Review: Lightspeed Magazine, June 2014: Women Destroy Science Fiction! Special Issue

Wednesday, July 9th, 2014

If the apocalypse comes, beep me.

five out of five stars

This special double issue of Lightspeed magazine is easily one of my all-time favorite science fiction collections – and not just because it was written, edited, and illustrated (etc.) entirely by women (109 women, to be precise, not counting the one thousand ladies+ who submitted stories!). The writing isn’t merely solid, but oftentimes downright spectacular – and at just $3.99, it’s practically a steal.

Many of the short stories are worth the purchase price by their very lonesomes. Off the top of my head, there’s “Like Daughter,” by Tananarive Due (a woman gives birth to a clone of herself in order to right the many wrongs done to her in childhood); Maria Romasco Moore’s “The Great Loneliness” (a post-apocalyptic world populated by painfully lonely human-animal-plant hybrids); and Alice Sheldon’s “Love Is the Plan the Plan Is Death” (in which two spiders fall in love, the captor becoming the prey, the son the absent father). Eleanor Arnason’s “Knapsack Poems: A Goxhat Travel Journal” introduces a complicated and exciting vision of sexuality and gender in multiple bodied beings (the titular Goxhats).

While these are reprints, there’s quite a bit of original fiction to savor as well. Seanan McGuire’s “Each to Each” is a true gem (a mermaid Navy!) – it’s one I can see myself returning to time and again in the future – as are “The Case of the Passionless Bees” (a scifi reimagining of Sherlock Holmes by Rhonda Eikamp) and K.C. Norton’s “Canth” (a perpetual motion submarine powered by the heart of the Captain’s mother seemingly runs away from its owner/daughter). And Amal El-Mohtar’s “The Lonely Sea in the Sky” is heartbreakingly beautiful. Diamonds from the planet Triton “blink” towards one another – a talent humans rapidly learn to exploit for teleportation, spawning the rise of Meisner Syndrome and the Melee Liberation Front (“Friends of Lucy”).

(More below the fold…)

Book Review: Mothers & Other Monsters: Stories, Maureen F. McHugh (2006)

Monday, June 25th, 2012


five out of five stars

I was first introduced to Maureen McHugh’s work through After the Apocalypse: Stories (2011). I just so happened to spot a review of it online – just where that was escapes me now, sadly (reading recommendations, got any?) – and, in search of new post-apocalyptic fiction (bonus points for zombies!), I snapped it up immediately. After devouring it in all of a week, I quickly tore through her novels: Nekropolis (2002), China Mountain Zhang (1997), Half the Day is Night (1996), and the epic masterpiece Mission Child (1999), which I cannot recommend highly enough. It seems only fitting that I finish off her oeuvre with Mothers & Other Monsters: Stories (2006), her first of two collections of short stories.

What with its cast of werewolves, clones, ghosts, space travelers, and genetically rejuvenated elders, Mothers & Other Monsters is an eclectic mix of fantasy and science fiction. As the title implies, motherhood is a common theme throughout – but the women featured in these stories are anything but monstrous. Herself a stepmother to a preteen boy, McHugh – whose life plans reportedly didn’t include children, at least not until Adam’s father entered the picture – regards the relationships between parents and children and generations past and present with tenderness and empathy.

Here you’ll meet a mother struggling to care for her aging mother while simultaneously guiding her rebellious daughter through her teenage years (“Oversight”); a woman who spends her life savings on an experimental Alzheimer’s treatment, hoping that it will cure her husband without erasing too much of who he is – or was, before the disease stole him from her (“Presence”); a young woman who discovers that her best friend is a werewolf (“Laika Comes Back Safe”); and a ghost who travels from her cozy corner of the afterlife to accept tribute from a distant relation (“Ancestor Money”). Aging, death, and senility are also elements shared by many of the stories – Alzheimer’s and “senility” make two appearances each – as are our all-too human struggles to overcome and defeat them (see, e.g., the thought-provoking “Interview: On Any Given Day”). It makes for a rather heartbreaking, sometimes inspiring collection – one that will dwell in your memory and heart, perhaps even staking a permanent claim there.

While it’s hard to single out any one story for special praise, it’s worth noting that Mothers & Other Monsters contains early version of two of McHugh’s novels: Mission Child (“The Cost to Be Wise”) and Nekropolis (“Nekropolis”). Each story encompasses the opening chapters of its respective book: whereas the plot of “The Cost to Be Wise” is similar to – but also significantly different from – Mission Child, that of “Nekropolis” is very nearly the same in both formats (at least judging from memory – some parts of the narration may be different, but the overall story matches up). “Nekropolis” the short story ends on a note that’s simultaneously more and less hopeful than Nekropolis the novel; “The Cost to Be Wise,” on the other hand, is much more damning in its view of the Offworlders than is Mission Child. It’s an interesting contrast, to say the least.

