In 500 Words or Less: Flip, Volume 1, edited by Jack Briglio

Friday, May 17th, 2019 | Posted by Brandon Crilly

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Flip: Volume 1
edited by Jack Briglio
Markosia (74 pages, $14.99 paperback, $6.99 eBook, December 21, 2018)

What’s that line from The Twilight Zone? “Imagine if you will…” or something, right?

I’ve been teaching a high school creative writing course recently, and one of the things I’ve loved is encouraging my students to explore the question of “What If?” as they’re brainstorming ideas. Once we get past the cliched stuff like “What if Germany won the Second World War?” they come up with some really powerful ideas, since “What If” can lead you in all sorts of crazy directions.

Mind you, all speculative fiction has a “What If” quality, so to say that I’ve been reading a lot of that kind of book lately is a bit redundant. For this post though, I’m thinking of the kind of story that twists things just slightly into the unknown, whether it’s Mary Robinette Kowal lobbing an asteroid into the United States in The Calculating Stars or Guy Kay turning the early Renaissance a “quarter turn to the fantastic” in A Brightness Long Ago. Sometimes it’s historical fiction, and sometimes it’s turning our world slightly askew, which is what’s intrigued me about the first volume of Flip, a new comics anthology edited by Jack Briglio.

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Fame and Fortune, While the Darkness Creeps Ever Closer: All My Colors by David Quantick

Wednesday, May 15th, 2019 | Posted by Caitlin McAllister

All My Colors-smallAll My Colors, by David Quantick, is a captivating read, one you’re sure to gobble up in just a few sittings. From the very first page the reader becomes intrigued by the warped and egotistical mind of Todd Milstead. With a photographic memory, Todd spouts off quotes and passages from literary heroes dead and alive, but one such bout of verbal discharge leaves his friends questioning his abilities. They’ve never heard of the passage he quotes, much less the author!

So begins Todd’s dark and twisted journey to figure out why he can see every word on every page of an apparently non-existent book, a novel titled All My Colors. A self-proclaimed author with no published works to his name, Todd grapples with claiming the book as his own. Why not, if no record or memory of it seems to exist?

Once he makes decision to plagiarize it, there’s no turning back. The book pours out of Todd and into the world, and is met with great acclaim. Suddenly Todd has everything he’s ever dreamed of.

But the age-old adage “be careful what you wish for” holds true. Todd is famous! He is wined and dined, recognized as the next brilliant voice of women everywhere, but darkness begins to creep ever closer. Inexplicable things start to happen — Todd sees things that aren’t there, frightening dreams seem too real, and friends begin to disappear. Each page is read in a frenzy to figure out who or what is playing Todd like a puppet.

Quantick is a great writer, with an obvious voice, but I wish he took a bit more time to sharpen what he wanted to say. An interesting read in the time of “Me Too,” the novel hits on the greater theme of misogyny and what can be learned when one detaches from the limited view of “men first.” He could have taken more time to show Todd’s understanding of what was happening to him, rather than simply explaining the changes to the reader. There wasn’t a true sense of understanding around his otherworldly shift from outwards asshole to the next great voice of women everywhere.

[Warning — spoilers ahead!]

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A New Gem from a Seasoned Master: Guy Gavriel Kay’s A Brightness Long Ago

Tuesday, May 14th, 2019 | Posted by David B. Coe

A Brightness Long Ago-smallBy any measure, Guy Gavriel Kay is a giant in the field of fantasy. He has won a World Fantasy Award (for Ysabel in 2008) and been nominated for three others. He has won the Aurora and Sunburst awards, and in 2014 was made a member of the Order of Canada. Even before the release of his first series, the critically acclaimed Fionavar Tapestry (The Summer Tree, The Wandering Fire, The Darkest Road) Kay had already established himself as an important figure in the fantasy world by editing The Silmarillion with Christopher Tolkien. Every one of his thirteen novels has enjoyed stunning critical success. And on a personal note, his work, with its lyrical prose, insightful character work, and brilliant world building, has been an inspiration to me throughout my career.

