BooksOfTheMoon

A Quiet Afternoon 2

By Liane Tsui

Rating: 4 stars

I really enjoyed the previous volume of Grace & Victory’s “low-fi” speculative fiction anthology, and am pleased to report the same for this second volume. This one is bigger, with twenty eight stories (although some of the stories are more like flash fiction, only a couple of pages long) where the stakes are low, and the peril is mild. It was definitely a good choice to read this alongside Bear Head, a book that made me pretty anxious and stressed.

Some of the stories are whimsical, like the opener, Sadedali and the Secret Life of Clouds, about a cat and her human making friends with clouds; or The Many Kidnappings of Princess Zania, about a princess who keeps getting kidnapped by a sorcerer, until she figures out what he wants. Some of the stories are melancholy, such as In Case of Emergency, Break Heart, where broken hearts can be replaced by mechanical ones, and if they stop you from feeling, well, that’s a feature, not a bug; or Wings of Memory which is a lovely story about identity, and self, and determination.

I favour the warm, sweet ones over the melancholy ones. Remembering Simulacra, for example, tells of a number of painted concrete dinosaurs who, every night, climb out of the amusement park where they live to a nearby hill to watch the skies in memory of the great fire that killed the creatures they were made in the image of. And I’m always up for a Glasgow story, and Brian Milton’s Rab the Giant Versus the Problem Neighbour is just lovely (full disclosure, I know Brian, and loved the previous story featuring Rab).

In general, a lovely idea for an anthology, with a lot of very pleasant stories; and with a donation from the profit from the book going to charity (as they say, “quiet afternoons are too often a privilege when they should be a right”), I heartily recommend it.

Book details

ISBN: 9780994009760
Publisher: Grace&Victory
Year of publication: 2021

The Voyages of Cinrak the Dapper

By A.J. Fitzwater

Rating: 3 stars

The author says in the introduction to this linked collection of short stories that joy is political, and they certainly set out to prove that here. Cinrak is a dapper, lesbian, poly, pirate, unionised capybara. She’s kind and understands the importance of family, especially family that you choose.

I quite enjoyed these gentle stories, but I didn’t find them entirely satisfying. There was a lot of gaps between them, so we go straight from Cinrak stepping on a pirate ship for the first time to her being a captain in her own right, to her wooing the queen. I enjoyed the message of the book and its gentleness and insistence that love is love and that everyone deserves to be loved and respected for who they are. Oh, and that unions are a good thing.

And despite being called Cinrak the Dapper, we never really got much description of her wardrobe (other than her being fond of bow-ties). There’s a lot of world-building in few words, but sometimes the stories felt a little vague. Enjoyable, fairly fluffy, and making an important statement, but it didn’t gel quite as much as I’d hoped.

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A Quiet Afternoon

By Liane Tsui

Rating: 4 stars

I heard about this collection because a friend of mine has a story in its sequel, and when I went to have a look, I was intrigued by the idea of “low-fi” speculative fiction, something low-stakes and gentle, compared to the grandeur and world-threatening nature of much of the genre. And I’m really glad I picked it up.

The collection starts strongly, with The Baker’s Cat, about a girl who really wants to be a baker, but just isn’t very good at it, and the small acts of kindness that lead to her getting the help she needs. Other highlights include The Dragon Peddler about a boy who can see dragons and Tomorrow’s Friend about getting the friend you need, when you need them. Hollow is a nice twist on the magic quest, and the final story, Of Buckwheat and Garlic Braids (not garlic bread, as I first read it as) is a lovely little tale of travel and belonging.

As in most collections, there’s some that didn’t work as well. I didn’t really get Ink Stains, or 12 Attempts at Telling About the Flower Shop Man (New York, New York). Both pleasant enough, but I didn’t really grok them.

But overall, it’s a pretty good collection. It’s one that you sit and pick a story almost at random to read if you’re feeling a bit down, and you’re pretty sure that it’ll be okay in the end.

I’ve already pre-ordered the sequel.

Book details

ISBN: 9780994009746
Publisher: Grace&Victory
Year of publication: 2020

The Best of C.L. Moore

By C.L. Moore

Rating: 4 stars

Although I knew the name CL Moore, I was unfamiliar with her work and thought she was a New Wave writer, not Golden Age, so it’s been interesting to read these stories, all written in the 1930s and 40s. We think of much of the work of that era to be very plot-oriented, with little in the way of emotional underpinning or characterisation. I don’t think that can be said of Moore’s work, judging by this sample. Although the characters perhaps aren’t emotionally developed in the modern sense, they are much more vividly drawn than in much of the work of Moore’s peers of the era.

