Sunday 29 May 2022

Emerging Horizons, edited by Allen Ashley (The British Fantasy Society)

I have a story in this anthology, so it would be unethical for me to rate and review it, but I will talk about it a bit. My history with this book goes back a long way. In September 2015 the British Fantasy Society's publishing schedule was running late, as usual, and so I proposed producing a quick anthology. No need, said the society's chair, because one is already in the works. And this is it, published in December 2021, a mere six years later! Part of the problem was a change of chairs at the society: an incoming chair apparently didn't fancy publishing it, and then the chair who took over in 2021 didn't want to have it printed either, so it crept out at last as an ebook-only publication.

Reading it was an odd experience, then, because I was on the alert for clues as to why successive chairs declined to publish a print anthology that members had been promised so long ago, and to which members had been asked to contribute, especially when the society's publishing programme has been so threadbare. (I'm writing in May 2022, and this is the only BFS publication, ebook or otherwise, to have been released since July 2021, and that one (BFS Journal #22) was the only print publication the society has released in the 17 months since December 2020. Were the stories in this terrible? Was it badly edited? (Obviously not, with the ever-conscientious Allen Ashley in charge, but I knew that certain other BFS publications had been delayed for that reason.) Was there something problematic about the book?

Now obviously I'm biased, as a contributor, but I thoroughly enjoyed it. The premise of the anthology is that all the authors are at the beginning of their fiction writing careers, including me (I've written and published quite a lot of fiction, but only in my own magazines, and for the purposes of this anthology self-publishing didn't count), but the stories are, on the whole, as good as anything I've read in other BFS publications. None of the stories offered any clues as to why the anthology hasn't seen print.

The only story I could imagine anyone classing as problematic was "The Hanging Tree" by Kim Gravell. It's about hanged witches and the desire of their descendants for justice, but I suppose that, looked at from another angle, you might say it's about a woman who realises she is in love with the man strangling her to death and afterwards says to him that "love and hope are strong enough to conquer anything". But it's still an interesting story and I can't imagine anyone would think it so problematic as to compromise the anthology.

I suppose there isn't much sword and sorcery for a fantasy anthology, but "The Uninvited" by Nicola Gifford offers some as valkyrie battle the Devil, his wyvern and an army of zombies. The sword in "The Giant's Rib" by Elliott Simpson only ever gets used against a couple of trees, rather than the half-giants the protagonists encounter. Another story that leans more towards the fantastical end of fantasy is "The Mysterious Mister Fox" by Liz Tuckwell, a fairy tale about Betsy Heysham, who can see through the wiles of a handsome soldier, while her smitten sisters cannot.

"Wayland" by Mark A. King is written in an unusual, declamatory style that I found rather appealing. It's about a magical place where children who died young get to live for a lifetime in the course of a single day. "The Return of the Zookeeper" by Robin Lupton is about a chap with psychic powers who uses them to control his troupe of performing animals; it all starts to go wrong after he wears them out and finds himself in a pool with two uncontrollable crocodiles. "Archon Joe's Creation" by Nigel Robert Wilson is another story with mythical and biblical elements, this time about the guy who kept working on what seems to be our planet after the original Creator left.

Darker stories include "Skin" by Suzy A. Kelly, about mother and daughter selkies held captive by a drunken man, and "The Conveyor of Souls" by Dolly Garland, about Maithli, who almost died and can now communicate with troubled souls to uncover the grievances still binding them to our world. In "The Darkness Inside" by Michael J. Nicholson a curtain-twitcher and her husband see something peculiar happening out on the street. A good story, but I wasn't sure about its characteristation of a "typical marriage" as one in which the husband fantasises about killing his wife! "Eyeballs" by Michael Button is about two chaps whose favourite hobby is to pick a person each to stalk for the day and then meet up to compare notes. Although it is very good – perhaps my favourite in the book – and extremely creepy, it's not a fantasy story so far as I could tell, so perhaps an odd inclusion in a fantasy anthology.

