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
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Review: “A Delicate Architecture” by Catherynne M. Valente

3 of 5 stars.

This creative and charming tale re-imagines the life of a well-known folktale baddie. It is an origin story of a sort that I’d label as speculative folktale not unlike the way Tangled re-imagines Rapunzel, Wicked re-invents The Wizard of Oz, and Into the Woods toys with a half dozen traditional tales. However, this one does not offer up its more famous version willingly or quickly.

A girl, Constanze, grows up not knowing a mother and following in her father’s footsteps as a confectioner–the best confectioner. Their plates are butterscotch, her breakfast eggs are marzipan, and her pillows are spun sugar. Everything in her world is truly sweets and confections with the exception of her sugarplum fork made from a sparrow’s bones.

As she grows older, she wants to know about Vienna where her father made his fame, and about the emperors from whom he departed, and about her origin. About much hemming and hawing, the father makes Constanze a Dress-of-Many-Sugars and takes her to the royal court where she realizes her striking resemblance to the female emperor. However, she also learns that her eyelashes are licorice-flavored, her blood bleeds raspberry jam . . .

The enjoyable absurdity develops astonishingly as the Grimm tale emerges from this unexpected place.

This story was included in the anthology The Year’s Best Dark Fantasy & Horror: 2010 edited by Paula Guran. I’ve previously reviewed this author’s “Urchins, While Swimming”.
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Review: “Fift & Shria” by Benjamin Rosenbaum

3 of 5 stars.

This fascinating and peculiar tale deftly manages to not define itself along human terms of experience. That’s no small matter. On the individual level, all of the characters are multi-bodied aliens with mental feeds to link the bodies’ experiences. Socially and culturally, two genders exist [bails and staids] but they don’t align to male and female. Additionally, family units do not resemble the typical human situation. For example, Fift is an only-child staid living with three parents, 2 bails and a staid. The story is odd-enough that I had to add new tags to help classify it.

On a fieldtrip to the planet, kids play out the social prejudices in cruel, bullying ways. Shria, a bail, is teased and mocked by a gang of 3 staids because Shria’s family tried to skirt the social code by having another child without neighborly permission. The family was eventually stripped of the younger sibling after a few weeks of deliberation. Fift opts to befriend Shria and help defend against the bullying while barely able to understand the nuances of the social code of adult society.

Off-world alien stories can help to convey without prejudice issues of race and gender, among other things. The difficult part is truly separating from the reader’s Earth-experience. This tale pulls off that hard trick for what boils down to a story about bullying while also proposing that there are a tremendous number of ways to live, and definitions of family. While not necessarily standing in for a queer model of family and the socially sensitive issue of who has the right to raise children, the analogy cannot be ignored either.

“Fift & Shria” appears in The Year’s Best Science Fiction & Fantasy: 2015 edited by Rich Norton and published by Prime Books. It first appeared in Solaris Rising 3.

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Review: “The Long Haul: From the Annuls of Transportation, The Pacific Monthly, May 2009″ by Ken Liu

2 of 5 stars.

This short vignette of speculative, alternate history imagines that the Hindenburg never exploded leading to a full century of zeppelin travel and shipping. It purports to be a trade article chronicling a single trip from Lanzhou, China to Las Vegas, NV, USA. Maintaining the dry technical jargon of a trade paper, the tale does not contain a plot or sense of conflict. It does describe the materials and dimensions of the “modern” zeppelin in exacting, if not tedious detail.

The journalist as narrator does not interject his or her personality or opinions into the piece. The married team of pilots are granted a modicum of character with a curious light cast on their relationship. The American male, Icke, was already a pilot when he paid a service to offer him a couple dozen choices of brides from South China. After he chose, Yeling, he then paid her family for her hand in marriage.

Each pilot gives their take on piloting and their relationship causing the journalist to conjecture:

There is a lot of space in a zeppelin, I thought idly. That space, filled with lighter-than-air helium, keeps the zeppelin afloat. A marriage also has a lot of space. What fills it to keep it afloat?

This musing is not taken to any depth, however. This is not a story–it is a snapshot.

“The Long Haul: From the Annuls of Transportation, The Pacific Monthly, May 2009″ appears in The Year’s Best Science Fiction & Fantasy: 2015 edited by Rich Norton and published by Prime Books. It first appeared in Clarkesworld, November 2014.
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Review: Evolving Ourselves

Evolving Ourselves: How Unnatural Selection and Nonrandom Mutation are Changing Life on EarthEvolving Ourselves: How Unnatural Selection and Nonrandom Mutation are Changing Life on Earth by Juan Enriquez and Steve Gullans
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This book explains the frontline research of contemporary genetics and then explores the potential in speculative science. Bridging the gap between science and science fiction, the culpability of the human race in modern evolution is outlined.

For four billion years, nature selected what lived and died. Life forms adapted by mutating randomly so that at least a few specimens sometimes hit the jackpot and survived . . . [Darwin] is not right anymore. Over the past century, as our species grew by billions, concentrated in cities, smartened, and domesticated itself and its surroundings, we became the fundamental driver of what lives and dies. . . Half the landmass on Earth is now covered by what humans want, not by what would naturally grow without the intervention of our species. Oceans, rivers, and lakes are depleted. In just a few centuries, we have terraformed, fertilized, fenced, seeded, and irrigated enormous sections of what was once forest, savannah, desert, and tundra to accommodate our plants, our animals, our wishes. This is unnatural selection.

There is much humans do not yet know as we dabble, such as the intricate interplay between the human genome, epigenome [turning on and off of gene expression], microbial biome [especially of the gut], and the barely researched virome [the viruses living off the host and the host’s bacterial flora]. Changes in any of these genomes affects not just the individual, but generations to come. We also do not yet understand the side effects of human domestication, such as explosions in rates of obesity, diabetes, allergies, and autism.

Entering the realm of speculative science and the future of humanity, this book also explores the future of human enhancement on athletics, and space travel and colonization. More questions are asked than answers given, but that is precisely what drives science into new realms.

I received this book through Goodreads’ First Reads Giveaway.
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