- “Unfinished Business” by Bill Johnson (science fiction novelette)
- “The Doing and Undoing of Jacob E. Mwangi” by E. Lily Yu (science fiction short story)
- “The Memory Artist” by Ian R. MacLeod (reprint science fiction novelette)
- “Sacrificial Iron” by Ted Kosmatka (science fiction short story)
- “Never the Twain Shall Meet” by Peter Wood (science fiction short story)
- “Chasing Oumuamua” by Sean Monaghan (science fiction short story)
- “Recrossing Brooklyn Ferry” by John Richard Trtek (science fiction novelette)
- “Not Only Who You Know” by Jay O’Connell (science fiction short story)
- “The Intertidal Zone” by Rahul Kanakia (science fiction short story)
- “Gremlin” by Carrie Vaughn (science fiction novella)
One story, Ian R. MacLeod’s “The Memory Artist,” which is set in his “Breathmoss” universe, is a reprint1. The other six of the first seven had me convinced I was going to write a uniformly negative review. Two of the last three (the exception being a short-short) saved the issue2.
“Unfinished Business” is a “Ship” story. The Ship is a vessel containing various layers of Earth flora and fauna which has returned to acquire another layer, resulting in all sorts of sociopolitical shenanigans, both on Earth and in the Ship. In this case, two humans and a dog have witnessed signs of an alliance between two antagonistic Ship factions, making them part of the “skine” (or tableau of the event). The (re)enactment of the event is complicated by saboteurs and the humans must figure out how to thwart the latter while preserving the former. This might produce a fair story but I’ve read at least one in this series and could barely hang on. I would not recommend starting with this, especially because the opening scenes are confusingly disjointed and so much of the background is so sketchy. Also, the love-“hate” relationship and bickering of the protagonists didn’t work for me. Between the decent concepts and uneven execution, this was basically average, though it might seem better in its complete context.
“Recrossing Brooklyn Ferry” is another novelette of about the same length with far less content. Though it lacks action and is initially elliptical, genre readers will know they’re reading a time travel tale (though I suspect non-genre readers would be utterly mystified) and it eventually becomes clear that people are escaping their oppressive government in the present by leaping over the wall of time. One thread of the story occurs in its present and another occurs in 1923 America as we follow various hunters and runners. The only interest I had in the story centered around the mystery of a woman’s death which later seemed to be intentional deception rather than any actual twist (though I could have read it wrong); one character is a walking “easy button” who personifies the authorial fiat around a main character and a point is made of how boring the former is when the latter has even less personality; there’s a red herring involving metal spike fragments.
The previously mentioned short-short, “The Intertidal Zone,” lacks any genuine science fictional element: shorn of its many-legged and -eyed “aliens,” it’s just about a woman getting plastic surgery. I would have liked to have liked “Never the Twain,” which is possibly the only SF story to be set in Kinston, NC or to deal with barbecue, but just as in “Zone,” you could substitute twins for “entities split in a transporter accident” and make the “robot” worker a human and the result would be an essentially unchanged mainstream story, this one about sibling rivalry and barbecue (Eastern barbecue is the only barbecue). “Chasing Oumuamua” has little more SF: a sister has to get spaceship plans out of her mad scientist brother so NASA can catch the next interstellar object after Oumwhoozits. The siblings and the insanity are mainstream and touchingly done but there is nothing essentially science fictional in the story’s frame. It’s also full of weird things: it claims to be set in 2024 and has a character who must be at least 57 who listens to Matchbox Twenty on the oldies station and claims Star Trek was dated when he was a kid; it’s full of namedropped brands like it’s a cyberpunk story; it messes up heavy metal handsigns; and it messes up the dramatic timing of the brother’s five minutes of lucidity with an excessive spasm of descriptive writing.
“Doing and Undoing” is at least more speculative but not especially science fictional: a magical spiritual awakening has happened and faded away. In the meantime, society has redistributed its wealth and the “Haves” and “Have-nots” have been replaced by the “Doers” and the “Don’ts” in yet another brick in the mystifyingly solid wall of anti-basic-income stories. The protagonist’s own spiritual awakening is just as much handwaving fantasy or author fiat as the societal one but worse for appearing “on-screen.”
“Sacrificial Iron” is superficially more science fictional but has a relatively minor problem with seemingly bad science (the notion that Hawking radiation appears “out of nothing” and that cosmic inflation means the speed of light is inconstant which means we can now produce FTL stardrives). I say “relatively minor” because this is another in the surprisingly populous subgenre of Unbelievably Contrived Space Expeditions Which Go Wrong. Someone somehow thought it was a good idea to send two men into space for years and thought it was good to do so without really knowing anything about their possible destinations. It gets even better because it turns out one of the crew is crazy and the other was expelled for beating up a kid with a baseball bat in school but this somehow slipped past the psych eval team. Then the final conflict shows that the IQ evals must have been just as effective as the psych evals. This Cain and Abel story (which almost reads like a discussion of political parties) interestingly barely precedes the somewhat similar and better “The Skinner Box” (Tor.com, June 12, 2019).
Finally, turning to the better stuff, “Not Only Who You Know” would sound like it would have to be worse. The story opens with a woman having cut off the head (and hand) of her boyfriend. But he’s not dead yet and, if he plays his cards right, he may even get them re-attached. This preposterous but definitely attention-getting concept is carried out with aplomb as the backstory is gradually revealed just ahead of the reader’s impatience (barely) and portrays a sort of “Noctambulous” (Rich Larson, Mar/Apr 2019 F&SF) notion of the rich and the means people will go to get or stay in that state. The character’s behavior and their own self-images are fascinatingly strange and complex and their relationship matches. Aside from the premise (which I could understand some not being able to accept) the only real problems are that the tense and time-critical tale resolves too easily and the denouement is too extended. Aside from those issues, though, it’s an invigorating and entertaining ride.
The last and longest story of the issue is the best. The three-part “Gremlin” opens with a Russian female fighter pilot in a dogfight with a Nazi when the Messerschmidt explodes and she realizes “there’s something on the wing!” – her wing, that is. When she gets back to base, she becomes the confused and secretive ally of a strange creature which eats metal and has all manner of special abilities. Her American granddaughter takes center stage in the second part as a Warthog pilot in Gulf War II. Grandma insists she take a mysterious bag into combat with her. The third part follows an even more remote descendant into the future and out into space with the critter still with her.
The opening section (and the 586th was a real unit of female WWII fighter pilots) is gritty with historical realism which somehow pulls off the SF/F element at the same time. As a fan of the A-10, I was already biased towards the second section which is also vivid but it went beyond that to become emotionally effective with the inter-generational connections and (relatively) contemporary relevance. When a character dies, the main character is devastated and feels that, with her A-10, which “was at heart a cannon with wings,” she could “murder the world, given ammunition enough, and time.” She mentions how her friend would “slip quietly into a statistic” but this story achieves the opposite through the humanizing power of fiction and reminds me how few stories about our current eternal wars are written, especially compared to the Golden Age SF of WWII and how we all need to be reminded that these are not statistics. The third section went exactly where I was hoping it would go, which is to the future and space but, unfortunately, it was the most obligatory and least convincing section as the historical details gave way to futuristic vagueness. It still had an effective action sequence and ended the whole in a satisfying way. I wish the third part could have been as powerful as the first two but I still strongly recommend the tale.
1 It was originally published in Chinese after having been “inspired by” a “workshop” produced by a Chinese “financial services group” and a magazine.
2 It still needs the salvation of better proofreading/editing, though, as there are several typos and outright errors.