Short story reviews, 2021 edition

Stock image of a blonde person who is reading with a charcoal face mask on
Photo by Ketut Subiyanto.

Probably the only really worthwhile thing I did on my now-deleted Twitter is write micro reviews of short stories. I started doing this because short stories receive so little attention (or at least positive attention), but when they’re good they’re like a tiny perfect/imperfect world that you can discover on your phone in text or podcast form while you’re waiting for the bus. I started this project in 2020, but I fell off the wagon mid 2021 when uni heated up and I got behind in my reading. Maybe I’ll start again in 2023, but no promises. Authors and magazines, feel free to quote relevant reviews with a credit without asking me (but I’d love it if you let me know).

  • 2021.01.09: My short fiction reviews for 2021 will be hashtagged #RivqaReadsShorts2021!
  • 2021.01.09: First up is “Yearning” by Maya Beck (Strange Horizons), a subtle story about grappling with past injustice that loses none of its power for keeping the worst of the violence in negative space. I needed this hopeful start to the year.
  • 2021.01.10: The Unrepentant” by Derrick Boden (Escape Pod O) is pacey, tightly plotted cyberpunk tale with some real heart.
  • 2021.01.19: “Shadowboxer” by Paul Di Filippo (Escape Pod R) is somewhat dated (not a criticism for a 2006 publication!) yet disturbingly current. Hard going, ambiguous, and an excellent showcase of what SF can do when it engages with ethics.
  • 2021.01.19: I love a story told in negative space. “The karyōbinga sings to Jiro” by Ryu Ando (Strange Horizons) is sparse, beautiful, and heartbreaking on multiple levels.
  • 2021.01.21: Deep Music” by Elly Bangs (Clarkesworld) is, without a doubt, the cutest thing I’ve read in a while. So much so, it took a minute to notice the razor-sharp characterisation and excellent worldbuilding, but I got there.
  • 2021.01.21: Pulling no punches, “Intentionalities” by Aimee Ogden (Clarkesworld) was hard to read. For the dystopic child separation plot, sure, but also the too-real sense of powerlessness and not being enough. Really well spun.
  • 2021.01.24: Secrets of the Kath” by Fatima Taqvi (Strange Horizons) is filled with beautiful language and heartache. From beginning to end, a gut punch of things the reader knows but the narrator isn’t willing to admit; masterful stuff.
  • 2021.01.24: The messages of “Balancing the Equation” by Justin Key (Escape Pod O) — about humanity’s flaws (racism) and strengths (love) — are sharp without ever being didactic. Brilliant, bittersweet and beautiful.
  • 2021.01.25: “Philia, Eros, Storge, Agápe, Pragma” by RSA Garcia (Clarkesworld) is a worthy successor to its predecessor, adding depth but able to stand alone too. Competence, emotional bonds with AI, and pacey writing.
  • 2021.01.26: The Last Civilian” by R.P. Sand (Clarkesworld) is exactly my kind of first contact story: engages with colonialism, beautifully written, wonderful setting, and has a strong emotional core.
  • 2021.01.29: “Aster’s Partialities: Vitri’s Best Store for Sundry Antiques” by Tovah Strong (Clarkesworld) is delightfully creepy, with a wonderful narrative voice. (Maybe don’t read it over lunch like I did though? IOW, CN for gore, violence.)
  • 2021.01.30: “Leaving Room for the Moon” by the always excellent P.H. Lee (Clarkesworld) is poignant and heartbreaking (as stories about ‘the last’ usually are); the accomplishment here is conveying so much anguish in so few words.
  • 2021.01.31: Revealing exactly as much as it needs to, “Deal” by Eris Young (Escape Pod O) is a gorgeous dual-level story. First contact! Linguistics! Queer women! But mostly it’s about communication, and how hard it can be.
  • 2021.02.08: “The Diamond Family Glitters” by H. Pueyo (Fantasy and Science Fiction Jan/Feb) is about family, legacy, and so much more. A delight.
  • 2021.02.08: Craving some less serious spec fic? “The First Trebuchet on Mars” by Marie Vibbert (Escape Pod R) is full of personality and humour. I would die for Jill, but I don’t think she needs it.
