Wrap-up of the Forward Series Reviews

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This series is an interesting idea, and you have to give Blake Couch credit for self-actualization, as he’s apparently pitched the idea to Amazon, worked as its editor, and at the same time created an opportunity to feature his own work in the series. The writers are all prominent in one way or the other, and I expect they’ve written these stories by invitation.

Here’s the authors diversity count, as far as I can tell: 4 men, 2 women, 1 African American, 1 LGBTQ. That means it serves as an apparent vehicle for white men (who may need it, after all, in the current climate). This also comes across as something of a vanity project. For one thing, it features the editor’s story, and the whole series looks to provide a publicity appearance for other writers who are already prominent or up and coming so their prominence can rub off on one another. Jemisin and Towles came through with thoughtful pieces, and Weir wrote something entertaining for hard SF geeks, but I didn’t quite understand the point of the others, which seemed low on substance—maybe just a guaranteed sale that didn’t require much thought. On the bright side, this series advances science fiction as a genre, and novelettes as an art form. It also allows at least one hard SF writer (Weir) an opportunity for promotion of his work–always a good thing.

Novelettes seem to be underserved as an art form. I expect it’s an awkward length for some reason, too long to fit in to a magazine or anthology and too short to make a profit as a solo publication. Whatever, I predict Jemisin’s “Emergency Skin” will feature in next year’s awards cycle.

This provides light, quick reads for anyone looking to broaden their reading horizons and sample new authors.

Review of “You Have Arrived at Your Destination” by Amor Towles

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This is a science fiction novelette published by Amazon Original Stories in September of 2019, part of the Forward Collection edited by Blake Crouch. Towles is the author of the New York Times bestsellers Rules of Civility and A Gentleman in Moscow. The story runs 46 pages. This review contains major spoilers.

Sam and his wife Annie are investigating the possibility of conceiving a child with the help of Vitek, a fertility lab. Sam has an appointment with Dr. Gerhardt, who explains how the firm’s genetic engineering options might influence the life of the couple’s projected son. With the help of Sam’s wife, Gerhardt’s staff has prepared three possible scenarios of how their child might live out his life. Disturbed after the appointment, Sam begins to reconsider the way he’s lived his own life. Instead of meeting Annie, he stops at a bar, The Glass Half Full, where he gets drunk and confides what’s going on to the bartender Nick and his new friend Beezer. Beezer thinks Vitek is a division of Raytheon (the defense contractor). Sam has already provided a sample for Vitek, and he’s two hours late and now he’s really in trouble. He tries to reach Annie, but he can’t, so he goes back to Vitek and bangs on the door. Can he get his sample back?

There’s a certain amount of symbolism in this work, and some social commentary. It jumps around quite a bit, like it doesn’t know quite what it wants to accomplish, from Gerhardt explaining how conforming to societal expectations is so important, to the disturbing life scenarios, to Sam looking back and rating his own and his father’s lives, to his growing remoteness from Annie, and finally to the revelation that Vitek might not be just a fertility clinic. The story has been marking time to get to that point, but when it gets there, it feels profound.

The plot is a bit jumbled, and I didn’t get a good feel for either the setting or the characters—but, the whole thing seems to be about ideas. When we start trusting some corporation to genetically engineer our children, what are we really going to end up with?

Four stars.

Review of “The Last Conversation” by Paul Tremblay

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This is a science fiction novelette published by Amazon Original Stories in September of 2019, part of the Forward Collection edited by Blake Crouch. Tremblay is a Stoker Award winner. The story runs 56 pages, and this review contains spoilers.

You wake up in a room, feeling pain. You’ve been semi-awake for a long time, in and out of consciousness, and have memories about a house with a yellow room. A voice named Dr. Anne Kuhn tells you your immune system is compromised, and promises to take care of you. Function comes to you slowly, and Kuhn gives you a series of tasks to build up strength and muscle coordination. She reveals that in the past you were partners working at this biomedical facility, and takes you to a model of the house you remember. You get sick, and it seems you’re dying of a virus that originated at the facility. Dr. Kuhn wants you to give her permission to clone you and bring you back to life when you die. You say no, and you wake up in a room, feeling pain.

This story is circular, of course, and probably repeated numerous times. It’s written from the point of view of the ungendered subject/lab rat and so is very short on information. Kuhn says there aren’t many “blanks” left, and two other of her co-workers who survived have left the facility, but she doesn’t know what happened to them. This suggests a virus has escaped to the outside world, and Kuhn is obsessively working alone in the facility, trying to bring back someone who is important to her.

There’s not much plot or world-building here, and not much of an action line. It’s mostly experiential, as the subject/lab rat slowly progresses through Kuhn’s animation and rehab process. We get vague revelations at the end about what’s going on, but all of it remains unclear. There’s an undercurrent of tragedy, but it’s not fully expressed. I’m wondering about the point. If this is the apocalypse, why does Kuhn need any blank’s permission to clone their DNA? Who’s left to sanction her? I don’t get it.

Two and a half stars.

Review of “Ark” by Veronica Roth

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This is a science fiction novelette published by Amazon Original Stories in September of 2019, part of the Forward Collection edited by Blake Crouch. Roth is best known as the #1 New York Times bestselling author of the Divergent trilogy. The story runs 39 pages, and this review contains spoilers.

An asteroid named Finis is on the way to strike the Earth. Scientists have known this for a long time, so Earth has been evacuated. All that’s left are two Arks based at the northern and southern hemisphere seed banks, where crews of scientists are trying to catalog and preserve as many unique plant samples as possible before leaving. Samantha works at the north seed bank in Svalbard. As she works, she remembers her father. Nils Hagen has a greenhouse on the site where he cultivates orchids, and Samantha strikes up a relationship. Nils isn’t planning to evacuate, and eventually Samantha makes that same decision. But meanwhile, has she found a new species of orchid?

