Short Fiction Review

April 2017 Review: Part 1

The skin you’re in doesn’t have to be your skin forever: In these stories you’ll find skin swapping, mind merging, and other forms of body revolution. And if that doesn’t satisfy, there are always aliens. I’ve scoured some of the most popular science fiction and fantasy magazines available online and these are my thoughts. (Possible spoilers ahead!)


APEX
Issue #95 — Apr. 2017

Say, She Toy” by Chesya Burke

This story is raw and features explicit depictions of rape, assault, and racism, so some readers may have a difficult time reading it. The titular she toy is an android named Cloe who is rented out to satisfy men sexually, but also used to cook and clean, should they desire. Burke employs scenes to pose implicit moral questions: Can androids be raped? Can androids be the victims of assault? Alongside these questions, Burke also explores how racial scapegoating affords gratification, as seen by the abusive john who derides Cloe with slurs and blames her race for leeching off of society:

He took pleasure from this moment, cumming so hard he shook, clutching the kinky hair on Cloe’s head. When he finished, he stood up, peed all over the dark skin that Cloe called home, and then tucked his limp dick back in his trousers.

I had just started watching the series Westworld on HBO, so I couldn’t help but pick up on similarities between the show and “Say, She Toy”, namely how both tackle the theme of personhood. It’s near the end of the story when a woman from a collective pays to speak with Cloe. The collective that she represents want to help Cloe; presumably, they want to free her from bondage. Just because Cloe is an android, the woman says, doesn’t mean it’s okay to rape and beat her. “They just want to hurt something without getting into legal trouble.” Characters in Westworld express similar sentiments about the hosts within the theme park. Generally the response is: they aren’t real. As Cloe tells the woman, “It doesn’t hurt.” This time, however, the rebuttal is more searing. “It hurts all of us.”

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The Selkie Wives” by Kendra Fortmeyer 

In “The Selkie Wives” we peer into the post-abduction ramifications of the selkie legend. It reminds me of the movie Overboard, which while it isn’t a movie about selkies specifically, it still tells the story of a woman saved out of the sea (Goldie Hawn) who’s held in bondage and brought home by the “fisherman” (this time a carpenter played by Kurt Russell) in order to be his good wife and help raise his children. That movie has a happy ending. The selkie abductions in this story are a little more dubious. In one instance, the fisherman’s current human wife can’t help but feel miffed about the whole situation. In another, a man kidnaps a harem of wives. I think his scenario best sums up the aftershock of what he’s done. “‘So,’ he says, and forces a laugh. He hadn’t thought this far ahead.” Later: “‘It was a joke,’ he says, angry. He strides to the closet, unlocks the chest to let the coats spring free. But his fingers tremble on the key. ‘Can’t you bitches take a joke?'” Maybe they only thought it was funny the first time, or maybe forced bondage is never a laughing matter, regardless the species.

Of course, not every selkie feels the same. One of them embraces the new life, decrying the “harpies” who take for granted their new found prosperity, and she becomes famous for it. (She even snags a tour out of it. (Who doesn’t go on a diatribe-infused tour these days, am I right?)) And then there is the selkie who waits for her lover to come for her, watching the shore, until she decides for herself to leave the sea and shed her skin. Will she go looking for him on land? This time, the choice is hers.


CLARKESWORLD
Issue #127 — Apr. 2017

Conglomerate” by Robert Brice 

This is Brice’s first publication. One of many we can hope. “Conglomerate” is a visual spectacle, but not only does it serve up a feast for the mind’s eye, it also provokes another temporal response, one of visual speculation. It’s almost too difficult to explain. The conglomerate is a collective consciousness. At the start, they are seeking an individual separated from the collective, Redondo. Upon retrieval, he introduces a sort of psychic cancer and is purged from the group. This purge is akin to deletion. The plot slogs on after, at times sagging under its dense prose. There are a lot of superadded modifiers, which all make for a dazzling display: “Psyches are buffeted by a ferocious digital squall, caroming off each other, leaving splintered shards of personalities spinning in the corrupted aether.” It is not as simple as to just say “the conglomerate breaks apart”: this is Epic prose. There’s plenty of ground to cover in this setting, and I wish the story had taken its time to slow down for us to appreciate it better. Regardless, its effectiveness is lasting. So where does this leave us? Alone, and wanting more.

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Left of Bang: Preemptive Self-Actualization for Autonomous Systems” by Vajra Chandrasekera 

Again I’m reminded of Westworld. This flash fic is all about a robot/android put through tests to protect a target from assassination attempts, only to become the assassin itself by a later test. Then we discover the droid must now assassinate the team that designed it whilst under command of a new project leader, analogous to the villain who kills the architects of his impregnable lair. A fast and fun byte-size piece.

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Thing and Sick” by Adam Roberts (originally from Solaris Rising 3: The New Solaris Book of Science Fiction, 2014) 

Don’t confuse this one with The Thing, as requested by the narrator at the bottom of the story. It may share similar elementsisolation in the Antarctic, alien contactbut it’s quieter, and certainly nowhere near that level of grotesque. It begins with a mystery. Roy and our narrator are secluded at a research station, parsing data from local stars and looking for alien life. In the meanwhile they receive letters from family and friends. Well, the narrator does, not Roy. After enough mail drops, possibly out of resentment but also possibly for ulterior motives, Roy asks to buy one of the narrator’s letters for himself. Well, that letter becomes a Mystery Box for the narrator, who drives himself nutters wondering about its sender and contents. (Me too.) The arcing story question surrounding the Fermi Paradox comes later, and the letter will play a part. That’s why I enjoyed “Thing and Sick.” It loops you in with the Fermi Paradox premise (contrary to what the first sentence says) and injects this letter mystery shortly afterward as a plot device to explore the paradox slyly. The ending is chilling and quite satisfying. Check this one out!


