The Album of Dr. Moreau
By Daryl Gregory
Tor.com — May 2021
ISBN: 9781947879331 — Paperback — 176 pp.
Have you long been searching for a short science fiction / murder mystery read, packed with humor and meta winks, featuring a Boy Band of eccentric, genetically-engineered, human-animal hybrids?
Well, you should be now. Immediately.
It may surprise you, but I hadn’t either. Boy Bands were never my thing, and my musical tastes are not now – nor have they ever been – particularly mainstream. I also have never read The Island of Dr. Moreau. I watched the movie with Marlon Brando and Val Kilmer back at its release, but don’t really remember any details of it. Or I’ve blocked them out. I know the gist of the story though, and could sing you Oingo Boingo’s “No Spill Blood”. That’s about it.
I am a fan of murder mysteries though. And science fiction. And I think I’ve enjoyed, if not loved, all the short fiction by Daryl Gregory that I’ve read over the years in magazines. So, though I was never looking for this book, and the premise didn’t sound that tempting, I gave it a try. I am so thankful that I did.
Gregory succeeds phenomenally well here with the mashup of classic mystery and classic science fiction riffs, tying it all together with a tongue-in-cheek, light-hearted noir tone (oxymoron intended) that pulls readers in to simply enjoy the ride. He play with every element, even the murder mystery one by breaking all five of T.S. Eliot’s rules for effective, proper detective fiction.
So, I should summarize the plot a bit before rambling on…
Las Vegas Detective Luce Delgado has the difficult task of solving the murder of Dr. M, the producer behind 2001’s hottest boy band, the WyldBoyZ. The five genetically-engineered members of this vocal group are Delgado’s prime suspects. She begins to interview each of them: Bobby the ocelot (the ‘cute’ one), Matt the megabat (the ‘funny’ one), Tim the pangolin (the ‘shy’ one), Devin the bonobo (the ‘romantic’ one), and Tusk the elephant (the ‘smart’ one). Through the band members and others involved in their entourage, Delgado (and the reader) learn of the egos, talents, foibles, fractures, and traumas that underlie the band’s history and success.
Gregory brings the characters alive, absurd as they are, to make the reader actually invested in them each, as if one were fans of the band. He makes the mystery plot engaging, paced perfectly to allow the reader to get to know all the suspects, revealing bits that can lead the reader to figure some likelihoods out, but still nailing the eventual culprit reveal. He pays homage to a classic, while also inventing the story in a fun, interesting way.
Through that all, Gregory lets his love of music shine, crafting a story that is equally faux documentary of a band’s history and personalities, like a literary This Is Spın̈al Tap. The humor is on-point, but never gets silly or infantile. It becomes grounded in the serious nature of the psychologies of the band members.
The critique of celebrity and themes surrounding the cost of fame, and the humanization of idols, is nothing new to The Album of Dr. Moreau. but mix that with the the themes of H.G. Wells novel in a murder mystery framework, and all the familiar elements that make up this novel remix into a glorious new beat and key of pure entertainment and fun. I’m not sure if these characters (or the universe) would work in a series that mashed up with additional science fiction classics. But I think it should be investigated. At the least, more stories in this style would be very welcome.
Engines of Oblivion
(The Memory War Book II)
By Karen Osborne
Tor Books — February 2021
ISBN: 9781250215505 — Paperback — 416 pp.
Trilogies and beyond are certainly the norm for genre fiction. Many stand-alones exist. But, seem to be pretty rare. If writing two distinct chapters, how easy it much be to stretch things for more. If they aren’t so distinct, couldn’t they simply fit together into just one longer volume? Karen Osborne does something unique and remarkable with her “The Memory War” duology. Engines of Oblivion, the second book of the series feels even more successful than the first.
The two novels are flip-sides of the same coin, or the same vinyl record, bearing different surface characteristics but forged from the same core elemental materials. Both of them enrich one another: the first is necessary to grasp the sequel, but the sequel makes the reader appreciate its predecessor more deeply. The duology actually becomes a whole. Though Engines of Oblivion may feel better, it’s mostly because the reader can now fully connect with what came before, realizing this is a story of two distinct protagonists faced with the same economical and political exploitation/control.
The first novel of “The Memory War”, Architects of Memory, follows corporately indentured salvage pilot Ash Jackson, who (with the crew she works with) discovers a weapon of mass destruction that might be useful in a war between humanity and the alien Vai. I wrote more on that novel in an earlier review, and I also had the opportunity to interview author Karen Osborne on the series.
Engines of Oblivion continues following the events that close Architects of Memory, but now following protagonist Natalie Chan, a war veteran who served with Ash on the crew of the Twenty-Five. Chan has barely survived the battle of Tribulation at the climax of the first book, but has gained her corporate citizenship as a result. However, it still comes with additional price. The Board of the Aurora Corporation doesn’t believe Ash and her partner Kate (the former captain of the Twenty-Five) are dead, and they suspect Chan may have even had a hand in letting them escape with the secrets of the alien technology that could be used to defeat the Vai. Chan is sent along with other former crew member Dr. Reva Sharma to find Ash and Kate. There is a significant complication, however. Natalie Chan has lost pockets of her memory, and she is beginning to doubt many things she took for granted.
Like its predecessor, Engines of Oblivion has rapid pacing, but familiarity with the characters makes it far easier to jump into. The first book showed how a tight-knit group of people who professionally relied on each other for their lives turned to mistrust, betrayal, and some signs of hopeful empathy/solidarity. The sequel explores these character connections more deeply, in satisfying ways that enrich the characterization from the first novel.
