. Lily Yu”, each by Arley Sorg, a 2020 in Review editorial by Clarke, and cover art by Yuumei.


DEPARTMENT ZERO by Paul Crilley

Department Zero
By Paul Crilley
Pyr Books — January 2017
ISBN: 9781633882010
— Paperback — 320 pp.


For some reason my reading over the last days has featured a good amount of cosmic horror, a sub-genre I don’t dislike, but also don’t gravitate toward. Given this, I thought it might be a good time to feature Paul Crilley’s 2017 novel Department Zero for a review from the backlist. Supernatural horror equal parts cosmic and comic, Department Zero has accurately been compared to the Men in Black series concept, with monsters in place of aliens. But, it also features characterization and motivation in its protagonist that goes beyond what those films attempted, and a multiversed panorama of settings and Lovecraftian creatures.

If you read any of my short fiction reviews, or the one I’ll soon write on Hailey Piper’s The Worm and His Kings, you’ll already know that I haven’t read Lovecraft. And even with the number of cosmic horror stories inspired by his style and creations, I don’t pay attention to, or care, who’s who or what’s what. Department Zero can be enjoyed without knowing anything about Lovecraft’s stories. I imagine it would be even more enriching for fans of the sub-genre who might get references. But, the heart of the story, its humor, and its non-stop moving action persist even if stripped from the cosmic horror particulars.

The protagonist of the novel is Harry Priest, a good-hearted – but generally failing-at-life – guy, whose job is to clean up deaths at crime/accident scenes. Stability at least accompanies this unpleasant occupation, stability that keeps him up with financial responsibilities to his ex-wife and continued visitations with his beloved daughter. No matter what crappy kind of day he has, Harry’s sole priority in life is getting to say goodnight to his daughter with a bedtime story.

On what he expects to be a routine biohazard removal job, Harry discovers something inexplicably bizarre amid the gory scene, and soon finds himself targeted by unfathomable creatures of nightmare. Harry’s actions at the crime scene draw the attention of one Havelock Graves, a self-absorbed agent for the Interstitial Crime Department (ICD), whose team has been demoted to “Department Zero” in punishment for the botched crime scene that Harry has accidentally disturbed. Harry has now been targeted by an evil cult that thinks he is involved in their multidimensional schemes, forcing Harry to join up as part of Graves’ team to reinstate them to ICD’s good gracious, and to thwart a criminal plan that spans the dimensions. The cult seeks the Spear of Destiny, a tool that can be used to free the cosmic entity/god Cthulhu from his dreamlike stasis.

Department Zero thus represents one huge mashup novel: science fiction, fantasy, gory horror, with a bit of mystery/thriller mixed in, all written with a lighthearted tongue-in-cheek humor from Harry’s point of view. No single one of these elements really works to overtake the rest, and Crilley keeps the engaging plot moving swiftly so that on a whole these disparate genre elements just all add up to a simply entertaining read.

The rapid pace of the novel has some downside to it, in that the reader doesn’t get too much of a chance to breathe or appreciate the multiverse as much as might be possible with more extensive scene-setting. On the other hand, like a good action movie, it keeps readers from worrying too much about the sense or silliness of it all, and simply instead just enjoying the ride. The main moments of ‘down-time’ from the novel’s plot propelling forward in action come from the grounded characterization of Harry Priest’s love for his daughter. Amid all the craziness and fantasy, there is something purely human and ‘realistic’ in his motivations and desires.

I suspect that the most prominent factor to Department Zero that will determine whether a reader likes the novel or decides to put it down unfinished will come down to appreciation of the humor. Some may find it too much, but others will find the quirkiness to hit the spot. It’s hard to predict where potential readers may lie, but if this summary and genre mash-up peaks your interest, it’s a wacky entertainment worth trying out. The blog Books, Bones & Buffy: Adventures in Speculative Fiction has an excerpt available for download, which might help potential readers decide if the novel’s tone is the right fit.

While Department Zero was not a book I was particularly looking for, it was one of those random ARC finds that left me pleased and glad that it found me.


