Review: Apex #111

Apex #111, August 2018

Original Fiction:

  • “For Southern Girls When the Zodiac Ain’t Near Enough” by Eden Royce
  • “Prism” by Stefanie Elrick
  • “La Ciguapa, For the Reeds, For Herself” by J. M. Guzman
  • “Gasping” by Brandon O’Brien
  • “Jewel of the Vashwa” by Jordan Kurella
  • “The Barnum Effect” by Celia Neri

This Zodiac-themed “special issue” is guest-edited by Sheree Renee Thomas. All stories are short and all are fantasies (the last is a technofantasy). All but the first and last are in the first person. The first is in the second person and is one of three consecutive stories which refer to “you” heavily throughout the story. The first three are in the present tense while the next two are not purely, plainly, in the past. The second, third, and last are not entirely in English. The second is sprinkled with a sort of Spanglish, the third is is what I assume is a Dominican dialect, and the last is filled with minor ESL-isms and/or typos an editor and/or proofreader should have fixed.

Southern Girls” involves a woman, who seems like a placeholder more than a specific individual, getting a Tarot reading with an odd deck which speaks from and to a Southern nature. There is a magic voice doing most of the reading which could be stage magic and otherwise nothing fantastic occurs. “Prism” (Gemini) is a tale of twins (sort of) which tries to blend music, mirrors, and the occult into a revelation of self but is initially dull and consistently overwritten. (It also has an impressively dead metaphor: “The music is deafening, but now I can’t hear it.”). “La Ciguapa” (Libra) treats of the Dominican succubus but, like “Southern Girls,” seems to have stick figure characters in search of a plot as it more or less conveys that men are scum and “a Black woman” will judge at an apocalypse. “Gasping” (Aquarius?) describes “white people” finding a superficially human sea creature in Ireland and raising it in Tobago. The style did not make for an easy read. “Jewel” has a half-scorpion storyteller open with two lies before (possibly) telling the truth about her jealousy breaking a truce between the Scorpion Men and soft people who procreate with each other when they aren’t killing each other. “Barnum” (the protagonist is a Pisces) is about people developing an AI to write horoscopes but, when one of the developers survives a terrorist attack after following the advice of hers, she decides its sentient. The story’s biggest problems are its underlying silliness and its problematic English, though the protagonist seemed like an individual experiencing a bit of trauma and allowing need to collapse ambiguity.


Review: Apex #110

Apex #110, July 2018

Original Fiction:

  • “The Chariots, the Horsemen” by Stephanie Malia Morris (fantasy short story)
  • “When You’re Ready” by M. Ian Bell (science fiction short story)
  • “Kerouac’s Renascence” by Tal M. Klein (science fiction novelette)

This issue also includes a reprint and a translation as well as the Patreon-funded original novelette and the usual two originals. I did like aspects of the first and third originals but the sum didn’t work for me.

In “Chariots,” the protagonist and her mother can fly, or could, if the patriarchal figure wasn’t literally keeping them down. It’s mostly well-written and has a well-realized protagonist but is thematically simple and unsubtle.

Ready” is about a boy who meets a boy and loses a boy and, undaunted by an apocalypse that should render such things even less likely, takes narcissistic mad scientist steps to regain boy. It’s stylistically very dull and is a case where the present tense specifically contributes to that problem. With yet another example of the “and… or… and… or…” structure, it has no real plot or climax.

Other than wondering why I was reading it in a “speculative fiction” magazine and its downer subject, I was mostly enjoying “Renascence.” A man dying from Huntington’s is leaving his suicide journal to his sister while on a cruise. However, it then tried to qualify as speculative fiction two-thirds in with a ludicrously presented “too bad even for TV” twist and then withheld the obvious conclusion for too long as though it were a big reveal. Also, by the end, the narrative device of the journal had come to seem inconsistent and inappropriate.

Review: Apex #109

Apex #109, June 2018

Original Fiction:

  • “Three Meetings of the Pregnant Man Support Group” by James Beamon (science fiction short story)
  • “Suzie Q” by Jacqueline Carey (fantasy short story)

This could be seen as the “sex is bayud, m’kay” issue.

