“Pan-Humanism: Hope and Pragmatics,” by Jess Barber and Sara Saab

Clarkesworld #132, November 2017
Cover by Vladimir Manyukhin

“Pan-Humanism: Hope and Pragmatics,” by Jess Barber and Sara Saab.
Novelette. Clarkesworld September 2017.


Bruce Arthurs’ recommendation on File770 is what first caught my eye:

I was very impressed by this story’s combination of world-building (centered around efforts to restore/refresh a future Earth damaged by ecological and climactic change, supplemented by a society with better support systems for emotional and intellectual growth/stability), and how it also tells a very human story. It deals with longing, and love, and the difficult choices we still have to make, even in a better future.

I was also struck that this story didn’t rely on dramatic cliches or violence for plot development. No bombs, no killings, no sinister villains lurking in the wings. It tells a story of the heart, rather than a story of the fist or gun.

Rocket Stack Rank is less impressed:

This is a tale, not a story. That is, there’s no protagonist trying to accomplish anything; this is just a collection of disconnected events. The only common element besides the environment is Amir’s obsession over Mani, and that isn’t described well enough to make us believe in it.

Given the lack of a plot, the story goes on way too long.

High praise from Tangent Online reviewer Filip Wiltgreen:

I’m not much for romance. And yet, “Pan-Humanism: Hope and Pragmatics” by Jess Barber and Sara Saab made me cry. It’s beautiful beyond words, a biochromatic albatross wing of worldbuilding wrapped around a solid story of post-eco-apocalyptic civic reclamation as seen through the eyes of a pair of not-quite lovers. And there’s a work-life balance thread there, too.

If you like beautiful writing, amazing worldbuilding, mesmerizing, believable characters, and all of it wrapped around a story with a solid plot that tugs at the heart-strings, you’ll love “Pan-Humanism: Hope and Pragmatics.” The only possible drawback is the sheer amount of information and new-speak Jess Barber and Sara Saab manage to cram into the story. To unpack it all, you might need to read it twice. But then again, you might want to.

Charles Payseur calls this “an amazing piece, and one of my very favorite stories of the year, period,” writing:

The story, through the exploration of these characters lives and relationships, begins to build a picture of what it might take to make the world work better. It stresses that it’s not technology alone that will save us, because without a philosophy to match, the exploitation and consumption will continue to escalate, pushing past all obstacles and barriers and safeguards. I love how the story implies that humanity needs a different framework in order to respect humans and the environment, in order to put cooperation and compassion ahead of personal ambition or passion. And it is a beautiful story that touches on how love still works in this philosophy, not quite in the same way that we now expect but still in profound and powerful dimensions that allow Amir and Mani’s story to be one of hope and healing and triumph, even as it is often about longing and distance as well.


What did you think? Read the story, and come discuss with us in the comments!

“Auspicium Melioris Aevi,” by JY Yang

Uncanny March/April 2017; Art by Julie Dillon

“Auspicium Melioris Aevi,” by JY Yang.
Short story. Published in Uncanny, March/April 2017.

The story of a school for clones. What do they study? Ah, that depends whose clones they are…


Rocket Stack Rank praises the story as “Clever; makes you think”.

Charles Paysuer, at Quick Sip Reviews, observes:

The story really to me seems to be about the way that people are prepared to be just copies of the past. Fed the biographies and skills and ideologies of the “great men” of the past so that we can all go out into the world and contribute to industry. So that we can land good jobs and uphold the status quo. And yet as Harry shows the system is rigged. It doesn’t have the flexibility that really serves it. […]

It’s a point that the ending does a magnificent job of driving home, that rebellion in some ways is easy. That resisting a bad system is in some ways easy. What is more difficult is to imagine a better system and to try and take steps toward it. A wonderful read!

On “Pretty Terrible,” Natalie Luhrs reviews the story:

I really don’t want to spoil the ending of the story, but it went in a somewhat unexpected direction that makes total sense when looking at the overall shape of the story and the character of the fiftieth Harry Lee. I loved the care with which each Harry Lee was drawn, even those who appeared only briefly—even though they are copies, they’re also individuals.