ANALOG SCIENCE FICTION & FACT Vol. CXXXI #s 1 and 2 (January/February 2021) Edited by Trevor Quachri


The first issue of the year features a number of strong stories, but also some (particularly among the shortest) that seem less complete or impactful. Though still dominated by ‘hard science fiction’ that favors technology and speculative details, a surprising number of the stories here put the speculative element to the back to focus on character relationships or other non-technical themes. I’m fine with that trend, and certainly with the balance that it brings to this issue.

“Mixed Marriage” by Dan Helms — Soon Jae-won, the only son in a Korean family, awakens within their small allotment of living space to an important day ahead when he will meet his future wife. The story is set in a future where human population levels have resulted in adoption of ‘time share’, where families are designated just one day a week for going about activity, while sleeping the other six in cramped, shared quarters. Jae-won is a Friday, but the woman he is to marry is a Sunday, and generations kept separate has given rise to class and cultural differences that his family worries might interfere with a successful marriage. Interesting premise and story here from a clash of a conservative, traditional mindset with one more relaxed and open. I liked the ending and its take on how people can get comfortable in anything, and fear the work or discomfort that might arise from changing even something repressive. I don’t know why Helms chose Korea as the setting, and am not familiar enough with Korean culture enough to know the accuracy in portrayal here. Looking at other’s reviews of the story I’m concerned that so many of those seem to conflate Asian nations and cultures.

“A Shot in the Dark” by Deborah L. Davitt — On Uranus’ moon Titania, Dominic Vadas works for a UN space agency alone at the farthest station from Earth, happy to live a hermit away from human contact, and keeping interactions with his AI to a minimum. A new message from Earth with orders for Vadas to leave the autonomous robots going there and pack his bag to intercept and check out an extrasolar object that has arrived in our system. Along with the increased news from Earth arrives a letter from a daughter Vadas hadn’t realized he had. Fantastic story with natural dialogue, lots of technical details, and a strong human element with character development to boot.

“The Liberator” by Nick Wolven — A man infiltrates a criminal group that supports human reproduction without genetic modifications. Though the story is written well and engagingly as a thriller, the central theme here seems well-trodden and I didn’t feel the story added much perspective on what human modification should or should not entail, or the nature of how ‘defective’ could be defined.

“The Nocturnal Preoccupations of Moths” by J. Northcutt, Jr. — One of two stories in a row in the issue featuring a Martian colony. Here, the setting centers on botanists who are working hard to maintain seed banks amid the failing colony mission. The story is followed by a note of its historical influence from actions of botanists during the siege (of Leningrad if my memory serves) during WWII. The scientists actions and discussions are interspersed with passages on the behaviors of moth in the habitat. For me it was a beautiful, melancholy story of nature and human behavior during times of short supply.

“Belle Lettres Ad Astra” by Norman Spinrad — Written for a special volume themed around the state of reading in the future, this tale involves “Elon Tesla”, interstellar expansion of humanity through hibernation, and the possible discovery of a Dyson Sphere. I’m not a fan of Spinrad’s columns usually, and this story felt just as ambling and uninteresting.

“By the Will of the Gods” by Charles Q. Choi — A young man who has been raised an orphan in a temple found on a space route looks into the death of the temple’s caretaker, the one man there who showed love for the boy and helped mentor him. A nice mixture of SF, mystery, and class commentary.

“My Hypothetical Friend” by Harry Turtledove — Dave Markarian has built Interstellar Master Traders by profiting from his carefully established business relationship with the enigmatic Brot, a slug-like alien race that arrives on Earth with advanced technology well beyond humanities capabilities or even comprehension. He learns that the Brot representative that he has worked with for decades – perhaps even developed a friendship with – is leaving. Markarian’s symbolic gift for the departing Brot shows a deeper perception of the human-Brot relatioship than he may realize. Alien contact (arrival on Earth) stories stereotypically go the way of conqueror or altruistic saviors, but as he excels at, Turtledove looks to history to speculate more realistic and imaginable interactions (business and personal) between trading partners with such differences in development between them.

