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Aliens of the Heart, Carolyn Ives Gilman

29 Jun

Aliens of the Heart cover

Aliens of the Heart
Carolyn Ives Gilman

Aqueduct Press, 2007
ISBN 978-1-933500-17-1

Review by Ian Sales

Aliens of the Heart, a collection of three short stories and one novelette, is the nineteenth volume in Aqueduct Press’ Conversation Pieces, a “small paperback series” which “celebrates the speculations and visions of the grand conversation of feminist sf”. The series comprises fiction, poetry and non-fiction – “essays … speeches … interviews, correspondence and group discussions”. It currently stands at thirty-two volumes, with two more due in August this year.

The four stories in Aliens of the Heart are all set in the US mid-west, arguably the heart of the country. They are all science fiction, though in at least one case the story first appeared in a fantasy anthology. But not only does the “heart” of the title refer to the stories’ geographical location but also to the hearts of the protagonists, all women, all the heart of the relationships which form the centres of the stories, and all the hearts of the stories themselves.

‘Lost Road’ is one of those stories with a simple premise that genre fiction does so well. A middle-aged couple – he is suffering from dementia? Alzheimer’s? – drive from their farm into the nearby town of Lost Road. After their errands, they head home… but they cannot find their way. I will happily admit to a dislike of genre stories which use their central conceit as a metaphor, and then proceed to beat that metaphor to death. I call them “Clarion-style stories”, and you can often find one or two on the Hugo Award shortlist each year. ‘Lost Road’ is similar to those types of stories, but it is, above all else, subtle. As Betty Lindstrom and her husband Wayne travel further from the world they know (though the landscape remains disturbingly familiar), so Wayne seems to recover from his condition. Yet nothing is resolved; the power of the story lies in its refusal to explain or resolve. ‘Lost Roads’ originally appeared in Fantasy & Science Fiction, in February 1992, and was reprinted in 2002 in an anthology from Tesseract Books, Land/Space.

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The Universe of Things, Gwyneth Jones

12 May

The Universe of Things cover

The Universe of Things
Gwyneth Jones
Aqueduct Press, 2011
ISBN 978-1-933500-44-7

Review by Ian Sales

Gwyneth Jones does not write many short stories – forty-one in thirty-seven years – but when she does, by God they’re worth reading. As a result, throughout her career Jones has published remarkably few collections: five, in fact; and three of those are chapbooks. Unfortunately, there is a great deal of overlap between these collections, but if I were to choose one as the best, with the best choice of stories, and the most representative, with the widest selection of stories… it would be Aqueduct Press’ The Universe of Things. It contains fifteen stories, ranging from 1988 to 2009. Most are from the late 1980s and early 1990s. Most are science fiction, but not all. Some cover a page or two, others are novelette-length.

This is one of the strongest collections of genre short stories I have ever read. There is not a bad story in it – even the single-page ‘One of Sandy’s Dreams’, originally written for The Drabble Project in 1988, manages to do more in 100 words than China Miéville’s BSFA Award nominated short story ‘Covehithe’ did in several thousand.

Some of the stories are set in the universes of Jones’ novels. The title story takes place in the world of the Aleutian trilogy – White Queen, North Wind, Phoenix Café and Spirit – and is deceptively simple. An Aleutian takes its car along to a mechanic to have it serviced before selling it. The mechanic realises it is something more than just a car, it is a car that has been driven by an alien. He determines to do more work than asked, so he can then make an offer on the car, and so sell it profitably because of its provenance. But while effecting repairs, his thoughts are drawn to the Aleutian customer, and he briefly experiences how they view the world around them. His desire for the Other drives this epiphany, but to glimpse heaven is to recognise the cost of admission. Continue reading

Cyber Circus by Kim Lakin-Smith

30 Apr

Cyber Circus cover

Cyber Circus

By Kim Lakin-Smith

New Con Press, 2011

isbn 978-1907069307

Review by Pornokitsch

Kim Lakin-Smith’s Cyber Circus (2011) follows the adventures and misadventures – of the titular circus. A group of performers in a flying dieselpunk machine bound from one post-apocalyptic town to another, barely eking out a living. The setting is a dust-choked, war-torn version of the United States, with only a few hollow reminders of our own reality.

Cyber Circus is only the latest of the 2011 books that investigate the idea of exceptionalism using genre fiction. Al Ewing’s Gods of Manhattan is a contemporary steampunk look at pulp heroes. Mark Charan Newton‘s The Book of Transformations explores the failure inherent in the very concept of “superheroism”. Cyber Circus belongs in their number – a darkly poetic examination of what it means to be something other than human.

The key difference between Cyber Circus and the other two is that it explores not superheroism but subhumanism. The book is packed with a wild cast of characters, all of whom have been lessened in some way; physically or mentally, they’ve had something taken from them or been altered into something deplorably specialised. The genre-typical fantasy tale explores the idea of identity by following a character’s search for their own pre-determined greatness. Cyber Circus is the reverse – a quest for acceptance, as undertaken by a true group of misfits. Continue reading

Solitaire by Kelley Eskridge

26 Apr

Solitaire cover

Solitaire
Kelley Eskridge
Small Beer Press, 2011
isbn 9781931520102
Review by Nicola Clarke

There was no risk in letting herself believe that these trees belonged  to her; the rough trunks, the startling soft meat of a broken branch,  the knobbled twigs rising in rows like choirs. The ground belonged to  her, the human-made rises and falls of root and rock, carefully random,  beautiful. The flowers were hers, stuporous in their mulch: the light  and the stippled shadow, the stones and the rich rot underneath them,  were all part of this place that felt like part of her. For the few  minutes of passing through it, she was drawn into it like a breath.

Back in October (2010), there was a very long discussion thread over at Torque Control – sparked by an interview with Tricia Sullivan – about why so little of the science fiction published in the UK these days is written by women. One of the ideas that came out of this fascinating conversation was that we should celebrate women’s genre writing, both in the UK and elsewhere, by putting together a list of the best sf by women from the past ten years. (Voting is open to everyone, and runs until the end of December 5th; details of how to vote are here: go on!)

I’m still mulling over my own list of nominations, but one of them is certainly going to be Solitaire (2002, returning to print next year with Small Beer Press), by Kelley Eskridge. It’s a coming of age story done as psychological thriller: a compelling portrait of a young woman battling both the system and her self after her world collapses, to emerge older, wiser and sadder from an extremely long dark night of the soul. The first chapter is available online here. Continue reading

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