Review: Apex #106

Apex #106, March 2018

  • “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

“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.

Review: Apex #104

Apex #104, January 2018

“Asylum of Cuckoos” by Lila Bowen (fantasy short story)
“To Blight a Fig Tree” by Benjamin Kingsley (science fiction short story)
“A Night Out at a Nice Place” Nick Mamatas (science fiction short story)
“Symphony to a city under the stars” by Armando Saldaña (science fiction short story)
“The Best Friend We Never Had” by Nisi Shawl (science fiction short story)

This month’s Apex (now available in print as well as electronic formats) is a double issue of eight stories which includes five originals.

The first, “Asylum of Cuckoos,” is another Weird Western about race and gender which gets lost in the pack. The last, “The Best Friend We Never Had,” is a dystopian science fiction story about an agent returning to a station in order to do some recruiting (and fighting). There’s nothing especially wrong with it except that, perhaps due to excessive backloading, I’m given no reason to care about the milieu or characters – but that’s pretty fatal.

In between are three shorter stories which would have to be classed as “science fiction” but aren’t, exactly. Specifically, “To Blight a Fig Tree,” which involves pregnant women and their parasites, is not so much a science fiction story as a scene of mechanical surrealism (or symbolism) and probably won’t appeal to many but may work for some. I think “Symphony to a city under the stars” is, in one sense, an old-fashioned tale of the romance of space and the romance of women (and their costs) and, in another, a (not so) new-fangled VR tale. It also feels like an attempt at surreal poetry but is shot through with grammatical errors and confusing awkwardness. Also, while symphonies can have varied structures and this story’s structure may have been intentional, the section headings with symphonic tempos set an expectation for a finale which it doesn’t have.

Finally, a posthuman coagulum is slumming it with a less evolved (but still not entirely human) entity in order to have “A Night Out at a Nice Place.” They have a cosmological conversation which discusses life, the universe, sadomasochism, and everything. The intellectual epiphany at the end results in actual action of a sort but this “sci-phi” (philosophy) piece, while entertaining and thoughtful, is not fully fictional. Still, it was the best thing in the issue, has a last line unlike most you’ve read before, and is definitely worth a mention.

Aside from the stories, one general thing I feel I have to note is the number of grammatical errors in this issue, mostly in “Symphony” but also elsewhere. (Oddly, both “Symphony” and “Asylum” have issues with “sunk” vs. “sank.”)

Review: Apex #103


Apex #103, December 2017

Cover of Apex #103

“Behind Her, Trailing Like Butterfly Wings” by Daniela Tomova (short story)
“The Edge of Things” by Katharine E. K. Duckett (short story)

At least in terms of the two original stories, Apex #103 could be the “quantum mechanics will get you in the end” literary science fantasy issue and that sort of pessimism and fuzziness isn’t often to my taste but both are readable and have their points.

“Behind Her, Trailing Like Butterfly Wings” by Daniela Tomova (short story)

A reporter from the “oasis people” is interviewing an electricity vendor of the “road people” in a time when “mouths” or “irregularities” open up, sometimes even in oases and often on the sides of the “road,” which is a path walked by the semi-mythical Wandering Woman. Her followers believe “mouths cannot open up where she walks.” These mouths are extremely unpleasant. The vendor describes the aftermath of a collapse of an oasis as:

“Nothing left but crumbs from houses and streets going places you don’t want to be. People half-glued to the asphalt, half inside a hole stretched in time. That second half still not having realized what happened to them. No government left to clean out the bodies, you see.

[Refugees] said some of those people have started screaming now and they will be screaming long after what’s left outside is bones. To the inside only a few minutes, or maybe at most a couple of days if they are really unlucky, will pass before they die but a few minutes of watching your body decay and disintegrate, that is…”

He shudders.

Most of the story is just the conversation of the two people, though there is a harrowing scene of a real-time seizure of a couple of people by a mouth. The conversation does eventually reveal something of the reporter’s history and motivation and results in a revelation about the Wandering Woman.

The tale’s foreground or surface is mostly simple and vivid while its background or foundation is complex and surreal. There are moments of interest but not a lot of action or even much to firmly engage with conceptually. This was the more interesting of the issue’s stories and may appeal to some but still didn’t really work for me.

“The Edge of Things” by Katharine E. K. Duckett (short story)

The nameless protagonist is wandering through a surreal hallucinatory existence, sometimes tinged with horror, which resembles a party of strange people in a strange house. (At one point, a guest offers, “LSD?” and the protagonist laughs and says, “I don’t think I need any.”) Over the course of the story, she eventually makes some progress toward “going sane,” or “going mad backwards.”

This genre bender seems almost to say “idle minds are the devil’s universe” but I’m sure you can make it say any number of things. While I didn’t entirely, some may enjoy this trip.

Rec: “An Unexpected Boon” by S. B.  Divya

An Unexpected Boon” by S. B. Divya, Apex #102 November 2017, fantasy short story

(Apex is on a roll, with a recommended story in the last issue and another in this.)

The viewpoint of this tale shifts a bit between Aruni and Kalyani (a brother and a sister) the latter of whom seems to have something like a pronounced Asperger’s Syndrome. She’s very smart but can’t read expressions well or stand to be touched by people. When the parents leave Aruni in charge for a time while they’re away and a sage arrives, Aruni is extremely worried because (Indian?) custom dictates that Kalyani must serve as hostess. Much to his surprise, things go well and Kalyani is given a boon – a magic beetle (lightning bug, I think) – because she asked for a friend. When a second sage arrives, however, things do not go well at all and he curses the home. The siblings’ handling of this curse, and its ultimate effects, fill the remainder of the tale.

Aruni is sympathetic as the caring, but exasperated, brother, the milieu and the lightly (and then heavily) fantastic elements are well-handled, and the contrasting sages are intriguing, but Kalyani steals the show. Her disabilities and struggles and compensating extra abilities (even before her beetle kicks in) are well-drawn and induce, but don’t unfairly coerce, the reader’s affection and the working out of the ecumenical parable, while familiar, is satisfying.

Rec: “Penelope Waits” by Dennis Danvers

Penelope Waits” by Dennis Danvers, Apex #101 October 2017, science fiction short story

The first-person narrator is a twenty-six-year-old student who’s taking her classes just to get a better job, though she likes the dogs she washes now. She’s obviously someone whose potential exceeds her environment and experiences. When her insufficient boyfriend claims he’s been abducted by aliens, she doesn’t buy it but then she meets them herself and the grass suddenly looks a lot greener.

In a sense, this is all character and voice, as the narrator is almost the whole of the story and its greatest success. Aside from her, the story’s room is almost bare, having only the science fictional furniture of alien contact, like a fairly worn easy chair. However, the aliens do manage a bit of distinction and the Greek lit references are fun. I think the narrator will entertain many and her plight will speak directly to some.