“Photometric Evidence of the Gravitational Lensing of SAO23820 By a Nonluminous Low-Mass Stellar Object” by Jay Werkheiser — A physicist relates being ostracized into an academic pariah after relentlessly pursuing publication of data he feels indicates the presence of a black dwarf star. Others refuse to accept this as it runs counter to the Standard Theory. Maybe physics is more black/white than bio, but I would think a bit of data might be consistent or inconsistent with something without leading a grand theory being so threatened. Other explanations seem to always exist. And this, I guess, takes place in the days before preprint servers? Story does say something about dogma in science that is worth saying, I just am not sure it did so in the best way.

“Conference of the Birds” by Benjamin C. Kinney — Only after reading the author biography after this story, did it completely click with me. This is a story that merges artificial intelligence concepts with neurobiological intelligence concepts, a tale of drones acting out the will of a central hub, of individual actions within a larger societal organism. This one is dense, with a unique voice for its major character. For my tastes in fiction I’d say I like the concept more than the execution. But I get why some readers would find this a fascinating and rewarding read. Scientists or laypersons with an interest in neurobiology or AI should definitely give this a look.

“Interstellar Pantomime” by Martin Dimkovski — A probe from Earth responds to an object trailing it as programmed, but unbeknownst to the probe’s designers, this alien object can use its observations of the probe to extrapolate its origin. A simple, fair speculative idea. But, I’m not a fan of this kind of minimalist story around a hard SF concept, even if short.

“Matter and Time Conspire” by Sandy Parsons — Flash fiction like the previous story, this one dealing with multiple ‘me’ characters due to the messing with time. An enjoyable enough read, but nothing special or particularly new to it.

“The Tale of Anise and Basil” by Daniel James Peterson — This brief story features a human prisoner forced to be royal storyteller in an alien court. The alien ruler demands a story that conforms to rules of leaving no details unexplained or left to the imagination or face death. Considering the demand and its traps, the human storyteller finds a way to oblige. A commentary on unreasonable reader/reviewer demands for authors? Reads like a fable, but with the technical/philosophic arguments that perhaps make it fitting for Analog.

“The Practitioner” by Em Liu — Medical students in 2093 observe events through time from past eras as part of their Medical Ethics course. One student has difficulties coming to terms with what she observes in the mid-1960s at an underground (illegal) abortion clinic. The politics of the story stay relatively muted despite the subject matter by focusing mainly on the student’s emotions and her rationale for being involved in medicine. I liked it, and the story focuses less on the technology than I would have expected from the Analog venue, but that’s fine with me.

“What Were You Thinking?” by Jerry Oltion — What is consciousness? What is intelligent behavior compared to simple programmed responses. A boy observing his girlfriend’s cat vomiting up hairballs designs an animal behavior experiment to address this question. I adored this story, and will probably feature it in my Biology in Fiction course where the debate over consciousness comes up quite a bit.

“Changing Eyes” by Douglas P. Marx — The second story featuring Martian colonies, here with people descended from Sherpas, where a man who helped terraform the planet returns to help solve a technical problem/disaster, having left some time ago after his wife and daughter perished. The science behind the story (involving energy generation) was inconsequential to me, though may interest some. But, I did enjoy the theme of returning to a belovedly important place that also holds painful memories.

“A Working Dog” by anne m. gibson — The second story in the issue featuring animal behavior and this one is humorous, clever, and charming. A woman who has invented lawncare robots made to appear like rabbits becomes concerned when she realizes they provoke canine hunting instincts, so she searches for a solution. Aside from the topic the story perfectly illustrates scientific problem-solving and carefully considering assumptions of what the problem is.

“So You Want to Be a Guardian Angel” by Michael Meyerhofer — Candidates looking to work in the protection of Earth from asteroids receive a talk about what the job would entail, especially the loneliness. Very short story – not quite flash – but nothing particularly special about it.