It is no exaggeration to say that the release of a new Guy Gavriel Kay novel is always a notable event in our genre. The May 14 publication of his latest work, A Brightness Long Ago (Berkley), promises to be no exception. Moving, intriguing, surprising, and ultimately deeply satisfying, it ranks with Tigana, The Lions of Al-Rassan, Ysabel, and Under Heaven as one of Kay’s very best.

A recitation of the plot of A Brightness Long Ago hardly does justice to the richness of this narrative. An old man, Guidanio Cerra, reflects on his past, in particular his life-altering romance with a young noblewoman, Adria Ripoli. They first meet on a night in Danio’s youth when Adria has come to the city-state of Mylasia, posing as an innocent who has been sent to satisfy the sadistic sexual appetites of Mylasia’s Count Uberto. In reality, she has come to assassinate the Count. But Adria is wounded in their encounter and is unable to flee the palace without help. Danio knows the count was a brute, and he admires Adria’s strength and courage, as well as her beauty. He also knows of her noble heritage. He offers his aid, allowing her to evade capture.

They next meet when Adria rides a mount in the famed race of Bischio. It is rare for a woman to ride, unheard of for the daughter of a noble house to do so, though in this, too, she attempts to keep her identity hidden. The extravagant wagering on the race attracts the notice of rival mercenary commanders, Teobaldo Monticola di Remigio and Folco Cino d’Acorsi, and the contest’s unexpected outcome draws Danio into the drama of the men’s blood feud.

To reveal more would be to spoil some truly wonderful moments of drama, suspense, passion, tragedy, and vengeance. It is enough to say that the pace of this tale does not flag.

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A Slender, Forgotten Gem: The Deep by John Crowley

Monday, May 13th, 2019 | Posted by Steve Case

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1984 Bantam paperback edition; cover by Yvonne Gilbert

Some authors create slender, nearly flawless works of fiction. Books like little jewels on the shelf — cut just right, gleaming, standing alone. Beagle managed this a few times: A Fine and Private Place, The Last Unicorn. Goldman turned his into a movie that was nearly as good: The Princess Bride. Swanwick and Wolfe have done it with literary science fiction: Stations of the Tide and The Fifth Head of Cerberus, respectively. The Deep is a book like this: finely wrought, chiseled, alien.

Is this tiny 1975 volume science fiction or fantasy? On the one hand, the book starts with the Visitor, a damaged android who arrives in the book’s world with no memory of what he is or his mission. But the world he’s in, the culture and factions of which his ignorance provides the perfect excuse for a narrator’s artful explanation, is purely fantasy: a kingdom riven by conflict between Reds and Blacks, with a city at its center and wild wastes surrounding, ringed on all sides by the Deep.

The world, as different characters explain at different times, is a platter or a plate suspended on the Deep by a great pillar. And even when the android journeys to the edge of this world and meets the Leviathan who dwells there, when he learns the nature of the engineered conflict and how humans were first settled on the world, Crowley doesn’t ever default to pure science fiction. Even if the reader can credit a resettled humanity in the far future, reset to medieval technology with continual wars to control the population, the story still leaves you with a flat world upon the Deep. Somehow, this central oddity works; it keeps a surreal wrinkle in the heart of the world Crowley creates.

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When Earth is a Graveyard of Gods: Edges by Linda Nagata

Saturday, April 27th, 2019 | Posted by Steve Case

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The Fermi Paradox is relatively simple. It asks, considering the immense expanse of time, the apparent plentitude of planets in our galaxy, and thus the likelihood of intelligent life somewhere else — why don’t we see it? Why is the sky so resolutely silent? Answering this question has become something of a hobby among science fiction writers, with responses ranging from the transcendental to the sobering. Maybe life evolves quickly beyond the physical. Or maybe life is out there but quietly watching and waiting. Linda Nagata’s work offers a more straightforward answer: intelligent life is hunted.