  • 2021.02.08: I’m in awe of “A Serpent For Each Year” by Tamara Jerée (Strange Horizons), fitting so much weirdness, intimacy, and fear of grief into such a short space.
  • 2021.02.18: “N-raptured” by Justin Key (Jan/Feb Fantasy and Science Fiction) is just… damn. Every comfortable liberal (and some leftists too) should read this.
  • 2021.02.18: “The Mercy of Theseus” by Rachael K. Jones (Escape Pod R) is such a lovely tale of friendship, with bonus thematic brilliance and solid worldbuilding.
  • 2021.02.22: “Hard!” by Van Aaron Hughes (Fantasy and Science Fiction Jan/Feb) might be the cutest [should I redact the trope? I feel like I should redact the trope] story I’ve read in a while. Just delightful.
  • 2021.02.22: “The Demon Sage’s Daughter” by Varsha Dinesh (Strange Horizons) is cleverly told, a meta-story woven as intricately as Devayani’s cloth skins.
  • 2021.03.02: “Bible Stories for Adults, No. 51: The Great Fish” by James Morrow (Fantasy and Science Fiction Jan/Feb) is just so extremely my shit. The book of Jonah but weirder. And funnier.
  • 2021.03.02: “The Truth at the Bottom of the Ocean” by Maria Dong (Augur Magazine 3.2, 2020) is achingly beautiful, perfectly structured, and all too timely. [link to sample]
  • 2021.03.02: The amazing thing about “Ootheca” by Mário de Seabra Coelho (Strange Horizons) is that the weird and wonderful world (cockroaches for teeth, & more) isn’t even the best thing about it; the very real characters are
  • 2021.03.09: “Mouth” by Sasha LaPointe (Strange Horizons) gets straight to the point: short, tragic, and brilliantly done.
  • 2021.03.16: “Bathymetry” by Lorraine Wilson (Strange Horizons) is haunting, unsettling, and all too real.
  • 2021.03.16: A Wild Patience” by Gwynne Garfinkle (Escape Pod R) is a delight–not only because it overturns some robot tropes (an act dear to my cyborg heart), but also because of the perfect adolescent voice.
  • 2021.03.30: “Tloque Nahuaque” by Nelly Geraldine García-Rosas (trans. by Silvia Moreno-Garcia, Escape Pod R) is brilliantly structured, revealing only what’s needed to paint an unsettling watercolour of an end time.
  • 2021.03.30: I adored the main characters of “Spaceship October” by Greg van Eekhout (Escape Pod R). The impossible situation they’re put in feels all too real in our capitalist hellscape, but what an ending!
  • 2021.04.10: “Bargain” by Sarah Gailey (Catscast R) is a fun, clever story, with just one flaw: not enough cats. Well played, EA Podcasts #AprilFools
  • 2021.04.10: “The Machine is Experiencing Uncertainty” by Merc Wolfmoor (Escape Pod O) is about time loops, cyborgs, and space weirdness, but even more about personhood and found family. Gorgeous, urgent and darkly funny.
  • 2021.04.10: is challenging, and even more so when you actually want to make a point. So “The Dame With the Earth at Her Back” by Sarah Pauling (Escape Pod O) is enough of a delight even without the great characters and noir subversion.
  • 2021.05.02: “According to Leibniz (maybe this isn’t what he meant); or, Rasharelle Little: Goddess of Postal Worker NBs” by Isana Skeete (Strange Horizons) is a weird and wonderful exploration of self, anxiety and… pets?
  • 2021.05.08: “Electronic Ghosts” by Innocent Chizaram Ilo (Escape Pod O) is a brilliant take on ghosts in the machine, the mind-body problem, and electronic malfunction. I adored the layers of ghosts here.
  • 2021.05.08: “Express to Beijing West Railway Station | 开往西站的特别列车” by Congyun ‘Mu Ming’ Gu (tr: Kiera Johnson, Samovar) has such a horror vibe, I almost stopped reading, but I’m glad I didn’t—it clarified into brilliant, beautiful SF.
  • 2021.05.08: Next: the Strange Horizons Palestinian issue. Right now things are very bad in Palestine, so in addition to getting educated and supporting financially, it’s a good time to support Palestinian creators. #SaveSheikhJarrah #Palestine