Suzie Q” is another puritanical story and another revenge fantasy in which a woman goes insane from sex and, eventually, people make the mistake of pissing her off one too many times. Very basically and easily plotted with a puerile and repressive attitude (towards bad sex, anyway, if not good violence). Bizarrely, the markedly superior story between the two is “Three Meetings,” which drops elements of Aliens, Butler’s “Bloodchild,” Barnes’ “Fifty Shades of Grays,” maybe Varley’s “Manikins,” and other similar “weird alien sex” stuff into a blender, though it leaves the lid off so that all the action, energy, and plot fly out, leaving just a really weird and creepy residue. The “skoick” have arrived on Earth and want our… men? Turns out Earthmen are easy, when the gender-incomparable aliens are capable of delivering “mind-blowing interspecies sex” (along with dribbles of tech), even when it results in becoming a gestating device for a mind-controlling alien parasite. Aspects of this are remarkable and, obviously, it has all sorts of gender/orientation/etc. resonances but it falls short of its predecessors, particularly regarding the heavy approach to theme and the previously mentioned plotting. Despite a couple of semi-random, semi-forced efforts to ramp up the tension, it lacks a real driving plot and is just the three scenes.

Review: Apex #108

Apex #108, May 2018

Original Fiction:

  • “Stars so Sharp They Break the Skin” by Matthew Sanborn Smith (science fantasy short story)
  • “Mother Jones and the Nasty Eclipse” by Cherie Priest (2700 words)
  • “Cherry Wood Coffin” by Eugenia Triantafyllou (fantasy short story)
  • “Fifteen Minutes Hate” by Rich Larson (science fiction short story)
  • “Cold Blue Sky” by J.E. Bates (science fiction short story)

The original fiction in this month’s Apex is entirely in present tense and more than once in second person. Therefore, despite having linked to it in my last “Links” post, I’ll link to this gem again: Michael Swanwick cites Ursula K. Le Guin on present tense (with a teaser on second-person). Leaving technique aside, the issue brings us sharp stars, nasty eclipses, cold skies, coffins and hate. Whee! Let’s go!

In the center, there’s an interesting little flash piece about a guy who’s making a “Cherry Wood Coffin.” Coming deaths seem to impel him to start work and the wood, itself, tells him what to do. This is going to be a small coffin so it’s no surprise when a young mother arrives and tries to bribe the worker into doing away with the coffin. She learns why that’s a bad idea.

On either side of that are slightly longer pieces.

Mother Jones” is no story at all but simply an elliptical op-ed on politics, apparently triggered by current affairs, in which “I” monologue at “you.”

The “Fifteen Minutes Hate” is a puzzler for me. It riffs on Orwell (and Steve Allen’s “The Public Hating”) to tell us about a woman’s cilia-bearing phone crawling over her to wake her up and inform her she’s about to become the focus of the Hate. I was expecting her to have done something trivial, thereby pointing up the ludicrous nature of the Packs that patrol our internet and society. It also occurred to me that she might have actually committed some capital crime, thereby conveying an idea that, even then, vengeance is not justice, hate poisons the hater, etc. Instead (without spoiling the specifics) she’s done something that actually is reprehensible and non-trivial, even if it is in comparison to “some government infoscandal, [or] a nuclear aggression in Mashhad.” The point would seem to be on the vicious mobs but the point would have been sharper with a different protagonist and/or situation.

On either side of those are two tales that are longer still (though still just 4-5K words).

Stars” deals with a veteran of the psychic wars (to borrow the Blue Oyster Cult song title), who is recovering from a mysterious additional ailment, accompanied by a mysterious person for whom he has strong ambiguous feelings and it mostly comes clear in the end. It uses present tense with little justification, though a theoretical reason is asserted at one point, and shifts person with even less, though it is all intended to convey the psychic trauma the veteran lives in (rather than, y’know, just conveying the psychic trauma the veteran lives in). This will likely suit some people but did not work for me.