“The Lincoln Train” is another personal favorite. A piece of speculative fiction that explores how the Civil War might have played out had the assassination attempt on Lincoln failed, it made a previous appearance in New Skies: An Anthology of Today’s Science Fiction (2003). Mothers & Other Monsters also includes a “Reading Group Guide” with an author interview, talking points, and an autobiographical essay written by McHugh, fittingly titled “The Evil Stepmother” (though the latter feels like a bit of a cheat, since some of the sections are repeated verbatim elsewhere in the book – i.e., “Eight-Legged Story”). Readers would do well not to skip these, as they provide valuable insight into McHugh’s stories.

Fans of McHugh will adore Mothers & Other Monsters – and, if you’re not already one, Mothers & Other Monsters will make a fan out of you!

At the time of this writing, Small Beer Press is offering a free download of Mothers & Other Monsters on its website. Go to the book’s page and click on the “free download” link!

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I call this series “Mags & Other Monsters.”

(This review is also available on Amazon, Library Thing, and Goodreads. Please click through and vote it helpful if you’re so inclined!)

Book Review: The Del Rey Book of Science Fiction and Fantasy, Ellen Datlow, ed. (2008)

Monday, May 14th, 2012

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You had me at “Maureen F. McHugh”!

five out of five stars

I first picked up this book because it contains a piece by one of my favorite writers, Maureen F. McHugh – “Special Economics” which, as it just so happens, I’d already read (it appears in 2011’s After the Apocalypse: Stories) – but ultimately enjoyed all but one of the sixteen essays in this diverse collection. With elements of horror, fantasy, post-apocalyptic fiction, alternate history, and the supernatural, The Del Rey Book of Science Fiction and Fantasy – masterfully curated by Ellen Datlow – has a little bit of something for everyone. Especially if you prefer your speculative fiction on the dark side.

In addition to Maureen McHugh’s “Special Economics,” an arguably feminist tale which takes place in a future China devastated by the bird flu, my favorites include:

* “Jimmy” (Pat Cadigan), whose eponymous (anti?-) hero is a young boy coming of age in the 1960s (the bulk of story takes place the day JFK was assassinated). Granted “enlightenment” by an alien species, Jimmy is shunned by those who can sense his difference – and want nothing to do with it. Ignorance is bliss, or so the saying goes.

* “The Passion of Azazel” (Barry N. Malzberg), a revenge story told from the point of view of a goat, sacrificed to the gods one long-ago Day of Atonement and then reincarnated as a (human) rabbinical student who fashions a golem who is quite possibly his long-dead brother goat.

* “The Goosle” (Margo Lanagan), a fittingly bleak retelling of/sequel to “Hansel and Gretal,” in which lone survivor Hansel escapes from the witch’s cage only to find a world more brutal than the one he left behind. (Strong trigger warning for rape.)

Some of the stories – most notably “The Passion of Azazel” – can be interpreted from an anti-oppressive vegan perspective, which I especially appreciate.

For what it’s worth, I just discovered Ellen Datlow’s adult fairy tale anthology series. Wishlist ALL the books!


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An excerpt from “The Passion of Azazel.”

(Crossposted on Amazon, Library Thing, and Goodreads.)

Book Review: Half the Day is Night, Maureen F. McHugh (1994)

Friday, May 11th, 2012

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While the characters fall flat, the backdrop steals the stage.

three out of five stars

With the exception of Mothers & Other Monsters, I’ve read all of Maureen McHugh’s novels and anthologies. (“Devoured” is more like it, having consumed them all in the space of just a few months.) While somewhat enjoyable, Half the Day is Night is not McHugh’s best work.

Perhaps the lackluster reviews I saw previous to reading the book colored my perception of it, but I had trouble empathizing with – or even caring a whit about – the characters who inhabit the story. With the (marginal) exception of David Dai, the denizens of McHugh’s undersea cities are at best bland and boring; at worst, downright unlikable. For example, I found female protagonist Mayla Ling sheltered, spoiled, self-absorbed, and completely lacking in common sense. (When David calls her a tyrant for taking advantage of her employee/ex-boyfriend Tim, Mayla simply shrugs indifferently. “Too bad.”) I cared less about whether she survived the story’s end than whether her selfishness would prove David’s downfall. Described mainly through Mayla’s eyes, poor Tim hardly gets a chance at becoming a well-rounded character.