Some readers may find it jarring for the story to turn towards the point-of-view of Natalie Chan. Readers become very accustomed to Ash in the first novel, and invested in rooting for her success. We see Chan in that novel only through Ash’s interpretative mind, and not as a particularly relatable person to empathize with. However, Osborne does fabulously well from the start putting readers into Chan’s confused mind to get another perspective on things and generate reader sympathy for someone who may have been more disliked prior.
Chan has bought into the power structure and narratives of the Corporatocracy that runs things in “The Memory War”. But she slowly begins to see things that Ash had long known and appreciated. Through Natalie Chan’s initial complicity, and gradual awakening, Engines of Oblivion is able to dramatically expand the themes of corporate power and personal freedom that the first novel touched upon.
As with the first novel, Engines of Oblivion provides some twists and surprising turns to end up in a satisfying conclusion that draws both the heart of this novel, and the overall series plot, into effective close. I would have enjoyed more background detail and exploration of the Vai over other elemental foci of the novel, but that is the biologist in me, I understand that not everything can fit.
If you are a fan of space opera and still haven’t checked this pair of books out, go get Architects of Memory now, it ranks among the best in the current sub-genre and would give any of the ‘classics’ a run for their money.
A really stellar issue from Apex again for these two months. Aside from the interactive story I had no interest in (so cannot speak on) there is not one disappointing story here.
“The Amazing Exploding Women of the Early Twentieth Century” by A.C. Wise — Two actresses in the early silent era of film find they share pyrokinetic abilities that enable them to set themselves on fire without harm. A useful talent for an era where many did their own stunts; also a talent that can be turned against abusive powers in the industry. The main story is bookended by short sections set in the recent present, with one of the women relating things to a granddaughter (if my memory serves in details). I always get appreciation/enjoyment from stories about film, including the silent era, which I love. The only downside to this story is the length: longer than I felt it needed. The framing scenes add some extra themes, but not sure they were essential or needed.
“Las Girlfriends Guide to Subversive Eating” by Sabrina Vourvoulias — An ‘interactive’ story with which I chose to not interact.
“Barefoot and Midnight” by Sheree Renée Thomas — A standout story of the issue due to its subject matter and power, but above all because it is written so amazingly well, horrific and melancholic and beautiful all at once. Like a lamentation the story surges with righteous wailing against injustices. It shows how pain and sacrifice can continue even amid processes of healing, and suggests that sometimes revenge is just as damaging as an original hurt.
“Black Box of the Terraworms” by Barton Aikman — Terraforming machines sent by humans to an alien planet consume some of the native organisms and through it learn from the creature’s memories of the planet’s previous inhabitants that worshiped the creatures. An inventive story of biotechnology and ecological themes, but which then also takes of mythical tones. Fascinating grand-scale fiction.
“A Love That Burns Hot Enough to Last: Deleted Scenes from a Documentary” by Sam J. Miller — A series of interviews about a pop singer and a Christian parent who campaigns against her music, being convinced she is in reality a witch. Almost always enjoy Miller’s work, and this was no exception. I feared that the stereotypically bigoted Christian would make me sour, but Miller actually handles it well. (I still wish more authors would introduce Christians who AREN’T this way at all.) The story more speaks to themes of hero worship and unreasonable expectations that fans place on talent.
“If Those Ragged Feet Won’t Run” by Annie Neugebauer — A fantasy where a mother and newborn try and escape from bird-like monsters that kill those who stray from the village. Great atmosphere and tense plotting here. It recalled to my mind the thoughts I’ll sometimes have watching nature programs where I see a predator about to strike down prey, a cute little juvenile who’s just trying to survive. But then after the predator fail and I celebrate continued life, the camera cuts to the starving offspring of the predator that now have no food.
“She Searches for God in the Storm Within” by Khaalidah Muhammad-Ali — A reprint originally published in Sword and Sonnet, edited by Aiden Doyle, Rachael K. Jones, and E. Catherine Tobler. It features a powerful female protagonist surviving against harsh unjust treatment. The theme of the anthology where it appeared was “women and non-binary battle poets”. I’m not a fan of the poet aspect, but this is another story of righteous anger, but taken in a more positive way, speaking to the unleashing of a ‘storm’ of suppressed rage that women (and women of color in particular) become told to endure.
“The Eight-Thousanders” by Jason Sanford — I never expected to like a story about climbing Mount Everest so much. Turning it into a horror featuring a vampire who ‘prey’s on those who succumb to the mountain is brilliant, and Sandford uses that plot to explore familiar vampire tale themes in novel ways, as well as cultural aspects of the mountain climbers and the natives who make a living catering to them. The story originally appeared in Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine at the end of last year.
With editorial by Jason Sizemore, nonfiction articles “Jimi Hendrix Sang It” by ZZ Claybourne and “Telling Stories of Ghosts” by Wendy N. Wagner, book reviews by A.C. Wise, and interviews with Sabrina Vourvoulias and Annie Neugebauer by Andrea Johnson, and of cover artist Thomas Tan by Russell Dickerson. Cover design by Justin Stewart.
Another overall impressive issue from Analog, which is nicely becoming more diverse and balanced in their offerings. I wouldn’t say they have lost the core mission of the hard SF that they tend to go for, but they have broadened the representation of authors and interpretations of what that means beyond what had in past become a somewhat cliched standard. A wider range of readers will find things to enjoy in issues these days.
“Invasive Species” by Catherine Wells — The wife of a man goes missing on an alien world where humans are kept in a small enclave by the native intelligent population to limit human damage to the ecosystem (and also supposedly for human safety.) When the missing wife cannot be found anywhere, the man seeks permission to go search beyond the enclave’s walls, and takes in a native nanny to watch his newborn while off looking. The ideas in the story are wonderful, and it’s entertaining. However, by its end I was left wondering about the alien actions and I can’t help but think a lot of action/lack of communication occurred simply so the story could happen.
