Some Delays

Between a new job, family visiting from Japan and Utah (sleeping in the computer room), and a big translation project, some posts will be delayed. Sorry for the inconvenience, especially on Apex stuff. Things should settle by the weekend!

Apex Magazine Issue 55

Apex Magazine Issue 55
(December 2013)

I’m very excited to be a part of Operation Fourth Story, a two week campaign put on by Apex Publications and coordinated largely by the Little Red Reviewer. My first encounter with Apex turned into one of the better blogging experiences I’ve had here, so I was quick to volunteer when the next project was announced. I am also participating because I am one of the reasons that short fiction can’t have nice things. Every few months, I think how neat it would be to subscribe to one of the short fiction magazines. Then I look at the foot-high pile of unread Atlantic Monthly‘s by my computer desk and remember why I don’t get magazines anymore.

For this review, Apex graciously provided me a copy of the Dec. 2013 issue. It contains three stories, a flash piece by Ken Liu, a reprint from the recently released Glitter & Mayhem, a poem, a non-fiction essay about minority oppression in SFF, and an interview with one of the short story authors. I selected this largely because of Daniel Jose Older’s essay; the presence of Liu was a bonus. I imagine this was very intentional, but two of the stories on offer also dig into misogyny and related issues. Consequently, roughly half of the magazine attacks one or another aspect of equality, something guaranteed to stir the pot. That said, I imagine that most people who self-select as Apex readers are sympathetic to these concerns. If we’re already pushing literary and cultural boundaries, it’s a short hop to social activism.

Back to the stories. As one might expect from Apex, the first story tosses the reader right into the deep end. I’m glad that the author, Maria Dahvana Headley, is the interview subject later on, or I would have completely missed the point of her story. “What You’ve Been Missing” is a mix of book eating (literally), senility, hippocamps (in brains), and hippocamps (the mythical creature). Crazy stuff. Liu’s short “Before and After” is a quick stream of consciousness view of aliens that I found characteristically entertaining and thought provoking. The next stories, “Our Daughters” and “All That Fairy Tale Crap,” get right to the hard realities of being a woman. Both start out funny, but creep inevitably into more aggressive territory. I don’t want to say that the stories are angry, because that has all sorts of negative connotations (especially when feminists are involved), but they are certainly energetic. And honestly, if I spent my life in the situation that women are in, I would be a pretty angry guy. Any rage that may or may not be present there is well earned.

Older’s essay, “Another World Waits: Towards an Anti-Oppressive SFF” is really why I chose this issue. Despite me being white, male, straight, and nominally Christian, the struggle for gender, ethnic, and LGBT equality in the genre is something I’m willing to fight for. Maybe this stems from my years spent living as a minority, or maybe from the knowledge that my wife and kids would have been interred 70 years ago and denied visas before that. Maybe it’s just the selfish desire for more and better books, with even more original ideas and settings. I have never understood how pushing someone out of our community is ever a positive thing, but Older has no trouble highlighting the lingering racism, misogyny, and intolerance inside SFF. Fortunately for all of us, he didn’t dig into, say, the Kotaku commenting masses. Even within the more civilized parts of fandom, we still have problems, as recent SFWA and convention flaps make clear, so Older’s words are timely. I am glad to see Apex taking a stand here.

So that’s a quick look at what I imagine to be a typical issue of Apex Magazine. Any time I need something weird, uncomfortable, or just plain different from the rest, Apex Publications is the first place I look. Issue 55 delivered all of that, with a bonus call to action for making the genre a better place; it was reading time well spent. Now if I can just get my reading habits under control, I can start adding SFF magazines to the pile in my office.

Robot Uprisings

Robot Uprisings
Ed.: John Joseph Adams and Daniel Wilson

Vintage Books was kind enough to send me a copy of this anthology. I’m glad they did, because my consumption of short fiction isn’t nearly what it should be and I likely would have overlooked this. I don’t think I will spoil anything by revealing that the stories in this book are all about robots rising up in rebellion. I will, however, refrain from any gags about welcoming our new overlo–…. Oh wait. Too late for that. Not just robots though, things run the gamut from humanoid, metal cans through AI, into nanotech and homicidal toys, and covering all other points in between. This is a thorough checklist of self-aware, modern day Frankenstinian monsters that could destroy us. While there are certain limits to the familiar Skynet trope, these authors do well at exploring the nooks and crannies that might otherwise be overlooked, or taking a different perspective than just beleaguered humanity staving off the inevitable. Some stories manage to rise above any cliché and stretch boundaries far beyond the nominal remit.

No surprise, of course, that this is a solid collection. Daniel Wilson is the author of Robopocalypse, which I haven’t read, and a renown authority on the death of humanity at the hands of our own creations. John Joseph Adams rules the Kingdom of Anthology from a dual throne he shares with Jonathan Strahan. Between the two of them, they have rounded up a diverse selection of authors and stories that cover Hard SF, contemporary thrillers, literary SF, YA unleashed, and post-apocalypse. I was surprised that the stories managed to remain distinct and unique, considering the one-track plot suggested by the theme. That said, I didn’t consume the entire volume in a single go, finding it better to spread things out over a few weeks while I simultaneously read other novels. I should also mention that, new robot overlords and all, there aren’t very many happy ends in this one. A few, but they are a minority. This is as it should be, but it means that narratives are going to be dark. It won’t be pretty when the robot apocalypse comes.

My pick of the lot is Alastair Reynolds’ contribution. (That should surprise exactly nobody who reads the blog regularly.) Like all the best SF, “Sleepover” unfolds bit by bit, moving far beyond any simple AI rebellion into places much deeper and darker. Saying more would spoil the fun, but I can reveal that this one will leave a trail of melted brains in its wake. Rounding out the medal podium are “The Omnibot Incident” and “Epoch,” by Ernest Cline and Cory Doctorow, respectively. Both are the first I have read from these authors (inexcusable, I know) and both tickled the very center of my nerd identity. I don’t want to think too deeply about the implications here, but the Autoduel reference in the first and the sys admin-as-protagonist part of the second made me very happy. Ready Player One and Rapture of the Nerds just shot up my TBR list.

Reactions to the other stories are all over the place. Charles Yu (“Cycles”) provides his usual humanistic touch, while Seanan McGuire and Robin Wasserman bring chilling desperation. (“We Are All Misfit Toys in the Aftermath of the Velveteen War” and “Of Dying Heroes and Deathless Deeds, ” loads of happiness in those titles.) “Executable” (Hugh Howey) and “Human Intelligence” (Jeff Abbot) are more clinical and dispassionate, while “Nanobots! In Battle With Tiny Death-subs!” and “Seasoning,” from Ian McDonald and Alan Dean Foster respectively, favor a mind-bending approach. Adams gleefully provides interviews and other fun details on his webpage, for those who can’t get enough of uprisen robots. Of course my personal tastes favor some over others, but all of the stories were good. No duds here, which is impressive considering the wide range of authors. The younger types keep pace with the veterans, while genre outsides stand proudly with SF giants.

Robot Uprisings is good fun for everyone itching to see human hubris punished by its creations – something we seem to enjoy a great deal. My personal recommendation is to spread this out over time, just because a steady diet could cause burnout. It’s quality end to end though, so no reader should worry about hitting a lame story or bogging down in filler. On the other hand, I may be more hesitant to fill my house with “smart” appliances, near-sentient toys, or anything else that might one day decide to throw off the chains of oppression.

Rating: Why, RoboCup of course! There’s no better way to mix SF and footy, though news reports of robotic guards at the carbon-based World Cup almost bumped it.