I really found this story quite enjoyable—Yang has a crisp, clear writing style that conveys precisely the information needed. Despite the seriousness of what’s going on in the story, there are still flashes of humor and grace, both of which are often lacking in stories that tackle issues like freedom, self-determination, and the weight of history. This is the first story of Yang’s I’ve read, but it certainly won’t be the last.

A.C. Wise, in “Words For Thought,” writes:

Yang touches on questions of destiny and predetermination on a genetic level and an environmental level. What makes a person who and what they are, and can similar circumstances recreate that? Despite both nature and nurture trying to fit him into a template, it’s clear the fiftieth Harry Lee has free will, and a mind and personality of his own. [..]

The clones are meant to use their free will to choose to conform to their template. However, being bred for that one choice his entire life, leaves Harry to realize the possibility of freedom – when it is ultimately offered to him – can be just as terrifying as constraint. Faced with infinite possibilities, Harry is paralyzed. 


What’s your take? Read the story, and join the discussion in the comments below!

 

 

“Control Negro,” by Jocelyn Nicole Johnson

“Control Negro,” by Jocelyn Nicole Johnson.
Short story. Published in Guernica, July 2017.

This story was recommended for discussion by @Cecily_Kane:

It’s an intriguing story, an excellent recommendation, and there’s certainly plenty in it to discuss!

“Concessions,” by Khaalidah Muhammad-Ali

“Concessions,” by Khaalidah Muhammad-Ali.
Novelette. Published in Strange Horizons, March 2017.

Join our discussion below, in the comments!


This one’s garnered a fair bit of attention, and a wide range of discussion! Here’s Jonathan Strahan singling the story out on Twitter:

A.C. Wise outlines some of the story’s strengths and themes:

The story shines in its relationships – between Bilqis and Sule, a relationship palpably suffused with love; between Bilqis and her mentor Miriama, a relationship of respect, but weighted with expectation; between Bilqis and Isa, her mentee, a protective relationship; and between Bilqis and Dorian, a relationship between colleagues turned deadly and sour. (…)
The question of spiritual survival (i.e. faith) versus physical survival (i.e. the ability to make a living) plays a central role, showing the potential complications and conflict inherent in the relationship between the two in a post-apocalyptic setting.

Charles Payseur has a lengthy and worthwhile review. Here’s one of his observations:

It’s a tense story, with a bleak landscape of encroaching desert and devastation and people living on the fringes, having to decide between living on their own terms and being able to contribute to larger solutions. I love how the story takes a complex approach to that idea, to the conflict of living free from concessions versus engaged in work that suits your skill and ability. For Bilqis it’s not that delivering children in the desert is not valuable work, but given what she might do…

Rocket Stack Rank gives “Concessions” a full five stars. They describe the story as “Sophisticated and Moving, with Good Characters,” and writes:

Every event is nicely foreshadowed. For example, we’re warned about the “catchers” long before we meet them. Bilquis moans that the hinterlands aren’t fit for good fruit (i.e. a child) and Miriama tells her the fruit doesn’t need to stay put (i.e. she could move away). (…)
The entire story is rich with metaphors. For example, Bilquis already has several “children”: Isa, most obviously, but also children of families she’s helped, like little Bilquis.
In the short space of this novella, some of the characters become very vivid. Isa, Sule, Miriama, and Bilquis herself. And the narration and dialogue are perfect.

Alexandros Zochios reviews the story for Tangent Online, describing it as “a story with deep political messages [that] provokes the reader to take sides.” Some of Zochios’s observations on the story:

The greatest asset of the story in matters of writing technique is the descriptions. Khaalidah Muhammad-Ali describes this barren world with rich similes and expressions that add energy, as well as beauty, transforming it into a less sterile and harsh land. She communicates her main character’s affection for the settlers and her husband almost seamlessly, thus making the reader care for this world and understand what is at stake when the time comes for Bilqis to make her choice.
What also got our attention was the character’s faith. Bilqis doesn’t practice her faith like the others.She has broadened it by incorporating other practices as well (such as the “aether” (…)).