“Flash Mob” by Meg Pontecorvo — Too much science fiction spends efforts being speculative or focusing on technology. I adore a nice story simply focusing on doing science. In this one, a researcher tries to balance single parenthood with the demands of academic research. Her research into squid behaviors allows an opportunity to observe a rare, inexplicable mass of Japanese squid gathering off the coast of CA. She thinks there may be something to their bioluminescent signaling. Fantastic ending for this as well.
“Tail Call Optimization” by Tony Ballantyne — AI stories aren’t inherently my favorite. However, this one manages to put a spin and unexpected twists into the story to make it very entertaining and thought provoking. An apparently malfunctioning alien AI comes into contact with a human intelligence that forces reconsideration of the situation.
“Damocles” by Sean McMullen — An alternate history story of higher technology in WWII, specifically an invention that could be a devastatingly dangerous weapon in the wrong hands. Those that like this genre of story will likely really enjoy this one. It’s written well, but didn’t really capture my interest.
“Problem Landing” by Sean Monaghan — A story of Mars, drawing inspiration from private-funded space exploration corporation like Musk’s SpaceX. As the title suggests, landing on the red planet goes awry. The existing Martian colonists try and come up with a rescue plan for any survivors among the new arrivals. A classic sort of Analog story where human ingenuity is needed to solve a technical problem. It works well as that, but I didn’t find it as compelling on the level of the characters so much. Hard SF fans should really love it though.
“The Trashpusher of Planet 4” by Brenda Kalt — Excellent story that balances seriousness and humor, the familiar and unexpected, with things alien and human. It’s told from the point-of-view of Awi Trashpusher Nonnumber, a lower caste worker on a spaceship traveling through our solar system. Though Awi sits as low-rung as one of his People can, he aspires to more. While his fellow species members give him no respect, the ship’s AI starts giving him greater tasks in secret. The protagonist may be alien in appearance, but the social and personal struggles of the tale are all very familiar to us humans.
“It’s Cold on Europa” by Filip Wiltgren — Two isolated ice miners on Europa live with artificial constructs of their spouses, which have personalities/memories updated as part of the slow communication from their real counterparts based elsewhere in the solar system. The protagonist becomes increasingly concerned that her spousal construct is acting colder and distant, but she has no indications of why. A really fantastic story that postulates new iterations of time-old communication problems in relationships. It takes the concept of ‘ghosting’ and anxiety to larger scales.
“The Acheulean Gift” by Matthew Claxton — A camp houses children born from a now defunct program that used genetic engineering to express genes of extinct humanoid species (like Denisovans and Neanderthals) in H. sapiens. It’s an interesting, and good, story that explores the biological basis of things like cooperation, tool use and problem solving, but also then of fear of the other and racism. I wish the story delved into the genetics in more detail with more believability though.
“If a Tree Doesn’t Fall” by Jerry Oltion — A hiker in Wyoming comes across a floating tree, and he investigates how the heck this could possibly be happening. Nothing much to this short story at all, but a pleasant enough diversion.
“Thh*sh*thhh” by Aimee Ogden — Another story with not much to it, but just the right amount given this is flash fiction. A human researcher (xenoanthropologist?) attends the exceedingly rare funeral for a member of an extremely long-lived (practically immortal) alien species. At this she learns the painful emotional downside to their exceptional life spans. High quality flash fiction.
“John Henry Was a Steel Driving Man” by Shane Halbach — Another classic Analog problem-solving story, set on a space station, where workers have to deal with potential disaster. Complicating matters are divisions among the poorly treated workers who want to strike, and the corporate powers above them. Sometimes the actions of fellow co-workers can make the situation worse. If not great, a decent story that preaches the virtues of hard work that one takes pride in, and attention to detail, no matter the situation.
“Recollection” by Elise Stephens — When the status and destination of many stories in Analog can be known from very early on, it’s nice to have a more slow building story included here that at first puts the reader in uncertain waters. Set in a barren dystopia, a government representative (Harvester) arrives in town to look into aid that they might need. A teenage girl there becomes intrigued by technology the woman uses that holds memory and images of the time before. An interesting look at the ethics of uneasy decisions.
“The Burning Lands” by Tom Jolly — Strange, seemingly spontaneous wildfires are breaking out and killing people. A detective and arson investigator try and solve the mystery. For methanogenesis playing such a key role in this, was very disappointed archeaea were not properly discussed in such a ‘hard’ SF venue.
“Hillman, Charles Dallas, Age: 35, No Partner, Parents: Deceased” by Ron Collins — A former finance broker on the run decides to enter into a clinical trial to go off the grid with free room and board. The brain scans they do on him have unexpected consequences for someone trying to maintain a low profile. An ironic cyberpunkish kind of story that felt as jumbled by its end as the protagonist seems to be.
“I Have Loved the Stars Too Fondly” by James Van Pelt — A very short story (flash?) where a social program provides the homeless with a new chance and home as lunar colonists. Among other possible interpretations, the tale illustrates how such programs can be mistrusted and also taken advantage of. Parallels to how different societal groups react to SARS-CoV-2 vaccination spring to mind.
“The Pond Who Sang” by Charles Hand — Many have combined the mathematical aspects of music with concepts of neural networks (biological or other), such as Hofstadter. Here, Hand puts such musings into a very inventive short SF. I’m not sure this works as is without further development, beyond being intriguing and a speculative ‘mood’ piece.