In Nagata’s universe, Chenzeme coursers are living alien weapons: biomechanical vessels coated in hulls of intelligent “philosopher cells.” The ships are programmed to systematically hunt down technological civilizations and sterilize entire worlds. In her previous series, humanity’s spread into the frontier was halted by encounters with these vessels. The coursers were only one prong though in an ancient assault that had long outlasted the ship’s original creators. The other was an ancient virus, which bypassed the frontier worlds and affected the original core planets of humanity’s origins, including Earth, subsuming entire planetary populations into huge group-minds that went on to construct immense Dyson spheres enclosing their stars.

I fell into this universe through a paperback copy of the final book in her previous series, Vast (1998), and was immediately entranced (I reviewed Vast for Black Gate here). Nagata has a way of making the incredible distances, both in space and time, of galactic travel real. Humans are tenuous here, following divergent evolutionary roads, clinging to disparate worlds in the night. Vast followed an expedition from the planet Deception Well to find the source of the Chenzeme coursers and spun out from there into a stunning novel that was at its core a centuries-long chase sequence but managed to explore the characters and the biomechanical and technological realities of life aboard the exploratory ship.

All this to say I was thrilled when I learned that Nagata, after nearly two decades, was returning to this universe with a follow-up series called Inverted Frontier. The first book in this series, Edges, was released this spring and Nagata was kind enough to send me a pre-print for review.

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The Golden Age of Science Fiction: The 1973 Nebula Award for Best Novella: “A Meeting With Medusa” by Arthur C. Clarke

Saturday, April 27th, 2019 | Posted by Rich Horton

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Tor Double #1, October 1988. Cover by Vincent Di Fate

Arthur C. Clarke, of course, was a towering figure in SF circles – when I began reading SF, there was an indisputable “Big Three”: Isaac Asimov, Robert A. Heinlein, and Clarke. And, indeed, that’s how I saw things at that age. Curiously, Heinlein was not really central to my earliest reading, and I didn’t read the bulk of his juveniles until a couple of decades later (though I had read his adult work in my teens.) But Clarke and Asimov were among the “adult” SF writers I first discovered, and I was reading novels like Against the Fall of Night when I was 12.

Clarke was born in 1917. He began publishing SF in 1946 with “Rescue Party” (a story that still gives me a thrill.) He made his mark in SF in the next decade or so with many further fine stories and with novels like The City and the Stars and Childhood’s End. He made his mark in the wider world when the movie 2001 appeared in 1968 – Clarke had written the original story (“The Sentinel”) upon which it was based, and he also worked with Kubrick on developing the story for the movie, and wrote the “novelization.” He had moved to Sri Lanka in 1956, partly because of his interest in scuba diving, but also possibly because he was gay, and homosexual activity was still illegal in England. He was knighted in 1998, at which time disturbing stories accusing him of pedophilia surfaced. He was cleared by the Sri Lankan police, and died a decade later.

“A Meeting with Medusa” first appeared in Playboy in December 1971. (I’m not sure why it was still eligible for the Nebula ballot in 1973 – this was before the “rolling eligibility” period of the Nebulas.) I’d have reproduced a cover image of its first place of publication, but Black Gate is a family website, as so well evidenced by the Margaret Brundage paintings we sometimes feature! I should also mention that this was a period when Playboy published a fair amount of excellent SF — for example, Ursula K. Le Guin’s “Nine Lives”, just a couple of years earlier.

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A Meditation on Futuristic Medicine: Stronger, Faster, and More Beautiful by Arwen Elys Dayton

Friday, April 19th, 2019 | Posted by Elizabeth Galewski

Stronger Faster and More Beautiful CoverEvan will die if his organs aren’t replaced. A perfect organ donor has been lined up – his twin sister. But she’s still alive.

Milla should be dead. Only by becoming a cyborg was she able to survive the car crash. She tries to keep her new nature secret at school. But when the boy she likes actually listens to her, she can’t help but divulge the whole story. Now everyone knows she’s not quite human.

When the riot broke out, Elsie thought she was about to die with her family. Waking up, she learns that only she and her father survived. Her father, a charismatic minister, has always agitated against medical technology, calling it blasphemy. But now he’s changed his mind. And while she was unconscious, he’s had her changed, too.