LIGHTSPEED
Issue #83 — Apr. 2017

If Lions Could Speak: Imagining the Alien” by Paul Park (originally from Interzone, 2002)

This is a great story, if just for the beginning. It’s a fine piece of metafiction where our writer-narrator Paul Park is describing different types of alien contact scenarios in a new story called “If Lions Could Speak.” He gets lost in his head, though, when his wife Laura interrupts his work. A majority of the rest of the story takes place there in his head alongside a slew of voices. Park has decided they are aliens, and at times of stress, they kick in. “In our search for extra-terrestrial intelligence, we crave contact with something large, about the same size as ourselves. But these creatures that move through me are very small.” But are they real? It gets stranger.

I enjoyedwhat I think wasthe ambiguity of what these aliens represent. They signal the internal struggle of Park, I suppose, as his sick wife confronts his aloofness and as he bears the weight of his crippling creativity. This all makes it very hard for Park to talk. Perhaps, rather than trying to understand what lions might say, we ought to consider what he would say if Paul Park could speak.


NIGHTMARE
Issue #55 — Apr. 2017

Red Hood” by Eric Schaller 

As the name suggests, this dark, urban tale is a play on Little Red Riding Hood. It does not try to disguise this, thankfully. Grandmother is still sick, and there’s still a wolf seeking to take advantage of Red Hood, but he wears a different skin (figuratively). Speaking of, Red Hood wears a different skin, too, but I mean this literally. It’s an extra layer to keep the Risen at bay. Oh, and there are zombies. The Risen amble about this beaten and bleak post-apoc landscape, devouring stray lifies unlucky enough to fall across their path. So, Red Hood meets the wolf (just “the stranger” here) on her way to grandmother’s house. He steals a few kisses and tricks her into giving up her skin, which he’ll use to try and pull the wool on grandmother later. More than a couple things go wrong. And Red Hood, for being so naive earlier, manages to gather her wits and comes out alive. This is a fun subversion. Fairy tales will never die, so it’s great to see them updated and repurposed for a contemporary audience hungry for apocalyptic fiction.

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The Adventurer’s Wife” by Premee Mohamed (originally from She Walks in Shadows, 2015) 

I love a dark tale of discovery, especially one as richly told as this. We are immersed in this world immediately and introduced to our narrator, Mr. Greene, as he hurries to the home of a late adventurer in order to interview his widow before another newspaper can get the scoop. The adventurer was an enigma, a man well known but rarely met, so the record straight from his widow is sure to draw hordes of curious readers. Greene and his newspaper have their presumptions, and upon meeting the young widow and then seeing her without her veil, his perceptions are tested, not just of her or her adventurer husband, but other things, of what’s beyond his understanding of the world. There are things he can’t see, probably can’t even imagine. After listening to her story, which is what he is being paid to do, he decides:

I stared at her. Yes, quite mad, I thought. Her head had been filled with these stories. The old man had made it worse, for a young girl from a land far away, whose mind eventually snapped from living here, alone in the great house . . . . After a moment, I said, weakly, “I see.”

It is easy to paint her as mad, and much more difficult to accept her version and challenge his worldview. That’s too bad for him. By remaining stuck in his perceptions, he misses the biggest scoop of all. He may have been sent to gather information for a piece on the adventurer, but the real story here is the adventurer’s wife.


TOR.COM
Apr. 2017

Mental Diplopia” by Julianna Baggott 

Diplopia is a condition where a person sees duplicated images. In “Mental Diplopia,” an alien virus causes carriers to relive memories alongside the present until the memory overtakes current day and the person dies. We’re led to believe they die peacefully, and later, we realize why, which has something to do with the impending invasion. Perhaps the aliens would rather us not suffer, but who really knows. Maybe their pathological warfare is on the fritz. That might explain why the virus begins with a single infection of an old woman instead of a worldwide aerial onslaught before humanity can retreat to underground bunkers. The story is more concerned with the individuality of these cases, and a sudden full-scale attack would overshadow that. It’s well written and imaginable, so if you can forgive the wonky motivations of our new overlords, you just might find a story here that you like.


© 2017 Derek Thomas Conrad 
Stories Reviewed — Apex: “Say, She Toy” by Chesya Burke; “The Selkie Wives” by Kendra Fortmeyer
Clarkesworld: “Conglomerate” by Robert Brice; “Left Of Bang: Preemptive Self-Actualization for Autonomous Systems” by Vajra Chandrasekera; “Thing and Sick” by Adam Roberts
Lightspeed: “If Lions Could Speak: Imagining the Alien” by Paul Park
Nightmare: “Red Hood” by Eric Schaller; “The Adventurer’s Wife” by Premee Mohamed
Tor.com: “Mental Diplopia” by Julianna Baggott
All stories reviewed are copyright of their respective owners. Featured image “A Ghost In The Machine” © 2013 Michael Shaheen, used under the Creative Commons license.

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