My story, "The Reader-Queens of Tranck", is wisely placed at the end. I say wisely for a couple of reasons. Firstly, because the goofy tone of it is completely different to the rest of the book, which tends to be very serious, whatever the subject matter. I think it's also the only story that doesn't take place on Earth. And secondly, because the premise of the story is that as typos start to creep into the text, the protagonists notice and realise that the integrity of their world is crumbling. If it had been the first story in the book, readers might have assumed from the first few typos that the book was poorly edited, but by the end of the anthology it will have earned their trust.

I submitted the story for the anthology so long ago that (a) I have since written three entire novels about the main characters and (b) I had forgotten about the deliberate typos myself. So as I reached the first one I thought, oh my god, how did I miss this? How did Allen Ashley miss this? But as it went on it I realised what was happening and it really tickled me. There were many bits that made me laugh out loud, a few very nice turns of phrase, and even some excellent advice for proofreaders. I'm not ashamed to say that I'm one of my own favourite writers: what's the point of being a writer if it's not to write exactly the stories you want to read, with the sort of jokes that really make you laugh?

Overall, one of the best BFS publications I've read in a while, even if I am biased. If more anthologies were this length, instead of rambling on for five or six hundred pages, I'd read a lot more of them.

If you like the sound of it, the way to get the anthology is by joining the British Fantasy Society. Their monthly bulletin for members includes a Dropbox link to a selection of past publications, including this one.

Monday 23 May 2022

Till Death | review by Douglas J. Ogurek

Makeup on a robot: it’s Home Alone 6, starring Barbie! 

There are two things you can be certain about in Till Death, starring Megan Fox as Emma, a chilly trophy wife who spends most of the film dragging around her husband’s corpse and dropping f-bombs. First, despite all the trials that Emma undergoes in a remote cabin in the middle of the winter somewhere in New York, her makeup will not get ruined. Second, no matter what the plot throws at Emma, her tepid responses will fail to gain the sympathy of a discerning viewer.

Emma’s lawyer husband Mark (Eoin Macken), whom she met when he successfully prosecuted the man who attacked her, is the controlling type – he tells her what to wear and what to order off the menu. Mark, who gives no indication he’s aware she’s having an affair with one of his employees, takes her on an ostensibly conciliatory getaway to a remote lake house to celebrate their eleventh anniversary. Then he dies.   

The film, directed by S.K. Dale, offers some of the mysterious note-leaving and brutality of Saw and some of the suspense of the typical home invasion story in which an underdog uses her ingenuity to try to outwit would-be killers. However, Till Death seems to be so focused on maintaining Fox’s Barbie-like complexion that it falls short in other factors. Her robotic performance leaves her cold to her husband, cold to her lover, and unfortunately, cold to the viewer. Moreover, as antagonists pursue Emma within the lake house, one wonders how hard it is for able-bodied men to find a barefooted woman handcuffed to a bloody corpse.

Most log lines about Till Death say something about a woman awakening to find herself shackled to her dead spouse. Not only does the film take too long to build up to that inciting incident, but that description leaves out a technicality that plays into the way the story evolves. Rather than building up to this scenario, a more compelling structure might have started with the handcuffed spouse discovery, then shifted between Emma’s more well-defined past and her attempts to escape. 

The most interesting, albeit weakly explored, facet of this film is the concept of the beautiful young woman kept as an object by an older, wealthier man. Perhaps Till Death would have been much better if its makers dropped the horror aspirations and injected Emma with more backstory, depth, and life.—Douglas J. Ogurek **

Sunday 1 May 2022

SHINE: An Anthology of Optimistic Science Fiction (Solaris) edited by Jetse de Vries | Review by Douglas J. Ogurek

A hopeful change: anthology turns the tables on dystopic sci-fi to shine a light on technology’s role in global healing.

If you’re a little tired of dystopic sci-fi, then awaken to SHINE, for which editor Jetse de Vries challenged writers to explore more hopeful outcomes. Though we hear a great deal about the negative effects of technology, this anthology shows how it can be a means of connecting people and healing our ailing environment. And despite its being more than a decade old (published in 2010), the anthology holds up to the test of time.