“Choose One” by Marie DesJardin — This strange piece of flash fiction features a dancer who has been selected by aliens as a potential ‘best of’ humanity (from all walks of life). Housed separately but with information on who remains, she watches as one-by-one other candidates ‘disappear’. Unclear what happens to those who fail to measure up, or what the aliens are actually looking for. Existential angst is what this story seemed to be for me.

“We Remembered Better” by Evan Dicken — Interesting story where two siblings are left one single memory in their estranged, abusive mother’s will. One sibling is trans, and this decision seems to have led to much of the rift between mother and children. The story raises issues of what one might choose to do with the opportunities to view memories from the point of view of others, including those who you might vehemently disagree. It also touches upon sibling support.

“The Last Compact” by Brian Rappatta — Another set on Mars. A young man and his mothers are moving, ending an AI-related museum project he was helping work on, with an AI saint now going into archive that the man wishes he could save and take with. This felt like a fragment of a story, and I cannot find it fulfilling anything significant with what it does contain.

“Riddlepigs and the Cryla” by Raymund Eich — A vet who is really excited to get to treat a dinosaur is sad to discover her patient is actually a pig who has been injured by the escaped dino from the nearby preserve on this extraterrestrial planet setting. Some interesting ideas here on the ‘value’ of organisms common versus exotic, some speculation on transplant organ production, but lacked any depth beyond.

“The Last Science Fiction Story” by Adam-Troy Castro — Flash fiction almost akin to a prose poem (although I guess that is oxymoronic?) The title is ironic, for there can never be a last one, as the story explains.

With “Constructing a Habitable Planet” science fact by Julie Novakova and poetry by Jennifer Crow (Hidden Things) and Bruce McAllister (If).


LIGHTSPEED MAGAZINE #128 (January 2021) Edited by John Joseph Adams


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.


THE HUNT FOR FOXP5: A GENOMIC MYSTERY NOVEL by Wallace Kaufman and David Deamer

The Hunt for FOXP5: A Genomic Mystery Novel
By Wallace Kaufman and David Deamer
Springer Publishing — May 2016
ISBN: 9783319289601
— Paperback — 251 pp.


Writing balanced science fiction can be a real challenge, particularly if an author is trying to keep the science 100% accurate and the speculation 100% plausible. At least, it’s hard for me to find ‘hard SF’ that I enjoy. Some may be fine with a work from the sub-genre even if it has little literary merit going for it, or a lack of thematic depth beyond the scientific concepts. The science alone isn’t entertaining and interesting enough for me – especially when it is the fields of science that seem to dominate that label ‘hard’: technology, physics, and astronomy.

“Hard” SF featuring biology definitely exists, though it is more rare, I feel, to find stories where the amount of biological science/speculation in the story equals other elements like plot and character. When I have seen it (for example with Peter Watts) I still don’t end up enjoying the work as much as other books that put less emphasis on the science. I guess I just always want more of the literary or entertainment than the science fact and education in my fiction.

I still look for potential reads in the sub-genre though, especially when it falls in my field of biology, and I was intrigued when I found biology-related titles in the “Science and Fiction” series from Springer, which publishes novels written by scientists about their field. One of these, The Hunt for FOXP5: A Genomic Mystery Novel by Wallace Kaufman and David Deamer turned out to be one of the most successful merging of science and fiction that I’ve read, a story that could easily have been serialized to acclaim in Analog Magazine. The creation of the novel comes through the combination of Kaufman (a writer and translator) and Deamer (a research professor in Biomolecular Engineering at UC Santa Cruz)

After the mysterious death of her husband, genetics researcher Dr. Michelle Murphy is left to raise her adoptive daughter Avalon, a brilliant eight-year-old they had adopted from Kazakhstan. Dr. Murphy receives an invitation from a prestigious Kazakh scientist Dr. Akenov to attend and present her research at a genetics conference in Kazakhstan, and invites her to bring along her adoptive daughter as an opportunity for Avalon to learn more about her proud homeland, so unlike what the film Borat portrays. Dr. Murphy’s skepticism regarding the timing and motivation of the invitation become confirmed with a visit from the CIA. They inform Dr. Murphy that Dr. Akenov is on their radar as potentially being involved in the development of a biological weapon. While they warn Dr. Murphy and express fear for both her safety and Avalon’s, they also hope that Dr. Murphy’s attendance to the conference will give them an opportunity to use her as an information-gathering spy.

