Novella Review: Strungballs by Mike Russell

StrungballsStrungballs by Mike Russell
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Rooted deeply in absurdism, this tales touches on themes of conformity and identity before moving on to reality and existence. With a creepy sci-fi feel to the beginning, a 10 y.o. boy awakens from surgery having had a cube of flesh cut and cauterized from his chest. Everything he sees, and indeed everything in the city, is sterile white and modular. The rooms are all perfect cubes. The city is a torus within a sphere. The sphere surrounding the torus is comprised of all of the surgically removed cubes of flesh removed from the citizens.

In an important rite of passage, not only does he give flesh, but he receives a ball on a string to push into the cubic hole in his body–a Strungball. Everybody wears Strungballs. Adults may sport 6, 12, even 24 if they’ve been particularly . . . giving.

Adding to the creepy tone is the stilted dialogue of conformity reminiscent of 1960’s television banter. Think: Stepford wives.

This isn’t the where the tale goes weird. But it starts with the boy questioning his role in the society, the limitations of the society and even the real purpose of the Strungballs. Then things start to transform. Reality shifts and bends, and not towards something less absurd.

I like this tale. Characters don’t develop to any real extent, but the themes do.

I received my copy of the collection directly from Strange Books through I’ve previously read Russell’s anthologies of short absurdist stories: Nothing Is Strange and Strange Medicine–both of which I gave 4 stars.
[Check out my other reviews here.]

Novella Review: Snapshot by Brandon Sanderson

SnapshotSnapshot by Brandon Sanderson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Like a blend between Minority Report and Inception this tale has police detectives enter highly detailed simulated scenes from the past to unravel crimes. These scenes are called snapshots, and only the investigators know that they are real as the simulations of everyone else only thinks they’re real unless proven otherwise.

Twists happen, as the investigators decide to step outside of the crimes they’re sent to investigate, in favor of some they aren’t . . .

While comparisons can be made to other tales, what’s really interesting in this tale is what it doesn’t explain. The actions are taking place essentially currently, except the world is not the Earth we know it to be. The United States is not what it was in this divergent timeline in which city-states populate North America. Also merely dangled off-page is the process by which “snapshots” are created. Intriguingly, some sort of biological element or cryptozoological creature is involved. This world begs for another tale to be set here.

I’ve previously reviewed this author’s:
     “Dreamer”–4 stars
     Skin Deep (Legion, #2)–4 stars
[Check out my other reviews here.]

Anthology Review: The White Room and Other Stories by Ray Gardener

The White Room and Other StoriesThe White Room and Other Stories by Ray Gardener
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

This is a collection of eighteen vignettes and modern day parables. Few rise to the level of being a true short story in that characters are left undeveloped, backgrounds are unexplored and plots remain overly contrived rather than organic.

Most of the themes revolve around philosophical issues: ethics, the nature of reality and God, and free-will vs determinism. However, repeatedly, they assume their own conclusions without truly offering multiple points of view. Many of the vignettes devolve into an unchallenged Socratic method of one person espousing ideas and another concurring. One-sided philosophical speculations can make for good fodder for stories and novels, but here the ideas remain kernels and are presented unexplored.

Most troubling was the reliance on characters having to narrate how brilliant or clever or devious they were without the actions, thoughts, or dialogue to show it. “Brilliant doctors and professors” would remain without a clear field of expertise which is troubling, as medical doctors are well aware of their specialty and tend to self-identify. The thin character constructions hinder the strengths of the tales and the immersion of the reader.

I received my copy of this collection directly from the author through
[Check out my other reviews here.]

Short Story Review: “Capitalism in the 22nd Century, or A.I.R.” by Geoff Ryman

2 of 5 stars.

Reality is relative. Discerning virtual reality from reality becomes trickier when the level of interaction between artificial intelligence–worse, artificial intelligence with an agenda–ramps up. Think: The Matrix. But unlike in that movie, where the virtual reality placates the humans into subservience, here the experienced reality is dystopian and oppressive, yet another generally effective means of controlling the masses.

Cristina and Graca, Brazilian twins in an oppressive 22nd Century, like most people have spent most of their time plugged in. But between the Chinese overlords and Artificial Intelligence controlling perception of reality, it’s difficult to know what’s real. Cristina narrates this tale of planning and escape, first to Africa and then to a ship to launch them into the freedom of off-Earth colonies.

Assuming they can trust anything of what they experience and any of what they believe to be true, including the role of the Chinese and existence of extraterrestrial free zones.

In short form, the tale remains convoluted due to the multiple interpretations of reality. This tale would benefit from a novel-length exploration of the circumstances of the plot and setting.