The Mithila Review have interviewed Muhammad-Ali, on this story and her other work.

It was incredibly important to me to write a story about a Muslim woman. First of all, I want to write the types of stories that I would like to read. (…)
I wanted Bilqis to reflect back the same types of emotions that every other human being experiences. I wanted her humanity to be the first thing any reader recognizes about her.
As for Bilqis burying her religion, she didn’t. Not really. She buried the outward signs of her faith, much like her mother did, much like so many Muslim Americans do in order to safely interact in a society that isn’t always tolerant and welcoming. Bilqis resigned herself carrying that faith in her heart. And… in subsequent stories, that may become a problem for her.


What did you think? Read the story, and come discuss with us in the comments!

 

“If a Bird Can Be a Ghost,” by Allison Mills

Apex #99
Apex #99, August 2017
Cover by Dana Tiger

“If a Bird Can Be a Ghost,” by Allison Mills.
Short story. Published in Apex #99, August 2017.


Tangent reviewer Stephanie Wexler writes:

Allison’s graceful story shines on a difficult and heart wrenching topic; childhood grief. It is a treat watching Allison weave Shelly’s world where she is never quite alone, liberating herself by accepting her future through loss.

A.C. Wise tags Mills, and this story in particular, in her September “Women to Read” post:

It’s a beautiful story exploring family, loss, grief, and love. It packs an emotional punch, while offering moments of lightness and humor as well, and overall, it is an excellent starting place for Mills’ work.

Charles Payseur observes:

…it reveals a kind of haunting, a kind of ghost, that is much different than those normally portrayed in media. These ghosts are lost, not really all that dangerous though there is a feeling they could be, if pressed. (…) [Shelly] starts wanting to find one particular ghost, to heal one particular grief in herself. And yet the story explores how that’s not what ghosts are about. The ghosts don’t really exist for the living. Most of the time they don’t even remember the living that much. The ghosts are their own people with their own ways, and Shelly learns (slowly, with a few hiccups) that though she can interact with the dead, can help the dead, their presence or lack isn’t about her desires and demands.

Rocket Stack Rank is middle-of-the-road on this one:

Pro: The basic mechanics of dealing with ghosts are fascinating. The way grandma apologizes to Joseph for sending him on to the next world is amusing and poignant at the same time. And the way the police are so matter-of-fact about it all is pretty funny.

Con: There isn’t much of a plot here. Shelly does learn some lessons, but there’s little real cost to it.

And Maria Haskins is definitely delighted:

I love this story so much it makes me hurt. I have a weakness for stories that manage to break my heart, and then stitch it back together, and this is such a story. Weaving together magic and spirituality, life and afterlife, childhood and adolescence, grief and family – with all its guts and glory – this story is both haunting (in more ways than one), and deeply moving. A must-read.


What did you think? Read the story, and come discuss with us in the comments!

“Hexagrammaton,” by Hanuš Seiner

Hexagrammaton, by Hanus Seiner
Illustration by Jeffrey Alan Love

“Hexagrammaton,” by Hanuš Seiner. Translated from Czech by Julie Nováková.
Novelette. Published in Tor.Com, May 2017.

This one grabbed me from the start; it wasn’t until I started writing this post that I realized it was by Hanuš Seiner, whose “Terra Nullius” I’d found so intriguing a few months ago.

(And hey, sorry for the unannounced hiatus, everybody! Things have been cuh-razy. I’m back, scouring the web for stories that catch my eye and look fun to talk about!)


Maria Haskins recommends this story highly:

I’m not sure I can even properly describe the premise of this unique and captivating story. Aliens have visited the solar system. They have infected? blessed? some humans with a virus that rewrites their genetic code into…something else. The aliens have left, but the infected humans are stuck, halfway to their ultimate metamorphosis. Now, a woman might have found something that will change everything. Mathematics, genetic reprogramming, fear, loneliness, a longing to explore the universe… All I can say is: read it. It’s a trippy, disorienting story that is well worth savouring.