“Second Hand Destinies” by Marie Vibbert — SF with symbiotic creatures helping animate a humanoid body aren’t new, but Vibbert does interesting things with the concept in this story (more parasitic perhaps) of a small family eking out survival on a dilapidated space station. Vividly written and great characters.
“The Shadow of His Wings” by Ray Nayler — Transfer of consciousness into animals (that still allows total control) forms the speculative crux of this story that explores issues of obligation and power. Strange, but written in a way that makes it seem completely ordinary.
Includes science fact article “From Atmospheric Rivers to Super Typhoons: The Future Looks Bright for Weather Disaster Fans” by Christina De La Rocha and poems “Mostly Hydrogen” by Jack Martin and “First Scientist (?-?) by Jessy Randall. With guest editorial “Better Than Being Fossilized!” by Ian Watson, The Alternative View by John G. Cramer and Guest Alternative View by John J. Vester. Reference Library by Don Sakers and Upcoming Events by Anthony Lewis.
Love. An Archaeology
By Fábio Fernandes
Luna Press Publishing — 26th March 2021
ISBN: 9781913387426 — Paperback — 164 pp.
Cover: Francesca T Barbini
What exactly is a translation? For a multilingual writer, does every piece become a sort of translation within the creator’s mind, or is each story pre-filtered though one linguistic route of the brain?
These question came to mind as I read Love. An Archaeology, the first collection of short fiction from Brazilian writer Fábio Fernandes, just released from Luna Press as part of their “Harvester Series.” The books in this series intentionally gather a collection of old and new works from a writer, along with authorial reflections as an appendix. For Fernandes’ stories, language becomes another layer to that harvest of past and new works.
Two of the stories in Love. An Archaeology were originally written in Portuguese and translated into English by Fernandes for the collection. One of those two was translated into Spanish for its original publication. One, Fernandes wrote in English for submission to an anthology. When it didn’t make the cut, he then translated into Portuguese and published that. Though the majority of the stories in the collection were written and published originally in English, they still exude an aura of being cultural hybrids. While the characters and plot do contribute, Fernandes’ English also adds to that flavor. Though technically correct, he often turns his phrasing in a way that feels slightly off from that of a native speaker. And that is absolutely wonderful, fitting perfectly with the unexpected turns of his stories, and those moments of surreal wonder particularly found in his forays into New Weird.
But as Paul Jessup notes in his introduction to the collection, the stories here are more than a literature of atmosphere. They are “an exploration of idea with depth. Each story is poetic, at times spiritual and transcendent.” That depth permeates into realms both emotional and intellectual. Love. An Archaeology will make you think. Though pointing out the uniqueness of Fernandes, Jessup also compares his writing to that of Gene Wolfe, Jorge Luis Borges, Eugène Ionesco, Jeffery Ford, and Ted Chiang.
The name that pops to my mind first, however, is Samuel R. Delany. In part that’s because I first encountered Fernandes with “Eleven Stations” in Stories for Chip, edited by Nisi Shawl and Bill Campbell. Reading Love. An Archaeology I increasingly noticed the shared fundamental elements between Delany and Fernandes: the intensity, the intellect, the curiosity, the subtle complexity exploring a basic idea. Both can leave readers disoriented one moment, only to lead them to startling revelation the next. Throughout that all, a love for – and power over – language.
I didn’t appreciate all this when reading “Eleven Stations” in Stories for Chip. I ended up relatively ambivalent to the story then, certainly not disliking it, but not enjoying either. Starting Love. An Archaeology I at first felt similarly. The opening story “Seven Horrors” revolves around a fascinating premise taking the idea of time travel in truly unique and mind-bending directions. A man simply called the Time Traveller and a woman known as the Assassin hop across the eons of time, locked together in an immortal struggle for/against death and love for one another. In this tale Fernandes takes the contradictions inherent to time travel stories and simply runs with the trope’s bewildering anti-logic. The framework becomes an opportunity to meditate on themes of spirituality, love, and persistence.
On the one hand, I loved the concepts of the story and its gentle luscious prose, which contras with the apocalyptic settings and chaos through time. On the other hand, I found it dense to get into with a formality to its tone that almost clashes with the personal nature of the character interactions at its heart. A lot of the references were lost on me. (The first section of the collection contains four stories ‘to the memory of Harlan Ellison’ and this must be Ellisonesque in some way I wouldn’t be able to grasp.) It’s a hard story to start things off with, yet appropriate and easier to appreciate as one digs deeper into the collection and becomes familiar with what Fernandes is doing.
Aside from showing how he approaches classic speculative fiction themes, “Seven Horrors” introduces readers to the themes of metaphysics/spirituality that Fernandes draws upon, especially Buddhism. Both “Eleven Stations” in Stories for Chip and “Seven Horrors” that opens Love. An Archaeology represent titles that invite speculation for numerical symbolism. Fernandes uses this type of title in additional stories in this collection, and dates. These numbers are yet another example of the cultural depths that he digs for details in his stories. Numbers mean something equally as much as words, and they are in some ways the purest form of science fiction, even more so than physics as they underlie the language of the universe and the sciences.
By the second story of Love. An Archaeology, I became hooked. Its plot is more conventional, yet still contains the elements that Fernandes plays with so effectively. It’s also a fantasy/horror as opposed to a science fiction, and I feel they are so much easier for me to get into. “The Emptiness in the Heart of All Things” may be my favorite story of the collection. It draws from the Matinta Pereira folklore of the Brazilian ‘northern wilderness’, but Fernandes works with political and feminist themes inspired by the legend of this witch-like creature, and he casts it into a crime plot. Though it contains elements of Weird, the linear narrative gives the early reader a bit more stability in navigating Fernandes’ references and themes. I wish he wrote more in this genre, because this is exceptional.