Shambleau is the work that made Moore’s name, introducing the character of Northwest Smith and the woman that he saves from an angry mob who turns out to be more dangerous than he thought. My favourite story in the collection is probably the final one, Vintage Season, in which a man rents out his house to a group of strange foreigners. This story is based around a trope that modern readers will readily identify, but which was startlingly original at the time (the author notes in the afterword that she thinks it may be have been the first story use this particular trope). It’s handled well, with a little sting in the tail.

There’s a surprising (to me, at least) amount of theology in the book. Not only is there the very direct Fruit of Knowledge about those first days in the Garden of Eden, but Daemon discusses the concept of the soul and The Bright Illusion has two gods fighting on an alien world, and a man who wonders about an afterlife.

So a fascinating look back into a different era of the genre, and to see how Moore’s writing contrasted with that of the men around her. She brought emotion into a genre that was, at that time, staid and with mostly cardboard characters. The stories themselves, while coloured by their time, are well worth reading.

Book details

ISBN: 9780345247520
Publisher: Random House Inc
Year of publication: 1976

The Aliens Among Us

By James White

Rating: 3 stars

I’m very fond of James White’s Sector General stories, but I’ve not read much of his wider work. This collection contains one story set on Sector General itself, another that might be in the same universe and a selection of others.

The Sector General Story, Countercharm is, to my mind, one of the weaker stories in the collection, as it feels a bit dated in terms of sexism and there’s a throwaway homophobic joke which doesn’t sit well. But also, the setup – in which Conway has to cope with an alien “educator tape” in his mind with no help whatsoever from the station’s psychological team, even when it could possibly be a danger to others – doesn’t really make any sense to me.

Of the other stories, To Kill or Cure was a fun story set in Ireland, where a military search and rescue crew stationed in ‘Derry finds a crashed flying saucer; Red Alert is a tense thriller where we follow an alien invasion as they enter Earth’s solar system; and Tableau is a story story about the horror of war and how it should be memorialised.

The Conspirators was fun heist/escape story and it’s almost a shame that The Scavengers was in the this collection because it was similar enough to one of the other stories that I guessed the twist early. The final story, Occupation: Warrior introduces us to Colonel Dermod, a familiar name from Sector General, but in a very different circumstance, as he tries to win a staged war.

The overarching theme of the collection is humanist and peaceful, telling stories about disparate groups working together for the greater good and the horrors of when dialogue breaks down and war and conflict break out. It’s a message that resonates with me, and one that is still too rare, especially in the speculative fiction genres. These stories feel very much of their time, but the genuine warmth of the author shines through them.

Book details

ISBN: 9780708882580

Snapshots from a Black Hole and Other Oddities

By K.C. Ball

Rating: 3 stars

K. C. Ball is an author I’m unfamiliar with, but I got this collection as part of a Humble Bundle and it’s a good one. It’s a very heterogeneous collection: the author is happy to turn her hand to pretty much any genre and she makes a good go of it. As always, some stories work better for me than others (for a start, I’m not a horror fan, so those weren’t generally fun for me) but there are some gems in the collection.

The title story is interestingly told from an AI perspective and leaves a haunting image in the mind. There are (attempted) alien abduction stories, zombie stories, ghost stories, (kind of) time travel stories and more. My favourite in the collection is probably Flotsam about a disaster in low Earth orbit that happens to a small crew, trying to clean up orbital waste. I like the characters, the believable actions of the corporation and the solution.

There are author’s notes at the end of the book (although I might have liked to have these after each story, while the story is still fresh in my mind, rather than all collected at the end) which are an insight into the author’s mind while she was writing.

The collection shows a talented and versatile author who passed away too young. I will look out for other of her work.

Book details

ISBN: 9780984830114
Publisher: Hydra House Books
Year of publication: 2012

Exhalation

By Ted Chiang

Rating: 5 stars

Ted Chiang isn’t a prolific author, but that means that every new story is a big deal. This collects his most recent stories and it’s an astoundingly good collection. I try to avoid hyperbole for the most part, but this is one of the best set of stories that I’ve read in a very long time. Of the nine stories collected, six were either award-nominated or award-winners. That is an astonishing ratio and the stories really live up to it. They’re almost platonic ideals of science fiction: taking a single “what if? and running with it. What if there was a device that effectively made human memory perfect? What if young earth creationism was right after all? What if you could talk to other versions of yourself in parallel universes?