Some of the stories might be harder to grasp for the reader who, like me, isn’t much of a tech wizard. I suspect that devoted readers of hard sci-fi will have less trouble with these stories. Nevertheless, the anthology introduces a variety of intriguing inventions. Examples range from ocean bots programmed to collect garbage and robot spiders that help women ascend in a chauvinistic West African village to techwear and nanoparticle soil that uses solar energy.

One theme that repeatedly emerges is control—in particular, mankind’s ability to use technology versus being controlled by it. Eva Marie Chapman’s “Russian Roulette 2020” proposes a flip from using technology for the “Just Nowism” of shallow pursuits to applying it for the benefit of society. The author takes the current dependence on technology to the next level by introducing a group of American kids addicted to devices called ZiSleeves. They visit a special school in Russia that has used technology to benefit the surrounding community. Protagonist MV is the American embodiment of instant gratification, whether that means playing with technology or scoring with young women. Then he meets Rada, a beautiful Russian tech whiz who also likes doing cartwheels and spending time outdoors. Rada, disappointed by Americans for exploiting the planet, advocates taking time to break away from attention-demanding technology to be still. 

Though it’s hard to tell what’s happening at certain points in Gord Sellar’s “Sarging Rasmussen: A Report (by Organic),” the story brings up the idea of control again. The men in it begin by using an elaborate digital game to manipulate and bed women, then discover their ability to manipulate people’s minds can make a more meaningful, ecological impact. 

Another theme that repeatedly surfaces in SHINE is the critical role that children play in the future of our earth and how teaching them correctly will make an impact. “Castoff World” by Kay Kenyon, for instance, introduces a girl and her grandfather who live on an island floating on recycled plastic bottles while they try to reconnect with humanity. A third major character is Nora (nanobotic oceanic refuse accumulator), the nanobots that recycle materials that pollute the ocean. 

Ken Edgett’s “Paul Kishosha’s Children” shows the role art and storytelling can play in teaching children to respect the environment. A scientist gives up his NASA job to move home to Tanzania, where he resurrects a sci-fi children’s story he created at age nine, then uses it to teach children about science, animals, and ecology. 

Holly Phillips’s “Summer Ice” is a near-future story that deftly combines art and ecological preservation. The protagonist is a female artist who, in her own way, combats climate change in the unnamed city to which she moves. “During the years of awkward transition from continental wealth to continental poverty,” writes Phillips, “the city’s parks were abandoned to flourish or die.” The artist-protagonist’s creation symbolizes a resurgence of hope in humanity doing its part to improve the environment and instil these values in the next generation. 

“Overhead” by Jason Stoddard involves a moon community of 1,300 people who wanted to get away from earth and start a new life. It’s a tense story that shows the benefits of raising youth appropriately. 

If you’re fed up with stories about artificial intelligence taking over mankind, then check out “The Church of Accelerated Redemption” by Gareth L. Powell and Aliette de Bodard. Lisa is an American in Paris doing programming for a church that uses AIs to take prayer requests. She meets a Bedouin protestor focused on the liberation and uplifting of AIs. The story also explores the complexities that might occur when a human has feelings toward an AI. Yes, that’s been done before, but the authors here handle it well.

Another impressive story is Jason Andrew’s “Scheherazade Cast in Starlight,” in which an Iraqi narrator reveals how technology can connect people across borders and oceans to fight oppressive governments that restrict people’s views.

“Twittering the Stars” by Marie Ness covers a four-year space exploration to mine iridium for batteries to power millions of vehicles for fifty years on Earth. It’s told in Twitter fashion with the latest tweet at the beginning. The reader is best served by starting at the end and moving backwards. The stream reveals a botanist/microbiologist’s struggles with love, death, and alien life forms. 

No story in this anthology has as much over-the-top fun as Alastair Reynolds’s “At Budokan.” 

Robots. Dinosaurs. Heavy metal. Is there a better combination? The 12-year-old boy in many male readers will rejoice when he reads this one about how genetic engineering achieves the next level of heavy metal.—Douglas J. Ogurek****