The real star of Half the Day is Night proves to be its setting – the intricate undersea cities created by McHugh. Dark and dank, and marked by poverty and sharp class inequities, one can almost feel the oppressive weight of the ocean pressing down from above. As always, McHugh’s imagination is a thing of beauty; her detailed depiction of Caribe will stay with you long after the story is done.

If you’re already a fan of McHugh, Half the Day is Night is well worth a read. Otherwise, begin your journey with another of her works. Mission Child is my personal favorite, and Nekropolis, China Mountain Zhang, and After the Apocalypse are all outstanding as well.

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(Crossposted on Amazon, Library Thing, and Goodreads.)

Book Review: Mission Child, Maureen F. McHugh (1998)

Friday, April 27th, 2012

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An epic masterpiece!

five out of five stars

Mothers & Other Monsters excepted, I’ve read the entirety of Maureen McHugh’s oeuvre. (“Devoured” is more like it; after stumbling upon her latest release, After the Apocalypse, I requested every McHugh title my local library owned – including any scifi anthologies containing her short stories – and consumed them all within the space of just a few months. She’s the greatest thing since Margaret Atwood, yo!) Mission Child is far and away my favorite of the bunch.

Hundreds – perhaps thousands – of years into the future, the citizens of Earth have pushed their settlements forever outward, colonizing other planets throughout the universe. Young Janna lives a sparse existence on the north pole of one of these “offworld” planets. In Hamra Mission, she and her clan learn about “appropriate technologies” from earth-born missionaries. When her village is attacked and destroyed by a hostile band of raiders, Janna must struggle to find a new home – first with her husband’s clan, later in a refugee camp for indigent peoples, and finally in the “civilized” world. Throughout her journey, Janna struggles with her self-identity and gender expression.

Born a female, Janna begins dressing and “passing” as a man as a teenager in the refugee camp; she makes the astute observation that women traveling alone are at great risk of gender-based violence. Eventually, she begins to identify as both a man and a woman. When offered (by her employer, which provides gender counseling to its employees!) an implant that will impart some male characteristics, enabling her try out another gender without undergoing surgery, Janna jumps at the chance. Throughout the story, she resists others’ attempts to label her; neither woman nor man, Janna is just that: Janna. (Grandmama Lili’s name for Janna is my favorite: “son-in-law.”) Novels featuring transgender and/or genderqueer protagonists are few and far between, making MISSION CHILD the rarest of gems. (FYI: The titular character of McHugh’s debut novel, China Mountain Zhang, is a gay man. Pass ‘em along to those in search of good LGBTQ fiction.)

Mission Child is a masterpiece with true epic potential. Though I don’t know of any plans for sequels, prequels, or the like, I sincerely hope that McHugh revisits Janna’s world – or, better yet, introduces us to the inhabitants of another of Earth’s sister planets. Mission Child sets the stage for what could easily be an epic series. McHugh’s knack for creating fully realized future worlds is on full display here, and Janna and her kin will stay with you long after you’ve turned the last page on her story.

Major trigger warnings for violence – especially sexual and gender-based violence, though rape is thankfully implied rather than described – sickness, death, child loss, poverty, and speciesism.

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(Crossposted on Amazon, Library Thing, and Goodreads.)

Eat your vegetables! (Or not.)

Thursday, March 29th, 2012

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Image: A photo of a page from the book Mission Child by Maureen F. McHugh (1998). The pertinent passage reads, “There were places that sold stew and places that sold meat grilled on skewers. One place sold sausage. Another sold fish, but it was meat I really wanted.”

Thousands of years into the future, after humans have pushed out into the universe to colonize other planets; developed implants which allow the wearer to send a distress signal to those living on other worlds, hibernate for the winter, or channel superhuman bursts of speed and agility; and created tiny discs capable of replicating the pharmaceuticals of your choice … and there’s still some confusion as to whether fishes are plants or animals. Ditto: insects. Groan.

Still, this is a pretty awesome book, definitely McHugh’s best. You should totally read it, especially if you like your dystopian scifi with a feminist twist. Also, the protagonist? Is transgendered/gender queer. (Born a woman, living largely as a man, Jan/Janna resists efforts to label her as female or male. When asked “what she is,” her answer is “me. Janna.”)

I feel like maybe someone was asking about ya fiction featuring LGBTQ characters on twitter a few months back, but damned if I can remember who. If you know, point ’em in this direction.