Arwen Elys Dayton’s Stronger, Faster, and More Beautiful advances in a series of episodes, each with a different narrator with a compelling original voice who confronts vastly different circumstances. Yet the book isn’t a collection of short stories. An extended meditation on the future of medicine, it explores the ethical and social ramifications of saving human life through recourse to machines, genome editing and cybernetics. The classic tension of science versus religion runs throughout the book. The human race itself is the protagonist, and there’s a clear narrative arc. Each excerpt takes us further into the future, and as the years pile up, humanity becomes increasingly unrecognizable to itself… Not to mention disloyal.

This book reminds us of science fiction’s highest calling – to provide readers with a way to think through the consequences and implications of nascent technology in order to move into the future more mindfully. Despite its heady content, however, Dayton knows how to bait a hook and keep readers turning pages. Over and over again, she presents characters that readers can’t help but connect with and feel for, no matter how strange their situation and bizarre the setting.

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In 500 Words or Less: The Kingdom of Copper by S.A. Chakraborty

Friday, April 19th, 2019 | Posted by Brandon Crilly

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The Kingdom of Copper (Daevabad Trilogy #2)
By S.A. Chakraborty
HarperCollins (640 pages, $26.99 hardcover, January 2019)

No joke, I just wrote what would have been the opening two paragraphs for this post, and followed it immediately by typing the words, Wow, that sounds like a boring, stereotypical book review and I’m a hack. That’s a sign my brain is running low on capacity for anything other than novella and podcast revisions. Or, more likely, it’s run out of patience for reading anything that doesn’t immediately catch and hold my attention.

Luckily, the book I’m trying to extoll in this review is an easy sell. You might remember my review of S.A. Chakraborty’s debut novel The City of Brass, which I’ll admit I wasn’t totally enamored with because of the way the plot seemed to drag. Chakraborty’s follow-up novel The Kingdom of Copper, though, is exactly what you want from an author’s second book: even more of the elements you love, and an improvement in everything else.

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Galaxy Science Fiction, July 1954: A Retro-Review

Thursday, April 18th, 2019 | Posted by Matthew Wuertz

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The July, 1954 issue of Galaxy Science Fiction (cover art by Mel Hunter) opens with a note from H. L. Gold, the editor. Several authors had shared with Gold how it felt to sell a story to Galaxy. But Gold, an author himself, writes, “Do you think anybody has to tell me how that feels?” He was looking for jobs by day and writing by night in the early 1930s when jobs were scarce, and his “manuscripts seemed to be opened by a machine that slipped them unread, along with a rejection slip, into the return envelope.”

As an author myself, I couldn’t help but laugh; how often it feels that way when submitting stories and getting a form reply (by email in more recent years). One day, after being laid off from a position as a busboy, he checked the mail and found that he had sold his first story. He writes, “Don’t kid yourself that writing is a substitute for work. It requires as hard an apprenticeship as any other profession.” And as a final encouragement, he adds, “Magazines don’t have automatic remailing or story-writing machines. I just thought you might be wondering.”

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Dragons and Gardeners in a Pan-Galactic Imperium: Abyss Surrounding by Eva L. Elasigue

Tuesday, April 16th, 2019 | Posted by Damien Moore

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There are many stories in Abyss Surrounding, the sequel to Fire on All Sides (which I reviewed in 2016), and the second book in Eva L. Elasigue’s Bones Of Starlight series. Entirely as complex, multilayered, and compelling as the first, Abyss Surrounding offers daring new concepts along with enticing new situations holding familiar characters in their clutches.

We have the Princess Soleil, now a rebel living apart from the status her Imperium affords her, and instead mingling with intrepid voyagers of an unknown universe. We have Derringer, a spy in search of the Princess whom you will fondly recall from the first book as a splash of nostalgic hijinks. And we have our villain, Sturlusson, whose journey in the second installment needs to be experienced without the benefit of a critic’s retrospection. Read the book; you’ll get what I mean.

I was entranced by the inclusion of Dragons, mythical beings who play a vital role in the workings of Elasigue’s universe. Her deft use of distinctive neutral pronouns for each Dragon endeared me to their importance in her world; this is also a testament to her fluidity in addressing gender neutrality, worthy of a review all on its own.

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