The title story, Exhalation is a discussion of thermodynamics and the ultimate end of the universe through the medium of air-powered sentient robots, one of whom auto-dissects himself in order to find out how his brain works. The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate is a wonderful story about time travel wrapped in a fable told in the style of the Arabian Nights. The Lifecycle of Software Objects is the longest work in the book. It’s a novella about raising an artificial intelligence. The story tells of next generation virtual pets some of whose owners get very attached to them, and keep them running for years, running into decades. In the notes at the end, Chiang notes that humans take constant interaction and 15-20 years before they become mature, why should that be different for AI? It’s a great story, tying the lives of the humans into that of the AIs that they’re raising. There’s a few short pieces as well, usually written for specific things, such as The Great Silence, a piece about the forthcoming extinction of parrots, with a killer last line that choked me right up.

A friend gave me her copy of Chiang’s previous collection, Stories of Your Life and Others because she felt that he wasn’t good with characters and characterisation. This is something I fundamentally disagree with (we didn’t quite fall out over it, and I’m glad I was able to give her copy of the book a good home), and this book has some wonderful characters. Ana, the protagonist of The Lifecycle of Software Objects is really interesting in her obsession; Dr Dorothea Morrell, the archaeologist in Omphalos, whose faith is tested; and most complex and interesting of all is Nat from Anxiety Is the Dizziness of Freedom, someone who’s trying to leave her past behind her and whose brush with alternate universes help her come to terms with herself.

Chiang’s genius comes with teasing out the big questions of life, and presenting them in a thought-provoking and entertaining manner that will stay with you for a long time after you finish the story. Unreservedly recommended to any lover of literature and student of the human condition.

Book details

ISBN: 9781529014495

Not So Stories

By David Thomas Moore

Rating: 3 stars

I don’t think I’ve ever read the Just So Stories all the way through, although I’ve probably encountered individual ones over the years, but I have read other Kipling, so am perfectly prepared to believe that the original stories had Issues. Moore uses this volume as a response to the Just So stories, stories that look at colonialism and racism from the other side of the lens.

As with any anthology, it’s a mixed bag, some really good stuff and some that didn’t work quite so well for me. I really enjoyed the opening story by Cassandra Khaw, How the Spider Got Her Legs, which mimicked the style of the Just So Stories to a tee, but taught a very different lesson, especially to the arrogant, thoughtless Man.

There are other stories that tell of the dangers of despotism and the vigilance always required by democracy, such as Stewart Hotston’s How the Ants Got Their Queen and How the Snake Lost Its Spine by Tauriq Moosa.

There were a couple that I felt didn’t work hugely well, like Serpent, Crocodile, Tiger by Zedeck Siew, which I had trouble following; and The Cat Who Walked By Herself, by Achala Upendran which felt bleak, and, in some ways, a bit simplistic to me.

On the other hand, I loved How the Simurgh Won Her Tail by Ali Nouraei, partly because it didn’t go where I expected and partly because of the heart-bursting framing story around it. This was my favourite story in the collection.

Speculative fiction, and literature in general, is always in conversation with itself. The Just So Stories have been important in the past, and many people grew up loving them, but they were written with a specific mindset and from a specific point of view. This response to them is long overdue.

Book details

ISBN: 9781781086124
Publisher: Abaddon
Year of publication: 2018

Far Horizons

By Robert Silverberg

Rating: 3 stars

This is an interesting idea for an anthology, in which Robert Silverberg asked a number of authors to contribute a novella that adds something to a series that they’ve written. And he gets some impressive contributors. Unfortunately, I haven’t read a number of the series’ in question and I found the quality varied, although, of course, YMMV.

We kick off the collection with one of the strongest stories, Old Music and the Slave Women set in Ursula K. Le Guin’s Ekumen. This tells the story of Edsan, attached to the Ekumen embassy on a planet undergoing a full-scale uprising of its slave society against the masters. Le Guin’s characterisation is masterful and understated and her prose sharp and readable. A great opening story.