Though still in the section dedicated to Ellison, “The Remaker” is a meta-tribute to Borges, a near-future remake of Borges’ “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote.” The original apparently being a story about a fellow (Menard) who recreates (not copies) Cervantes’ classic. So this is a remake of a remake concept, and we are several recursive layers deep here. Again the concept is intriguing, and now a few stories in, I had begun warming to Ferndandes’ style. As the backdrop to that, Fernandes gives his “Pierre Menard” lovers, allowing rich character development while also tapping into diversity of sex and gender. Originally published in a collection titled Outlaw Bodies, the rawness of biology, love, and sex in the story again recalls Delany. Such a wonderful ending for this story as well, and though the title has no numbers, the numerical fascination continues within chapter headings and the remade books of the plot.
A cyber-punk story that mashes up 3D printing technology with dreamscape exploration follows in “WiFi Dreams” to conclude the first section of the collection. It’s another trippy one, where I had a hard time seeing how the 3D printing idea actually integrates in.
The next two sections of stories in the collection consist of relatively shorter works. The first, dedicated to Cordwainer Smith, includes “Tales of the Obliterati”, a series of connected stories Fernandes writes about ‘lost discoveries’ and future eras where humanity faces annihilation. “Nothing Happened in 1999” is a piece of solid, if not remarkable, flash fiction. My interest really picked up for “Mycelium”, a story set in a hidden enclave of surviving humanity where a fungal symbiosis might be the key to save the human remnant. “Nine Paths to Destruction” approaches spiritual, existential matters of an individual and a species facing extinction. Beautifully and emotionally resonant.
The second of short fiction sections bears dedication to Fredric Brown and presents “Three Snapshots”, further flash fiction. Fernandes comments in the appendix that he feels very short fiction is one of his strengths, and with these I’d largely conclude. “Other Metamorphoses” is great and “Who Mourns for Washington?” is a profound take on the persistence and loss of memory.
“Archaeologies” the fourth and final section of Love. An Archaeology contains additional stories on love and includes the short story that gives the collection its title. “A Lover’s Discourse: Five Fragments and a Memory of War” returns to surreal New Weird tones, with a plot that’s hard to peg into any particular sub-genre. “The Unexpected Geographies” is notable in that it is another fantasy, darker than the prior one and more firmly in the realm of horror. Though I liked the story overall, I felt this was the most uneven and in need of further editing to make it cut more effectively.
The concluding story “Love. An Archaeology” ends things with another high point. Sisters use a new device that allows experience of alternate history timelines to discover what may have happened between their father and mother. But alternate, after all, is a relative term. The story reinforces what Fernandes excels at: taking well-worn SF ideas for a ride in new and fascinating directions. Some of those may verge into confusing dream-like realms, and others – like this one may be more standard. But they all use that platform to delve into base human relationships/emotions, like family, partner, love to see both the ecstasy and the cracks.
Fernandes is both a graduate of the prestigious Clarion West course, and a former slush reader for Clarkesworld Magazine. His appreciation for classics of the SF genre and of literature, mythology, and philosophy in general should be obvious. This is a debut collection that literary speculative fiction fans should not pass up, and I believe they will look forward to seeing more from him in the future as much as I do.
Though there are a couple/few stories in this issue that I didn’t care much for, the vast majority were really excellent. A great start to 2021 for Asimov’s.
“A Rocket for Dimitrios” by Ray Nayler — Increasingly liking the fiction from Nayler and his translations, and this alternate history is no different. A follow up to his previous story “The Disintegration Loops”, the foundation for this alternate world is the discovery of alien technology in the early 1930s and its implementation in US over the ensuing three decades. The alien tech provides amazing things, but humanity still has a poor grasp on how any of it works. The technological advancements have also brought heightened paranoia and authoritarianism to the US under seven-termed (if I recall correctly) President FDR. Standing against the patriarchal US government and the directions it continues to follow are a group of women, including Eleanor Roosevelt and Hedy Lamarr. So, I still haven’t mentioned the actual plot to this story, but honestly its a MacGuffin to explore some great themes and characters in this altverse.
“The Realms of Water” by Robert Reed — Falls into the category of SF writer of a certain age becoming enamored with European history (Roman) and transposing some part of that into SF/Fantasy retelling. This unfortunately seems to happen a lot. The very prolific Reed always writes well. But this was just not a story I found interesting, and it took up way too much space in this issue. On the other hand, at least he didn’t go the alternate history route.
“No Stone Unturned” by Nick Wolven — An exploration of the possible effects that teleportation technology might have on humans, this is top notch SF with both speculative elements, a good dose of science and a human element at its heart. A man becomes concerned about his wife who has been part of a program testing transporter technology. She seems more distant, and forgetful of their child. But, is this an effect of the transporter process as one conspiracy guru claims, or is there something more basic and ageless going on here? Highly recommended.
“Table Etiquette for Diplomatic Personnel, in Seventeen Scenes” by Suzanne Palmer — A murder aboard a human alliance space station with several visiting alien species has possible connection to an old conflict between two groups, and the cuisine selections that must be diplomatically selected/prepared to avoid insulting – or poisoning – any species. Fun, and slyly written, any Trek fan should enjoy this as well.
“Hunches” by Kristine Kathryn Rusch — An engineer on the bridge of a starship is saved from horrible death by going with gut and donning a pressure suit just before sudden crisis unfolds. With nothing transpiring as it should, the disoriented engineer continues to use his hunches to save the ship and surviving crew. A more contained and limited story than I’m used to seeing from Rusch. It is by no means bad, but I also didn’t find it that striking or perceptive.