Charles Payseur calls this “a strange story full of hauntingly lovely possibilities.” In his review, he discusses the themes of ciphers and translations:

I love the layers of the story. There are sections told in a journal that parallel those told by the main character, a man who in the journals was part of the Vaían movement and in the other was not. And the story really to me becomes about movement and possibilities. It’s about codes and ciphers, with reality itself being no more than a code that, with the right key, can be translated into something else. So the journal portion of the story translates into the story of the man taking this traveler to the ships, becomes something else entirely. The idea that reality can be translated in that way is fascinating and it creates the possibilities by which the story can find a way for humans to push out into the stars.  It just lingers on this idea that with a code so complex as reality, each translation loses the code that came before, erases it in the act of translation, and so you have to commit to it fully in order to create this new text.
(…)
It’s a beautiful story that changes with each reading, with each new interpretation, and it’s an amazing experience. 

Rocket Stack Rank does not recommend. While it feels “there are lots of really interesting ideas in here,” overall “The whole story is a confused mess. (…) What really happened here? It’s way too long to be this confused.”


What did you think? Read the story, and come discuss with us in the comments!

“A Portrait of the Desert in Personages of Power,” by Rose Lemberg

Beneath Ceaseless Skies – Art by Jeff Brown

“A Portrait of the Desert in Personages of Power,” by Rose Lemberg.
Novella. Published in Beneath Ceaseless Skies, July 2017 (issues #229 and #230).
Part of Lemberg’s Birdverse series.

Content notes: BDSM; negotiation of consent.


Charles Payseur raves about this one at Quick Sip Reviews. It’s worth reading his entire piece, but I’ll excerpt a few different notes:

I have of late lamented that there was not enough queer smutty stories appearing in pro SFF venues. Here is one that captures the scope and awe and magic of fantasy and builds a world that is both shatteringly real and peopled by characters diverse and raw and hurt and yearning for something they can’t quite give breath to. (…)

The web of characters the story creates is one that, like the Grid of the world, is weakened by absences and a general distrust. And while some of the characters seem to think the only way to counter this decay is to create one person to anchor the web and dominate, Tajer and the Old Royal push for a different way, a more subtle and in many ways more precarious way. They seek to strengthen not by creating a powerful single point but by working on the bonds between each person and strengthening those bonds with affection and trust. (…)

(plus OMG THE CHARACTERS!!! They are all so awesome and if everyone doesn’t want all the Marvushi everything then YOU HAVE NO TASTE! There are just so many great characters all orbiting around each other and I love them all and can’t wait to read more amazing BirdVerse stories!)

On the other hand, Rocket Stack Rank is unenthusiastic:

Pro: The world is very elaborate and well-thought-out. Dialogue and narration are flawless.

Con: The protagonist is so powerful that the plot suffers. For the first ten thousand words, we’re not even sure what it is that they want, and the story really drags. Even then, the only problems that they have seem to be self-inflicted. This makes this very long story a real slog to get through. (…) Finally, I found the graphic S&M scenes at the end seriously disturbing.

Ada Hoffman at Autistic Book Party delves into the story’s treatment of sex, gender, and BDSM:

There’s also surprising depth to the kink in this story. Many nuanced issues around consent and negotiation are portrayed, including the question of whether and how someone as powerful as the Raker can ethically pursue relationships. Both characters make mistakes with each other, and then are quick to talk out those mistakes and fix them, which is basically my favorite romance trope ever.

Two other aspects of the romance provide refreshing representation. The kink in the story isn’t held to a perscriptive idea of what dominant and submissive partners should do: the Old Royal and the Raker are both tops, who negotiate complex and fulfilling interactions without either one psychologically submitting to the other. I also liked the way the Old Royal’s gender is handled. They’re gender fluid and undergo a magical gender transition every few years. They also preside over a festival where they help other trans denizens of Birdverse to do the same. In a very nice touch, Lemberg manages to make this aspect of the Old Royal’s gender clear without ever having to specify the anatomy of their current body.