Next up is A Separate War by Joe Haldeman, set in his Forever War series, which tells the story of Marygay Potter after she was split up from William Mandella towards the end of the war, and her own adventures before they reunited. I don’t remember a huge about about The Forever War but this story is pretty self-contained and I got to like the character of Marygay quite well. I’m not the first to find the sexuality within the Forever War series very weird; the idea of heterosexuality being banned never entirely feels real. But other than that, I enjoyed this story quite a lot.

Orson Scott Card revisits his Ender universe with a fairly slight story called Investment Counselor which tells how Ender met the AI Jane, who is important from the second main book onwards. I don’t think this adds a huge amount to Ender’s story, but it’s fairly light and fun, as Ender comes of age and finds himself trying to untangle the set of trust fund investments set up on his behalf so that he can pay the appropriate amount of tax.

Next up, David Brin returns to his Uplift universe in Temptation, about a group of uplifted dolphins who had been left behind on a planet while their ship had to flee its pursuers. I have read the (first) Uplift trilogy but it was a very long time ago. I liked the idea that the uplifted dolphins are a very new sentient species though, and that under sustained stress, they’re liable to fall back to pre-sentient behaviours. Brin does a fairly good job of making these non-humans feel relatively alien, too.

Robert Silverberg then adds his own story in his Roma Eternal series, Getting to Know the Dragon, about an alternate history where Rome never fell. An historian living in the Renaissance gets his hands on the personal travel journal of an emperor from a few hundred years earlier, who was the first to circumnavigate the world. Looking back on that period nostalgically, he finds that the reality doesn’t match the rose-tinted glasses. This isn’t a series that I’ve read but it’s perfectly readable, although alt histories aren’t really my favourite genre.

Dan Simmons’ contribution to his Hyperion universe is Orphans of the Helix, which is a story that I’ve read before, in Simmons’ own collection Worlds Enough & Time. Set after the end of the main series, it’s a story that I enjoyed a lot.

Nancy Kress contributes Sleeping Dogs from her Sleepless series, another one that I’m not familiar with. The idea of genetic engineering to remove the need for sleep is interesting, but the idea that it would turn the recipients into immortal supermen seems a bit far-fetched. And this story, about the terrible consequences of doing the same alteration to dogs, left me sort of cold.

The next story is The Boy Who Would Live Forever by Fred Pohl, set in his Heechee series. I’ve only read the first in that series, but this seems to take place somewhere after that, possibly at the same time as a number of the other books, as we see events from the point of view of the eponymous boy as he makes his way to Gateway and has various adventures while bigger things seem to be going on around him. This was really the first story that felt incomplete, like it was a small part of a larger story.

A Hunger for the Infinite by Gregory Benford is a disturbing piece set in an endless war of humans and machines across the galactic core. One of the AIs has been taking “harvested” humans who fell in battle and mutilating them, while keeping them in a sort of horrible half-life, in an attempt to create art. But it’s frustrated because it feels that there should be more to it. It’s an odd story, that I’m not entirely sure I followed, but it was hard to get past the body horror of the Hall of Humans for me.

I skipped Anne McCaffrey’s The Ship That Returned as I’ve read it before in a different collection and didn’t like it.

And finally, we have Greg Bear’s The Way of All Ghosts, set in The Way. I loved Eon but failed to really get into this story. It felt sort of dream-like, and there was a degree of body horror which I don’t like and I still have really no idea what happened at the end.

There’s a number of strong and interesting stories here, but also a number that failed to grab me, whether that’s because I wasn’t familiar with the series they came from or something to do with the writing. A mixed bag, but the strong stories make it worth it.

Book details

ISBN: 9781857239683
Year of publication: 1999

Nevertheless, She Persisted: Flash Fiction Project

By Diana M. Pho (editor)

Rating: 4 stars

This is a good little collection of fiction where a number of authors write a flash piece around the quote “She was warned. She was given an explanation. Nevertheless, she persisted.” It’s an unsettling quote and all the authors take a good stab at “persisting”. Obviously, some stories work better for any individual than others, and for me the contributions by Maria Dahvana Headley about the first American non-human astronauts, and Charlie Jane Anders’ story about a woman who creates an unauthorised AI stand out in the “fun” mode.

Alyssa Wong and Seanan McGuire’s stories are hard-hitting and brutal, while Nisi Shawl and Amal El-Mohtar provide melancholy and eerie stories.

The collection won’t take long to read, each story being only a few pages long, but it’s thought-provoking and definitely worth your time.

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