“Shy Sarah and the Draft Pick Lottery” by Ted Kosmatka — Set in a world – or maybe reality! – where the top echelons of society control people and events according to powerful statistical models much like sabermetrics is used for baseball scouting and plans. An abnormally shy woman who has skills in scouting for prospects that can bring a statistical edge (luck) to situations risks her position and life by telling a prospect the truth about how the world is run and what those in power will do to maintain their edge. Great idea in this story and superb execution.
“Mayor for Today” by Fran Wilde — Concept of a world-wide gig economy taken to extremes. Wilde goes with this idea in interesting directions and as usual writes a compelling and entertaining story. It mixes absurd humor with political critique and sympathetic characterization of individuals struggling to survive in a system.
“The Fear of Missing Out” by Robert H. Cloake — A socially awkward man begins to use new auto-personality technology to navigate difficult situations, like talking to an attractive man he happens to meet. While it’s running most sensory input is lost to him, but he can rewatch what has occurred while on ‘auto-pilot’ afterward, having retaken primary control of his body/mind. Success at winning a date leads him on a path to further dependence on the technology so that primary control actually becomes the unwanted exception. A poignant take on technology dependency and avoiding uncomfortable situations.
“The Three-Day Hunt” by Robert R. Chase — Well written story about a war veteran and his dog going on a search for the pilot of a crashed UFO. At first uncertain if it is something extraterrestrial or human military-based, the man soon gets word that its an intelligent alien species out there in the woods and he should disengage to leave first contact to the professionals and high muckety-mucks. The story ends with a clever observation, and it is an enjoyable enough read. But there’s not really much here beyond the surface level.
“Humans and Other People” by Sean William Swanwick — A pair of scavengers (human and robot) who loot sites in a post-climate-disaster NE USA encounter unexpected complications in a fire-ravaged building in Philly. The concept and start of this seemed real promising, but then I felt it muddled with a voice/style I just never really could get behind.
“I Didn’t Buy It” by Naomi Kanakia — A short story on the concept of identity and perspective and relationships. I really didn’t care for the style, and in fact, didn’t buy it.
The issue also features poetry by Jane Yolen, Leslie J. Anderson, Robert Frazier, and Avra Margariti. Editorial by Sheila Williams, Reflection “One Hundred Years of Robots” by Robert Silerberg, Internet Column by James Patrick Kelly, and Book Reviews by Norman Spinrad and In Memoriam for Mike Resnick. Also includes In Memoriam for Mike Resnick, Readers’ Award Ballot, 2020 Index, and SF Convention Calendar.
A particularly strong issue this month for Clarkesworld, with a much appreciated return of translated fiction. I still am not a fan of novellas in short fiction outlets, but both of the ones here at least connected with me to largely appreciate and enjoy them.
“The Failed Dianas” by Monique Laban — A delightful story that shares themes with Sarah Gailey’s recent novel The Echo Wife, albeit a far less dark direction here. At the restaurant she runs, Diana greets herself – the latest clone created by her parents in an attempt to raise their daughter according to their vision of professional success. The new Diana comes to learn the truth that was kept from her, and soon meets a group of prior Dianas who have all found their own personal, diverse successes. The story effectively shows how much potential an individual can have and how one outlet/profession is never the defining or sole identity for them.
“Terra Rasa” by Anastasia Bookreyeva, translated by Ray Nayler — Hoorah! Translations are back again this issue and here is a great one of a fabulous story. Set in a climate disaster future where the world burns, the story follows a young woman who has worked as a rescuer and earned a coveted ticket onto a ship fleeing the devastation for salvation. It’s a brutal story and ending, but nonetheless offers a look into the beauty of the human heart that can occur even amongst all this.
“Obelisker Adrift in the Desert” by K.H. Meridian — The world has been devastated by inter-computer warfare. A cybernetically enhanced woman discovers one of the computer AIs in an obelisk and the two begin to form a friendship born from the loneliness, and perhaps regret. But, computers and humanity still remain for conflict to again rear up. A bit too long for my tastes, but Meridian writes the characters and their interactions so well that I was easily able to move past that and enjoy this.
“Mercy and the Mollusc” by M. L. Clark — Way too long for a short fiction outlet, and could’ve been used for a novel with a bit more in it to balance that length. A man goes around an alien world that humanity is terraforming, riding atop a giant sentient mollusk and trying to make up for the native life he destroyed prior as a soldier. Fascinating concepts in this story, both the biology and the themes of colonization.
“‘Remember the Washington,’ They Said as They Fed the Ugoxli” by Jeff Reynolds — SF set on a colony world with vibes more of a Western and concepts of frontier justice, as an unnamed former soldier who is tasked recovering bodies from the destroyed ships enacts retaliation against the aliens, and others. A difficult story where the horrors of war de’humanize’ all, and challenging then to read and connect to such characters and monstrosity. Almost more of a horror story in this regard.
“We’ll Always Have Two Versions of Pteros” by Dominica Phetteplace — “Everything was going great until Barry announced one morning that he was in the wrong timestream… He seemed sluggish. Disoriented. In need of coffee.” A lovely short story touching on the possibilities of relationships, but also that some things are just not meant to be.
“History in Pieces” by Beth Goder — Told in fragmentary ‘puzzle pieces’ of alien Archivists observing humans who have arrived on a world to colonize, the scattered construction of the narrative and jumps in time works well even in this ~1400 word story. The aliens literally create pieces filled with sensory and emotive records that fit together and become part of them. What could be gimmicky is formed into the core of the story, a poetic beautiful tragedy yet with continued hope.