This tale appears in a couple “best of” anthologies. The Best Science Fiction and Fantasy of the Year, Volume 10 edited by Jonathan Strahan, I received from Netgalley. The Year’s Best Science Fiction & Fantasy: 2016 edited by Rich Horton, I received directly from Prime Books.
[Check out my other reviews here.]

Genesis III by Double Take incorporates Moth Storytellers

Double Take launches the third issues of its 10 interrelated titles February 24th, 2016. Together, the 10 titles are known as the Genesis pack. Genesis I and Genesis II released in September and November of 2015. The Double Take universe ground its original mythos in George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead, but has quickly diverged from any known zombie canon despite all 10 threads staying confined to the first 48 hours of the pandemic and not leaving Evans Co., Pennsylvania. A couple, notably Rise #3 and Soul, still center on characters from the original movie.

What really separates this collection from other comics is their incorporation of Moth-style stories and storytellers. Various characters throughout the issues will launch into a tale that has nothing to do with zombies, nor the issue’s plot. The effect adds humor, human interest and a randomness into the universe. Two such tales are what originally drew me to Spring #1 before it got all trippy in #2.

Spring #3 starts to redefine the laws of physics, and along with Slab #3, hints at the deus ex machina of this universe–possibly extraterrestrial. Mysterious beings have caused this pandemic and are monitoring the human response. They have also infiltrated the hospitals and are impersonating key characters that appear in many of the titles. Especially fun is noticing shadows without corresponding bodies that linger in the backgrounds of many scenes like DVD Easter eggs.

Three of the titles serve to propel the series forward. Medic shows what the human scientists know and when as they search for answers. Honor highlights the local and county reactions by the authorities. And, Z-Men, which got movie-optioned, shows the federal reaction from LBJ and the FBI.

Finally, Remote , under new writer for the series Gabe Yocum, stands as the thread tying together the various locations across Evans Co. This tale chronicles Samantha Stanton, the last survivor at radio KBRF, keeping the airwaves full with info and entertainment. Though we learn in this issue that a couple other radio stations have managed to stay on the air, most characters from the various titles seem tuned into Sam’s channel. At 20+ hours of continual coverage, she’s starting to get punchy–she humorously hosts a zombie themed Dating Game and even starts flirting with her undead guests. I will sit down and interview Gabe Yocum later this week on working with Moth stories, established canon, and other related topics. Feel free to offer your own questions for him to answer.

Novel Review: New Reality 3: Fear by Michael Robertson

New Reality 3: FearNew Reality 3: Fear by Michael Robertson
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Picking up where New Reality 2: Justice left off, the New Reality series explores life within a deeply caste-divided society drawing on some of the worst 20th century abuses seen in segregated America and South Africa, caste-divided India and even anti-Semitic Nazi Europe.

Fear is an apt title as unmarried-but-pregnant Marie, though born with the privileged ranks, has slumped to the basest tiers of society, the estate rats. The Estate is the densely populated public housing ghetto for the largely untouchable caste that may not speak to or purposely engage with the privileged class. Jobs and opportunities are few for the estate rats. Police harassment and court convictions without trials are rampant. Social hatred for the Rats is so high that self-hatred and suicide are endemic on The Estate.

Marie used to work for Rixon, the private company running the jails that doses the “criminals” with the addictive psychogenic, New Reality, in which the prisoners can no longer tell what is real. With her attempt to blackmail Rixon ruined, Marie cannot tell whether the psychological hell she is experiencing is real, insanity, or New Reality.

This is just as true for the reader. And that’s a good thing. A very good thing.

The wrap-up is less satisfying, but complete in that there is no cliff hanger. Rather, this book could have been tightened up as a extension to the 2nd in the series rather than as a separate book. The first in the series, New Reality: Truth, was a stand alone from a very different facet of reality than the following two in this trilogy.

I received my copy of this novel directly from the author after previously reviewing his thoroughly enjoyable zombie apocalypse novel series [The Alpha Plague, The Alpha Plague 2, and The Alpha Plague 3] which deservedly made my Best Reads of 2015 list. I’ve also reviewed his sadistic opener to his series Crash.
[Check out my other reviews here.]

Short Story Review: “The Labyrinth of Sleep” by Orrin Grey

3 of 5 stars.

This short tale plumbs the edges of reality, and thereby unreality and the perceptions of both. As is common with Lovecraft-inspired work, a greater cosmic source which can’t truly be “known” lies beneath the murky surface of perception.