Agreeing, and still taking Avalon with despite the risks, Dr. Murphy and her daughter arrive in Kazakhstan. There, they gradually unravel links between Dr. Murphy’s research into the FOX family of genes, the death of her husband, Avalon’s heritage, and Akenov’s plans. The story combines anthropology, biology, politics, and national identity into what could be best called a scientific thriller, despite the use of the term ‘mystery’ in the novel’s subtitle.

The FOXP5 of the title refers to a fictional allele (flavor of gene) in the very real family of FOX genes. The FOX family of genes encode proteins that bind to DNA and act as transcription factors, that is to say they regulate when and how genes are expressed. First discovered and researched in the model fruit fly organism (Drosophila), these genes are conserved throughout vertebrates, including humans. One member of the family, FOXP2, is responsible in bird species for controlling the development of call mimicry, and in humans that same gene plays a role in the development of speech and language. As I understand it, scientists believe that mutations in FOXP2 may have contributed to the evolution of modern H. sapiens from ancestral populations through additional abilities of language, and thereby culture, that these mutant alleles permitted. The Hunt for FOXP5 speculates additional FOX mutant alleles occurring and what the implications of that could be if selected for in the human population. A section in the back of the book following the story highlights the science behind the fiction of this novel, presumably primarily by Deamer.

Some might find it surprising that Dr. Murphy agrees to go to the conference despite the dangers admitted by the CIA. Even moreover, how could she possibly also still take her daughter? I actually didn’t find this too implausible. Scientists can be stubborn, and everything about Dr. Murphy and Avalon point to them as not backing away from threats, responsibilities, or opportunities to do good. Showing maturity well behind her age (for reasons we eventually see) Avalon is likewise someone that Dr. Murphy is not going to shelter away, though she will take all precautions she can.

The plot and action of the novel stay engaging throughout, as one would expect from a thriller. The writing is by no means fancy or awe inspiring, rather by-the-book and generally unadorned. I would have loved it to be a little deeper and more interesting in its language (especially given the scientific concepts of language featured here), but I see this as no different from best-selling thriller novels. Similarly, Akenov and his grand plot reveal to be cartoonish and silly from the perspective of scientific speculation realism – but again, this seems to me no different than what large selling thrillers typically are.

Meaning, if you like political thrillers with a good dose of science and aren’t particular about them being works of art, this is a book you might find very entertaining and worth a read. That kind of thriller can go either way for me, sometimes I find them too silly, or too badly written in language. For me this kept those at an acceptable/adequate level. What really brought the novel slightly higher for me to enjoy more than, say, the average thriller are two factors: the protagonists and the setting.

Kazakhstan provides an excellent unique element to The Hunt for FOXP5 to set it apart from competing thrillers that may stick with the usual US – enemy relations. (To clarify, while Akenov, a Kazakh is the villain, he’s not really acting on behalf of his government per se.) Kaufman, who has previously worked in Kazakhstan contributed this aspect, I would assume, and it allows for details for readers to discover that decorate and enrich the plot and science backbone of the novel.

Dr. Michelle Murphy and Avalon also make fantastic protagonists. It is nice having two female stars being both heroes in a political action thriller AND brilliant scientific minds at the same time. Young women who might think that science or global affairs isn’t something they could be involved in would find inspiration in this.

This review comes long after the initial publication of the novel, which I regret. I didn’t like a previous novel from this Science and Fiction series, so I didn’t rush to read this one as quickly as otherwise. But now finally the review. I hope it encourages some who have an interest in genetics and/or thrillers to find a copy of this.