This is mostly experiential. As far as I can tell, it’s joy in the endless variety of plant life on earth, and how poor humans are at appreciating and recording it. There’s not much plot or world building in the story, and only Samantha seems well-defined as a character. There’s not really an action line, either, as it rambles from Samantha’s work to her memories of the past to her encounters with Hagen. I’m left with questions including: How did they manage the evacuation? Did they take all the animals with them? I gather I’m supposed to appreciate that Samantha has made a human connection in the last days of the Earth, and that the two of them share the joy of finding a new plant, but this just didn’t strike me. It feels more like a vignette than a story.

Two and a half stars.

Castalia House out at Amazon

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Well, whoever was behind this missed a few audio books, but yeah, I checked and Castalia House was pretty much absent at Amazon for most of today. Looking at Castalia House’s website, it appears they politely inquired and found data on their account was completely wiped by someone at Amazon with access. Apparently the stated reason for removal was a question of rights ownership related to the Castalia-published book The Corroding Empire, a subject they thought was already settled when the book was published. If the missing data includes info on royalties due the writers, this could expose Amazon to some pretty serious repercussions. What is someone decided to wipe all the Tor books, for example? Or Baen? Oops.

Castalia’s books were back up by evening, except for The Corroding Empire, so it must have been a fairly easy fix. I don’t know that I could call this kind of action bullying, as Vox Day generally gives as good as he gets. I’m assuming it might be corporate wars? A drunken escapade on the part of some Amazon employee? A personal effort at censorship? Or maybe part of the marketing campaign for John Scalzi’s newly released installment in the Collapsing Empire series? Hm. There are all kinds of possibilities.

Anyhow, Castalia’s response has been to promote The Corroding Empire, still for sale at their Castalia Direct bookstore. Maybe I should put it on my list for review.

A little background on gatekeepers

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I went in search of background on editors as gatekeepers in the science fiction and fantasy field and came up with an interesting text. This is Inside Science Fiction (2006) by SF writer, editor and SFWA Grand Master James E. Gunn. Gunn started writing science fiction in 1949, so he’s seen quite a bit of water flow under the bridge.

Anyhow, Gunn has a chapter in his book titled “Gatekeepers.” He reviews the history of pulp SF magazines, mentioning Hugo Gernsback, Anthony Boucher, H.L. Gold and John W. Campbell as early gatekeeping editors who shaped the definition and direction of science fiction by what they accepted. According to Gunn, SF magazines flowered until about the mid-1950s when they started to die back a bit, impacted by the pressure of novels. This declining trajectory was jolted in 1964 when Michael Moorcock became editor of New Worlds magazine. Moorcock, Gunn thinks, was the “last gatekeeper” for SFF magazines because he threw the doors open wide. This let in a lot of what would have been unacceptable just a few years before, such as anti-heroes, and eventually, New Wave science fiction.

So who are the gatekeepers now? Gunn thinks competition in the marketplace means that individual magazine editors have very little influence on the overall direction of SFF. One reason for this is the sheer volume of material that’s being published, and another is the huge popularity of novels. In the mid-1950s, the advent of the science fiction novel meant that book publishers took over the major role of shaping SFF. However, Jeff Bezos came along in 2009 and shattered that structure with the launch of Amazon’s publishing business.

The huge impact of free and easy self-publishing on the marketplace means there’s a certain amount of chaos out there. You can see from the published figures that submissions for some magazines run into the thousands every month. This means that slush-pile readers are the main gatekeepers for the major publications. Anything they think is interesting gets passed along to the next level, until it’s ultimately added to the body of published work—or not. Noted writers might circumvent this stumbling block by going direct to the top level, but most writers can’t do that.

Nick Cole’s story shows that novel editors still feel very secure in their long-running role as gatekeepers for what’s acceptable and what’s transgressive in the genre. To the list of current gatekeepers, I think you also have to add the nebulous groups the Puppies are accusing of influence on the major awards. Otherwise, why is there such a huge contrast between the Nebula and Dragon Award finalists?

Hm.

Review of Space Raptor Butt Invasion by Chuck Tingle

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Orion,_battle_spaceship
I’m going to do reviews for a while, so will get back to the bios later on. This short story is one of the Hugo finalists from the Rabid Puppies’ recommendations, self-published by Chuck Tingle through Amazon. A word of warning for potential readers: It’s gay erotica.

It’s the future, and Earth is under pressure to find other habitable worlds. Astronauts Lance and Pike are stationed on the planet Zorbus where they are monitoring an automated Terraforming operation. Pike is recalled and the shuttle picks him up, leaving Lance alone at the station until a replacement comes.

The shuttle has hardly disappeared when Lance sees someone else in a spacesuit near the Terraforming station. Concerned that it’s a hallucination, he goes back to his quarters; however, his rest is interrupted by knocking at the door. He opens it to admit Orion, a velociraptor who tells him dinosaurs didn’t die out on Earth, only went to the stars. Orion sticks around and eventually Lance starts to wonder what sex with him would be like. They have sex.

Tingle is competent as a writer and this is a well-constructed story. I’m not going to downgrade it because it’s erotica, but still that means it doesn’t have much in the way of thought-provoking elements. Tingle does get extra points for his witty responses about the Hugos. I can’t pin anything down, but this nomination seems to have elements of parody aimed at Rachel Swirsky’s “If You Were a Dinosaur My Love.” Minor editing errors. Three stars.

Art Credit: Orion battle spaceship by Cronus Caelestis.

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