The issue also features the nonfiction articles “Peter Pan Through the Years” by Carrie Sessarego, interviews with Karen Osborne (“Thrilling to the Harmony”) and S.B. Divya (“Science, Math, Fiction, and the Oxford Comma”) by Arley Sorg, 2020 Reader’s Poll Finalists news from editor Neil Clarke, and cover art “Forward” by Wenjuinn Png.
Architects of Memory
(The Memory War Book I)
By Karen Osborne
Tor Books — September 2020
ISBN: 9781250215475 — Paperback — 336 pp.
Indentured salvage pilot Ashlan Jackson has a new work family, and hopes of gaining citizenship now seem attainable. Saved from a mining colony owned by the Wellspring Celestium Holdings corporation where she had little chance of ever getting free from debt, Ash has been rescued by the captain of the Auroran Coporation salvage ship Twenty-Five. Taken on as pilot, Ash has a new chance at life, and the possibility of earning credits to rise from indenture. Despite being physically freed from the colony mines, Ash secretly lives with a terminal illness, one born from contact with the Celestium fuel that powers humanity’s space-flight engines. Citizenship will not only provide Ash freedom, but will give her access to the cure. But, her past on the Wellspring mining colony still haunt her, especially the memories of her dead fiancé Christopher, who perished before he and Ash could both escape.
Though her life remains full of hard indentured work, Ash sees the small steps forward, and has become relatively comfortable around her shipmates, who all trust one another with their lives amid the harshness of empty space and alien threats. Surprising herself, the closest relationship Ash has built is with the captain of the Twenty-Five, Kate Keller. Their mutual attraction and budding romance is something they each try to control and keep secret from the others, to ensure the corporate functioning of the ship remains professional, and their futures’ safe.
The great wrench in their possible futures (but also the tremendous opportunity before the crew of the Twenty-Five) comes from war with the Vai, the first and only aliens met by star-faring humanity. Conflict with the Vai has existed since first contact, and thus far humanity has lost again and again: a devastating destruction of ships, colonies, and millions of lives. Until, everything changes above the colony Tribulation, where the Vai engaged several human corporate ships in battle. Something has happened to cause the Vai to retreat beyond the interstellar boundary known as the White Line. A terrible weapon has been left behind that corporations are now after, ostensibly to help save humanity, but also to get that competitive edge. The crew of the Twenty-Five is first on the scene to scavenge Vai technology and try to find this awesome weapon that can lead to salvation or annihilation. There, at Tribulation, they try and unravel the mystery of what occurred to pause the alien threat. Ash finds answers with both personal repercussions and larger meaning for memory and the nature of life.
Osborne begins Architects of Memory like a blast of lively brass at the start of a Romantic symphony, dropping readers right into the action of this salvage scene and slowly introducing the world, plot background, and characters through Ash’s point-of-view. Along with Captain Keller, we soon meet fiery and loyal war veteran Natalie Chan and Leonard Downey, the engineer who has a thing for Natalie and uses his and irreverent humor as “Chief Executive of Snark” to help calm the others. Also on the Twenty-Five are: Dr. Reva Sharma, an Auroran citizen and physician whose high birthright status and accomplishments sharply contrast with her assignment to the grunt-work of the lowly Twenty-Five‘s crew; the ambitious Executive Officer Alison Ramsay, whose taciturn efficiency compliments Captain Keller’s gentler leadership.
Just as one is getting to know these characters and their histories, Osborne presents more revelations, deepening mysteries, and new quagmires for her protagonist Ash or supporting cast. The pages of Architects of Memory flow with a well-paced intensity balancing action with twisty plots, character betrayals, and moments of quiet resilience when all seems lost or over. The novel embodies space opera as if part of some epic saga, yet manages to do this within a constrained setting of time (days) and location. The reader witnesses struggles, heroism, and failures among this salvage crew, but it feels like a personal story of something much grander in scope. In other words, this is a novel about a handful of specific people, but Osborne makes that individual scale also symbolic for human-wide conflicts of corporate class structure and alien contact.
These humanity-scale themes are nothing new to SF, of course, but Osborne makes them fresh and entertaining at the personal level of character interaction. And, on the front of alien first contact, she writes some fascinating concepts regarding the nature of the Vai. I would write and say more, but I definitely want to avoid spoilers on this. With governments failing to maintain the high cost of space travel/colonization due to fewer immediate benefits (the pandemic has again shown how awful we are at preparing for longterm betterment), private companies have taken on the risks of space exploration to invest in the far-future rewards that will come. Two hundred years from now in the time of Architects of Memory, this practice has led to the indenture and cut-throat (literally perhaps) corporate competition that forms the fabric of human society and injustice. While Osborne doesn’t necessarily take this theme significantly astray from what other space opera SF has done, it seems as if it plays an even larger part in the sequel novel.
I adored the characters of Ash and Natalie, whose interactions and friendship/conflict form the bulk of the novel’s momentum. Osborne puts these two women not just through traumatic pasts, but continued challenges that eat away at the core of their identities and dreams. Yet, they each stay as honestly true to themselves and their ideals as one could ever expect, and fight against tremendous odds for the slim chance of continued survival or eventual victory. The so-called Golden Age of SF soap opera is notorious for having pretty awful representation of females. The men are shown in a better light, but still read as far less than believable humans. They do great things, but they also seem so poorly challenged. As others have also recently done, Osborne corrects things in two ways thus: the genders are treated more equally, and in many regards the gender does not even need to matter (such as clothes or occupation or relationships); all are written with strengths and weakness, and their victories are earned. As much as I loved the character of Ash, I loved Natalie even more. This may be because she and her past still remain dark and mysterious to the readers in many ways (compared to so much of Ash’s point of view). I’m excited to see that the next novel actually is with Natalie as protagonist.