Here, there is a land of dreams, or rather a plane to which all dreamers ultimately visit and wander only to not remember upon waking. Within this monster-laden dream plane sits a labyrinth, and at the unseen heart of the labyrinth, a castle . . .

Humans have devised a machine that allows non-dreamers to piggyback on the dreaming experience of dreamers–it allows them to enter the plane and labyrinth without forgetting. Kendrick is a professional user of the machine. He’s chasing another pro, McCabe, into the heart of the labyrinth to see why McCabe lies comatose in the outer world . . .

This tale appears in Whispers of the Abyss 2: The Horrors That Were and Shall Be edited by Kat Rocha. I received this new anthology directly from 01 Publishing through
[Check out my other reviews here.]

Short Story Review: “His Carnivorous Regard” by John C. Foster

3 of 5 stars.

This psychologically compromised tale jerks between three different timelines to round out its implied horror, while skirting any revelations. By Lovecraftian necessity, the secrets of the universe are ultimately incomprehensible and likewise indescribable. This doesn’t stop the characters in their search to understand the medium of the messages transmitting through the universe.

Timeline 1 shows Chalmers trying to recruit a viable candidate to become trillionaire Etan Machen’s personal SETI experiment. Machen believes that cosmic frequencies are transmitting higher truths through the universe and wants a necronaut [someone willing to die in open space] to sacrifice himself for the cause. Chalmers runs the unnamed, and thereby dehumanized, candidate through brainwave reading machines as he experiences every conceivable extreme sensation imaginable.

Timeline 2 shows Maxwell, captain of Etan Machen’s ship, dealing with the crew going insane and the candidate preparing to launch himself unprotected into space.

Timeline 3 follows Chalmers alone on the same dead ship after everyone else is mysteriously gone. The crazy clues in their wake rattle him. The computers on the ship crashed with the surge of input from the necronaut’s last moments . . .

This tale appears in Whispers of the Abyss 2: The Horrors That Were and Shall Be edited by Kat Rocha. I received this new anthology directly from 01 Publishing through
[Check out my other reviews here.]

Short Story Review: “We Are Not These Bodies, Strung Between the Stars” by A. C. Wise

3 of 5 stars.

Drawing heavily from Lovecraft’s universe, this tale makes greater use of the unknown and outre than clear timeline and plot. The universe is/has fractured for all time: past, present, and future. And, all places. For better or for worse, hundreds of thousands of sentient cultures from across the aeons and universe have melded. Earth is a wasteland of lost cities, strange creatures, and truly alien weather phenomena. The humans[?] seen are of morphing gender and body type, distorted facial features, webbed extremities . . .

John narrates this confused, circular tale. Despite all the weirdness that he’s experienced, he worries about Zee who’s riddled with cancer from one cause or another. He loves Zee:

Would it be so bad, just once, to say “I love you” out loud? Fuck embarrassment. Fuck not hearing it in return. What could it hurt for Zee to know one person cares about them more than anything in the world? The knowledge could be like a smooth stone to take out of their pocket and look at and think, “well there’s that: I am loved”.

But every time I open my mouth, my tongue trips on the image of Zee looking at me like I’ve put an incredible burden on their shoulders. It’s a look of pity, and one that says “Why would you tell me this thing when you know you can’t possibly hear it in return? Why would you make me feel like a guilty sack of shit for hurting my best friend?”

I’ve previously reviewed Wise’s “And the Carnival Leaves Town” and “Letters to a Body on the Cusp of Drowning”. This tale appears in Whispers of the Abyss 2: The Horrors That Were and Shall Be edited by Kat Rocha. I received this new anthology directly from 01 Publishing through
[Check out my other reviews here.]

Short Story Review: “The Long, Cold Goodbye” by Holly Phillips

2 of 5 stars.

This is a different sort of apocalyptic tale. A land is in its sunset, freezing to the point of no return. Those who could flee, fled. The rest are doing what they do until they die: dancing, drinking, despairing.

Berd searches for Sele, her elusive lifelong friend, but he’s a hard one to pin down. She’s also seeing things, perhaps due to the slow death of freezing. Ghosts and polar bears; witches and ice giants. She also sees a suicide–but that’s likely real. She sees her friends frozen stiff when she looks at them, but they move when she doesn’t. And they get around, to new places to be frozen.

The language of this slow demise, is bordering on exquisite. Unfortunately, the plot is a quandary. For much of the tale, I thought maybe Berd was dead–as that would explain her warped perceptions. But no, its just not clear what’s going on.

This tale was included in the anthology The Year’s Best Dark Fantasy & Horror: 2010 edited by Paula Guran.
[Check out my other reviews here.]