Review of “When We Were Starless” by Simone Heller


This novelette is a finalist for the 2019 Hugo Awards. It’s science fiction and was published by Clarkesworld in October 2018. This review contains major spoilers.

Mink is an advance scout for her tribe and a ghost killer. The land is sere, dotted by ruins here and there where the ghosts congregate. The tribe is reptilian and nomadic, hunted by acid-spitting centipedes and wild dogs, and relies on a herd of weavers that takes raw materials and creates artifacts that the tribe needs for defense and survival in their harsh world. The tribe camps near an old dome, and the scavenger Asper sees strange lights inside. Warden Renke sends Mink out to investigate. She enters the dome, and after dropping her camouflage, encounters a ghost that turns out to be exceptionally friendly. Mink looks for its heart to kill it, but can’t find where it’s stored. Meanwhile, the ghost offers to show Mink various exhibits around the dome, and finally the stars. This is only a legend, as even the moon is now veiled. Mink flees, but later returns to talk to the ghost again, which she calls Orion. She is discovered in the dome by tribe members, who try to attack the ghost and then find their weavers have turned against them to defend it. Captured by her tribe, Mink is dispirited, but Asper releases her, sends her back to the dome to retrieve his weaver. She is negotiating with the ghost when a colony of centipedes attacks the camp. Can she find a way to save her people and rescue the weavers?

On the positive side, this is a very touching story. Mink has vision and aspirations beyond the tribe’s meager existence, and Orion inspires her, leaves behind an important legacy with its passing. It’s unclear whether this setting is the Earth or somewhere else, but the tribes-people end up on a path to knowledge, learning and creation of a better world. The characters are very engaging, and the world-building very suggestive of past catastrophe. The alien nature of the characters is creative, and the effect is uplifting.

On the not-so positive side, this was a little hard to get into, as the first paragraph repeats the ending, and then transitions into Mink’s story none too clearly. I also ended up without much of an idea of what these tribes-people look like or what they would consider a better world. They have tails, scales, weak forearms, and sense with their tongues. Mink seems to change color and design at will, though maybe the others can’t. She seems to be a foundling. Last, given the narrative, action and dialog, these creatures are too human. Definitely they’re not alien enough to be reptiles. Uplifted, maybe? We need more explanation for this.

It’s a good story, worth expanding into a novel that might clear up some of these questions.

Four stars.


Spot Sleeps on Davidson

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Spot is now a media star. She’s made a second appearance on File 770, entitled Cats Sleep on SFF: Avram Davidson. Check it out here.


Review of “The Substance of My Lives, the Accidents of Our Births” by José Pablo Iriarte

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This novelette is a finalist for the 2018 Nebula Awards. It is fantasy and was published by Lightspeed Magazine in January of 2018. This review contains spoilers.

Jamie feels like both a girl and a boy, which seems to come from a confusion of past lives where they lived as one or the other. Jamie’s friend Alicia tells them a murderer Benjamin Avery and his family are moving in down the street. When Jamie sees the man, it jump starts a train of memory. After some research, they remember this is the man who was supposed to have killed them in their last life when they were a girl named Janie. But that’s not right—it was someone else. Benjamin rescues Jamie from the neighborhood bullies, and they talk. Memory strikes again, and Jamie remembers who the murderer really was. Is there any way to clear Benjamin and make the real murderer pay?

This is a very well-developed story with a great plot and great characters both. The description is first rate, and the neighborhood and age-level kid details feel real. The plot Jamie and Alicia come up with to track down the real murderer is highly entertaining. There are also some interesting asides here, too, where Jamie refers to his dog Meetu as a teddy bear trapped in a pit bull’s body. Hm. A touch of satire there? The ending is also satisfying, where Jamie decides to act on their feelings for the lesbian Alicia.

Regardless that this is both touching and entertaining, it has something of a forced feel because of all the sexual and gender diversity. I don’t think it necessarily follows that being born as both a male and female in past lives is going to lead to gender confusion in this one. It seems like a characteristic that would carry over fairly clearly from one existence to another.

Four stars.

Happy Holiday!

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Cat Pictures

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I’m running behind on this week’s posts. Meanwhile, here a new picture of Spot for her fans.


Diversity Check-lists


Diversity has actually been slipping as a progressive goal for some time now. The problem, according to Tania Canas, is that “diversity” is a white concept, defined in relation to whiteness (and especially to male whiteness, we can presume), which only normalizes whiteness and makes everyone else something different. In other words, diverse authors are allowed to exist only under predefined terms of inclusion.

The end result has been a checklist sort of approach, the sort of thing we’re seeing in the SFF awards results, where there is one African American winner, one Asian winner, one LGBTQ winner and two Jewish winners in the list. With the question of cultural appropriation, editors have also increased demand for authenticity. This has also resulted in a stream of anthologies completely segregated by the type of writer, including women, people-of-color, Asian, LGBTQ, Jewish and etc. (other special interest groups).

This is okay in the short term, as the market has room for a little bit of exclusive work, but in the long term, it’s a troubling direction. Why? Because the segregation will decrease opportunities for the most discriminated against minorities who don’t fall into the inclusion criteria. Say I’m a straight male LatinX writer struggling for exposure, and I check the market listings to find a place to send my latest work. There’s a listing that only takes stories from people of African heritage, one for only Asian writers, one for Arab writers, one for black lesbians, one for gay men, one for trans writers, one for Jewish writers. So, nothing today for straight male LatinX writers. That means I have to hold the story until a listing comes along inviting me to submit. That could be a while.

So, Canas has some advice on what editors and publishers should do instead. This is to seek for multiplicity rather than authenticity, because authenticity is “determined, verified and labelled” by the dominant culture according to its own criteria. This puts restrictions on form and content, and silences voices that don’t bend to the criteria. In other words, the search for authenticity rates writers on a checklist that the publishing gatekeepers make up, and results in the writers best able to meet these criteria becoming welcomed and successful, while writers less attractive for the diversity count are left out in the cold.

Everybody knows how this checklist system works, of course. Isn’t that why writers are listing their diversity credentials on their websites?

Happy Thanksgiving to all in the US

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Have a safe and happy holiday, all!

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