There is only one criticism I would make of Architects of Memory; it comes from its compressed setting, but I was very willing to look past and forgive it amid the abundant things the novel excels at. So many important events occur offscreen (in the past) to have made the present that the novel explores. OK, I admit that’s kind of a dumb statement. Of course the background to a story’s plot has huge monumental events that shape the plot. But here there are some whose absence lessens that impact that plot threads, character relationships, could otherwise have. One instance is the broad close-knit relationship between the Twenty-Five‘s crew, often described by Ash as a family. Cracks and tensions that form in this family, betrayals that occur, happen before readers have gotten to fully see the degree of trust and friendship there. Ash at least relate how things were different, however. The more unfortunate example is the relationship between Keller and Ash. Ash’s love for Christopher, Kate, and herself form the emotional heart of the novel, and it would have been great to see more of her together with the Captain. To Osborne’s credit, she does try to solve this with hallucinations that are a side-effect of the Celestium sickness. I can’t honestly think how Osborne could have solved this without creating other problems, so maybe my criticism here is totally unwarranted. I guess the point I’m trying to make is that my one regret from reading Architects of Memory is that with other constraints it couldn’t explore that relationship between these two great characters more.
With its excellent pacing, compelling characters, and riveting plot, Architects of Memory is a novel that makes the reader want to enjoy the ride in one sitting, or as few as possible. Although it has a sequel, Engines of Oblivion is the intended end to the duology, to my knowledge. And, if you were inclined to just stop with the close of this one, Osborne does a fantastic job at wrapping the events of this episode up in a satisfying way, which makes further adventures possible and welcome, but not obligatory.
For any interested, excerpts from Architects of Memory are available to read on Tor.com and the Tor/Forge blog. I’ll be starting my copy of Engines of Oblivion in the next days and will have a review of that up here shortly after completing, and I also hope to have up an interview with author Karen Osborne on the two novels and her machinations for the future. Look for those then, and if you haven’t yet started with this one, what are you waiting for?
The majority of the stories in this issue were average to good. Two of the three that stood above the rest are reprints: “Small and Bright” by Autumn Brown and “Sidewalks” by Maureen F. McHugh. The original other that I adored was “Me Two” by Keith Brooke and Eric Brown.
“The Mathematics of Fairyland” by Phoebe Barton — You feel as if this doesn’t bode well as a start to the issue. So you stop reading and go onto the next story.
“Bulletproof Tattoos” by Paul Crenshaw — A reprint from an anthology themed around the concept of: If This Goes On. The story serves as a satire on gun violence and the lengths that people (or technology) might go to prevent it, without really solving the heart of the issue. Works for its purposes of making a validly good point with interesting speculation, but I found the satire a bit too heavy to really enjoy it as a story.
“Me Two” by Keith Brooke and Eric Brown — A lovely short story about two souls who cannot be together, through a scifi twist. A young boy grows up realizing that every other day he wakes up as a girl on the opposite side of the world (and she switched with him). However the distance they each swap is more than just across one world. Beautiful take on connection and loss.
“Sidewalks” by Maureen F. McHugh — Reprint from an issue of Omni several years back, this fantastic story begins as the protagonist Dr. Gupta is given a psychiatric patient who seems to speak gibberish. Dr. Gupta soon discovers it is actually Old English, but what is her origin? The story unfolds almost like a mystery and is extremely satisfying.
“Church of Birds” by Micah Dean Hicks — Originally published in The Kenyan Review, this story comes inspired by the Grimm fairy tale “The Six Swans”. I’m not that well-read in fairy tales and while I’ve enjoyed some retellings or things done in their style, it’s not a sub-genre I gravitate toward. This does explore an interesting theme though around the repercussions that would come for a person who has been turned into some other form of animal, like a bird.
“The Memory of a Memory Is a Spirit” by A.T. Greenblatt — After leaving her island home, a caretaker returns to tend the overgrown environment and live again with the angry spirits she had abandoned. Although very straight-forward, it is beautifully written, and the themes/character are easy to empathize with or relate to.
“Small and Bright” by Autumn Brown — Reprint from Octavia’s Brood, a collection on my shelf that I really have to get around to reading. This tale of a post-disaster subterranean human civilization includes feminist themes around motherhood and discovery of hopeful new worlds. I found the biology in this of reproduction and symbiosis particularly interesting, but the beautiful language of it all, even when describing something horrendous, is just transcendent.
“Destinations of Beauty” by Alexander Weinstein — Part of a series of short stories written in the style of travel guides for exotic lands, this focuses on ones that – as the title indicates – feature beauty. Usually a beauty now lost or unappreciated amid noise or melancholy. I am not a personal fan of this kind of plotless story, but it does excel at evoking mood in the reader here.
The issue also features an excerpt of the novel Winter’s Orbit by Everina Maxwell, book reviews “On Fragile Waves, by E. Lily Yu” by LaShawn M. Wanak, “The End of Everything (Astrophysically Speaking), by Katie Mack” by Chris Kluwe, and “Latinx Screams, edited by V. Castro and Cynthia Pelayo” by Arley Sorg. Author spotlights by Audrey T. Williams, Benjamin C. Kinney, Elan Samuel, and Laurel Amberdine. Editorial by John Joseph Adams, plus Coming Attractions and other miscellany. Cover by Grandfailure.