  • 2021.05.08: “Native Country” by Karim Kattan (Strange Horizons #Palestinian issue) is moody, atmospheric fantasy about terrible choices; a masterwork in showing just the right amount of detail.
  • 2021.05.08: Wills” by Wadih Haddad (Strange Horizons #Palestinian issue) is short, and so evocative it’s arguably prose poetry.
  • 2021.05.08: “The Center of the Universe” by Nadia Shammas (Strange Horizons #Palestinian issue) does one of my favourite things: takes a well-worn trope and layers it with freshness and meaning.
  • 2021.05.08: “A Day in the Life of Anmar 20X1” by Abdulla Moaswes (Strange Horizons #Palestinian issue) is brilliant political satire, technology lined with trauma.
  • 2021.05.08: “We Broke Nairobi” by Noel Cheruto (Strange Horizons) is equal parts weird, tragic, and all too real despite (or because of?) the fantastical elements.
  • 2021.05.08: “Seed Vault” by Marika Bailey (Escape Pod R) is an unflinching and beautifully rendered examination of colonialism. Smartarse gods are bonus.
  • 2021.05.08: You probably heard me yelling about “Just Enough Rain” by P.H. Lee (GigaNotoSaurus) when I had the privilege of reading an early draft a few months ago. JEWISH ANGEL MEETCUTE. YES THERE ARE ENOUGH EYES AND WINGS. Poignant and funny.
  • 2021.06.05: “Annotated Setlist of the Mikaela Cole Jazz Quintet” by Catherine George (Escape Pod R) is a lovely, bittersweet story about music, marking your mark, and leaving a legacy. Loved the plural first person, too.
  • 2021.06.05: “Balfour in the Desert” by Fargo Tbakhi (Strange Horizons) is brilliant, atmospheric, and tragic; painting a picture of colonialism and even a little hope.
  • 2021.06.05: “Death, the Universe, and Everything” by Sherin Nicole (Escape Pod O) is all delightful quantum weirdness and teen angst. A cautionary tale about determinism and parasocial relationships.
  • 2021.06.05: “Report of Dr. Hollowmas on the Incident at Jackrabbit Five” by T. Kingfisher (Escape Pod R) is a gorgeous and funny story about birth that neither sugar-coats the experience, nor lean into body horror.
  • 2021.06.05: “Sandrine” by Alexandra Munck (Strange Horizons) is beautiful and heartbreaking as it is original and wondrous.
  • 2021.06.05: “The Golden Carrot” by K. S. Shere (Strange Horizons) is as devastating as it is short; the implications dawn on you pretty fast.
  • 2021.06.05: “The Steel Magnolia Metaphor” by Jennifer Lee Rossman (Escape Pod) comes with a ‘crying while dog walking’ warning: a child learning how to grieve as she begins to understand the purpose of metaphor.
  • 2021.06.05: “Si Shou” by E. A. Xiong (Strange Horizons) is a weird, wonderful body mod story written with pleasing scientific precision. Just beautiful, at least to my particular set of interests.
  • 2021.06.26: “Ascend, Exalt, Love, Propagate, Rise!” by Sarah Kumari (Escape Pod O) is a wonderfully anti-capitalist story in a fantastic setting.
  • 2021.06.26: “Broken” by Jaxton Kimble (Escape Pod R) will resonate with some fellow neurodiverse folks (but not all, because we’re not all the same). Love the voice in this one.
  • 2021.06.26: “Scoria” by Liza Wemakor (Strange Horizons) is a gentle, lovely story. A very welcome change of pace.
  • 2021.06.26: “The Machine That Would Rewild Humanity” by Tobias S. Buckell (Escape Pod R) has such a clever slow reveal: the obvious one, and then…
  • 2021.06.26: Ghosts?! Fandom?! Mysteries?! “Peristalsis” by Vajra Chandrasekera (The Deadlands) has so many delicate layers that fit together perfectly. Weird, heartbreaking gorgeousness.
  • 2021.06.26: The next few tweets review the fiction of the Strange Horizons Trans Special Issue!
  • 2021.06.26: “Women Want Me, Fish Fear Me” by Paris Green (Strange Horizons) is weird, dark and brilliant. Despite (or because of) the weirdness, it feels very ‘of our time’.
  • 2021.06.26: “The Chicken House” by Jenny Fried (Strange Horizons) is a gorgeous coming-of-age fairy tale retelling with excellent characterisation.
  • 2021.06.26: “A Welling Up” by Natalia Theodoridou (Strange Horizons) is a heartbreaking tale of memory and family, perfectly delivered.