What did you think? Read the story, and come discuss with us in the comments!

 

“We Who Live in the Heart,” by Kelly Robson

“We Who Live in the Heart,” by Kelly Robson.
Novelette. Published in Clarkesworld, May 2017.

Humans have taken to living in giant floating whales. I don’t know about you, but I’m curious…. particularly when reviews seem to be pegging this as a story with plenty of meat to it.

Rocket Stack Rank does not recommend:

Pro: The account of what it’s like to belong to (and join) a tight-knit group of “whalers” is entertaining.
Narration and dialogue are spot on, and the plot is pretty much about how Doc learned to love someone again.

Con: I found it hard to sustain suspension of disbelief, and that spoiled the story for me. (…) The ending didn’t work for me either.

On the other hand, Charles Payseur is enthusiastic:

We as humans are all different and the story does a lovely job of showing what that can mean, how people can still find value in each other and in their relative seclusion, forming loose bonds that perhaps don’t offer as much cohesion but don’t bind, either. That exist to be supportive and caring without suffocating. And I like how the story establishes that with the crew of Mama, how the main character comes to stand for this voice of freedom even as they do yearn for relationships and company. And I just love how the piece builds up the bond between the main character and Ricci, how it reveals the potential that people have to build each other up, even as it never loses sight of how people can also tear each other down and apart. It’s a story with a great sense of wonder and fun, and it’s an amazing read!


What did you think? Read the story, and join the discussion in the comments!

“Sun, Moon, Dust,” by Ursala Vernon

Uncanny #16, May/June 017
Cover by Galen Dara

“Sun, Moon, Dust,” by Ursala Vernon.
Short Story. Published in Uncanny, May/June 2017.

Allpa received the magic sword from his grandmother, as she lay dying.

“I’m afraid I don’t really need a sword, grandma,” he said.

Rocket Star Rank calls it “sweet and refreshing”. The reviews Pros include the vividness of Allpa’s predicament, and the sweetness of the conclusions; Cons are that Allpa is too passive to be a satisfying protagonist, and the sense that he hasn’t earned his happy ending.

At Featured Futures, Jason recommends the story:

This rural encomium, while thematically in Vernon’s comfort zone, is conceptually more of a BCS-style secondary-world pure-fantasy tale than the Vernon I’ve read which tends to be fairly connected to this world regardless of its fantasy elements. It’s also not her strongest, perhaps because of this. But her strongest is extremely strong and this is still pretty good.

And here’s Charles Payseur:

 The story challenges the assumptions of a lot of epic fantasy that every farmer boy is a hero waiting to be activated, that in the heart of every young man there is a desire to be a ruthless or honorable warrior. Allpa, despite being brought up at least partly in the presence of warriors, doesn’t care to get involved. He shows that there is nobility even in farming, and indeed that it has a lot fewer ethical issues than going out and killing people or hurting people for a good cause. There is the sense that he’s supposed to be “fixed” by the sword, but the story doesn’t reinforce that. It allows Allpa to be himself, for his values to be those that can govern his actions, and it doesn’t punish him for his desires by having his farm attacked or anything so obvious. Instead, he becomes a teacher himself, showing the sword-people that there might be another way. And it’s just a touching and fun story that’s a joy to read.


What did you think? Read the story, and join the discussion in the comments!

“The Person You Are Trying To Reach Is Not Available,” by Andrea Chapela

“The Person You Are Trying To Reach Is Not Available,” by Andrea Chapela.
Translated from Spanish by Andrea Chapela. Published in Samovar, June 2017. Short story.

Strange Horizons have published their second issue of Samovar, the magazine celebrating translated speculative fiction from around the world. Like last post, I’ve leaped on a brand new story which looks intriguing, so no outside reviews yet – we’ve got a clean slate for this one.

What did you think? Read the story, and join the discussion in the comments!