Cold Blue Sky” was certainly the tale I most enjoyed reading from this issue. The problem is in what the ending means. It opens with an “anthrobotic” model waking up when the cops come for her and we learn that’s she’s “evidence” in a crime. We learn the nature of that and more about her, her society, and the people who bought her. It’s told in a tense, clipped, fast-moving way that provides excitement and narrative thrust without actually being all that action-oriented and the first person narration, coming from the robot, creates an interestingly objective subjectivity. However, like “Stars,” this is in first person present tense which is either disastrous or quite clever, depending on how we’re supposed to take the ending, This story has generally been done before and I don’t know that it adds a lot even under a charitable reading but it was fine content.

Review: Apex #107

Apex #107, April 2018

Original Fiction:

  • “Clap Your Hands” by Andrew F. Kooy
  • “The Sharp Edges of Anger” by Jamie Lackey
  • “Murders Fell from Our Wombs” by Tlotlo Tsamaase

All three pieces of original fiction are short stories (“Murders” falls a few words short of a novelette but may be counted as such) and are fantasies tinged more or less heavily with horror. The editorial opines that Apex‘s stories have lately been “a touch lighter than usual” and exults that “the dark times are back, and I think you’re going to love it!”

Clap Your Hands” introduces us to Five, whose mother died during his birth and whose evangelical charlatan father hates him. When Five is shown a moment’s kindness from a diseased woman, he prays for her and a miracle occurs. The father claims credit and uses it to bilk more people and marry the healed woman who is turned against the boy. He eventually runs away but the climax comes when the prodigal son returns. This is a schematic of a story more than a story, itself, seeming to be gasped out pell-mell rather than structured in time-lapse or given room to breathe in gradual evolution. The denouement seems out of focus. Still, the scenario and the boy’s life were interesting.

The Sharp Edges of Anger” is a pseudo-fairy tale in which female anger is made a concrete thing and is about brutal men (and some co-opted women) angering women and repressing them and their anger until things get worse.

In case “Logistics” in this month’s Clarkesworld didn’t satisfy your need for stories about tampons and such, “Murders Fell from Our Wombs” may suffice. A woman in a backwater town in Africa menstruates for seven days at a time, has murderous dreams, and wakes to find people really have been killed. Eventually she learns some things about this and herself and makes her way to the big city. This is told in the first person so I can’t really fault the story for poor grammar—it may just be the narrator’s voice—but it’s often hard to read. That aside, it’s still told in a rambling, fractured way with a similarly random, disjointed plot and was a labor to finish.

Review: Apex #106

Apex #106, March 2018

Original Fiction:

  • “Irregularity” by Rachel Harrison (science fiction novelette~)
  • “We Are New(s)” by Bentley A. Reese (science fiction short story)
  • “A Priest of Vast and Distant Places” by Cassandra Khaw (fantasy short story)

Again I have to apologize for not making this review shorter, which is especially ironic with this issue where the shorter, the better.

In the recent past of “Irregularity,” aliens have invaded the system and been repulsed, Because “it was decided that computers on their own couldn’t keep humanity safe,” space stations have been manned by a crew of two who work seven days a week, twelve hours a day, jacked into a machine, monitoring the stars. The protagonist spends a lot of time thinking about his estranged girlfriend, suffers a blast of what he thinks is feedback, starts bleeding and going crazy, and things only get worse for the brief remainder of the story.

Long review, short: The actual “I’m a lonely person having a miserable time here in this terrible place doing this awful job” is apparently the main intent and is effectively conveyed. It’s just that, to me, the structure it rests on is unbelievable and the person going through it is unappealing.

Long: This “novelette” (labeled “7500 words” and in the adjustment range, though I get 7440 words) initially made me think of, and is very much like, one of George R. R. Martin’s less successful early stories, “The Second Kind of Loneliness” though it later made me think of the less appealing parts of Moon but, really, is like any number of “madness on a space station” stories. The reason it made me think of “Loneliness” goes beyond that to its implausibly contrived nature. Rather than reprogram our AIs we make humans do work AIs are much better suited for? Work of 84 hour weeks? Giving top security clearance to the deceitful protagonist who was washed out of pilot training for his lies? Giving the crew the power to impair and shut down the system’s defenses? The narrative contains some attempted explanations, one quoted in the synopsis and another which mentions that it’s cheap (which is why we don’t spend billions on defense) but they don’t work for me. Other than deceitfulness, self-pity, living in the past, and having a “pliable” brain (which is enough to make him unappealing) the protagonist isn’t characterized much but more than his girlfriend who is nothing but a rich, entitled cypher, while his coworker is just a name. Speaking of names, his is Nyle Crane. Not everyone knows Frasier, perhaps especially not those in the UK, but a large percentage of readers will be unable to get “Niles Crane” out of their heads. Also, its written in an obtrusive present tense for no discernible reason which (along with the close third-person) makes the ending (which would be dissatisfying under any circumstances) even more problematic. Those are some of the things that bothered me but may not bother you. If not and you are one of many who enjoy dark, paranoid, space station stories, you may enjoy this.