Heart of the garden

A great deal spritelier than most ninety-year-olds, Sister Loyola is more likely to be found making compost or planting seedlings than idling away her days.

Read more of my review of Gardening With Soul at Green Lifestyle.


Zero waste

Cover image of Outsmart WasteFrom the economical principles behind landfill to the nitty-gritty of how to upcycle chocolate wrappers, Tom Skazy will change the way you think about rubbish.

Read more of my review of Outsmart Waste at Green Lifestyle.

Bring Mars to life

Waking Mars
Developed by Tiger Style Games (2012), for PC, Mac and LinuxiPhone and iPad and Android devices

This review was originally published in COSMOS Magazine, issue 50.

It’s a refreshing change to play a game that doesn’t involve killing things.

In Waking Mars, the objective is just the opposite – instead of slaying everything you come across, you must bring an ecosystem to life in order to progress.

Players control Liang, a softly spoken jet-packing scientist (aided remotely by ART, an AI unit, and tech expert Amani) as he explores a cavern on Mars where signs of life have been discovered. To safely exit the caves and do his research, Liang must help the ecosystem along. Each lifeform has an encyclopaedia entry in the game journal that is filled in as discoveries are made.

The soundtrack and graphics, while not flashy (this is an indie game, after all), fit the story perfectly. The mechanics of the game are easy to master and the interface is simple (even on computer, there’s only a slot for one saved game). As such, seasoned gamers may find this offering too simple at first – but they may still enjoy the delightful premise and unfolding science-based story, and strategy becomes more important as you progress. Casual gamers and those playing on phones and tablets will find little to complain about with Waking Mars.

Waking Mars from Tiger Style on Vimeo.

Harder, better, faster, stronger

better-human-247x373How to Build a Better Human: an Ethical Blueprint
By Gregory E. Pence (2012), Rowman & Littlefield

This review was originally published in COSMOS Magazine, issue 50.

Stay calm – the brave new world of post-humanism is further away than you think.

That’s the take-home message of Gregory Pence’s excellent guide to the ethics of human modification.

Pence’s approach is best summarised as pragmatic philosophy, if such a tautology can be forgiven. Rather than speculate about near-impossible hypotheticals, he focusses on what can be (and is) done now, or might be in the near future. As such, a great deal of the book is taken up with deconstructing the ‘slippery slope’ arguments against pharmaceutical, surgical and genetic augmentation.

In a conversational, easy-to-read tone, he cautions against “comic book stereotypes” and begs for nuance in the debate about what we should and shouldn’t do to better ourselves. He dismantles the protests of Alarmists and the fantasies of Enthusiasts (his capitals), arguing for a commonsense approach in place of either extreme.

After running through the viable techniques for enhancing adults, children and embryos, Pence offers practical suggestions for scientists, politicians and anyone else who’s interested. Clocking in under 200 pages, the broad appeal of How to Build a Better Human is impressive: experts, futurists and casual readers might not agree with everything Pence says, but they’ll enjoy the journey regardless.