Of the two quite short pieces, the SF one, “We Are New(s),” is “A Clockwork Orange: 2092” when London comes a-walkin’ and 11,219 eyes observe a street boy and a “posh gurl” meeting. A thoroughly dystopian, misanthropic (or mis-something, anyway) piece about the media making us do it, about “interest.” A little long and a lot unappealing to me (and present tense, again) but effective enough. Very similar to, though scuzzier than, Rich Larson’s “Razzibot” in this month’s Analog. The fantasy, “A Priest of Vast and Distant Places,” completes the present tense trifecta, and puts a second-person cherry on top. That said, this is an odd tale in which you are a priest of the plane who, in psychic conversation with it, basically asks, “For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own home?” as a good sky pilot should. This is not plainly written, of course, but not overwritten, and is hardly sunny, but not terribly dark. A fairly interesting (if static) story that may have its fans.

Review: Apex #105

Apex #105, February 2018

Original Fiction:

  • “A Witch’s Guide to Escape: A Practical Compendium of Portal Fantasies” by Alix E. Harrow (fantasy short story)
  • “Work, and Ye Shall Eat” by Walker McKnight (science fantasy short story)

This issue includes a reprint and much non-fiction in addition to the two new short stories. I call “Work, and Ye Shall Eat” a “science fantasy” because it starts like a present day realistic story with a scientifically possible twist, such that it might be SF, but it then fades into surrealism. (Any sufficiently advanced literary story is indistinguishable from fantasy.) The administrator of a sort of “Colonial Williamsburg” narrates, in diary form, the tale of her fellow employees being sequestered behind a double barrier of electric fences with only a rare, single point of contact to a military liaison who won’t explain what’s going on. Then the soldiers disappear and other things start disappearing and appearing and occasionally getting electrocuted and it all gets very strange. If you are interested in the mystery and not put off by the glacial pace and unappealing protagonist and enjoy puzzling out the (Eloi/Morlock? self-limiting mentalities?) theme, you might enjoy this but, otherwise, very likely won’t. The mystery that concerned me is that I know I’ve read “colonial re-enactment” stories and many, many, “sequestered behind a military barrier” stories (which account for almost the totality of this story) but I can’t bring any of them to mind.

Turning to “A Witch’s Guide to Escape,” when a librarian of the good, witchy kind notices a neglected orphan, whose soul is being crushed by his unpleasant life, repeatedly showing up in the fantasy section, she fights with the desire to break the witch-librarian rules and end her career by giving him one of their secret books to help him.

I have to confess up front that, while I wasn’t a big fan of the last story I read by this author (“The Autobiography of a Traitor and a Half-Savage”), she hit my radar with “The Animal Women” and, especially, the award-worthy “A Whisper in the Weld” (old review), so I was excited to see a story from her in this issue. I’m not sure that this equals “Whisper” but it’s certainly very good and, while I enjoy her historical settings and she does them well, I was especially pleased that this was a contemporary fantasy. This is a simile-laden tale and a bit explicitly about “the sacred wholeness of reader and book” but it succeeded in continually making me feel like the Grinch when his heart was growing. I’ll grant that a story about a reader of the fantastic which is to be read by readers of the fantastic takes aim at an easy target but it’s still conceived, constructed, and characterized very well (seeing the external view of the boy through the verbose viewpoint of the librarian could be criticized but I think effectively allows the reader to participate in the writing), and it’s full of arresting images and expressions, which conspire to continually play effectively on the reader’s emotions.