Softspoken by Lucius Shepard

Softspoken Cover

ISBN-13: 978-1597800730
ISBN-10: 1597800732
Publisher: Night Shade Books Pub. date: May 2007
$23.95, 179 pages,
hardcover

Reviewed by Matthew Appleton

I like to think that I’m pretty flexible when it comes to reading fantastic literature. While I unreservedly prefer science fiction to other forms of the meta-genre, I frequently find enjoyment in horror, urban fantasy, magic realism, science fantasy and all of the other forms of literature that compose the fantastic. Yet, occasionally I encounter a story that leaves me feeling ambiguous towards it because while I appreciate intellectually what the author was attempting to do, it didn’t readily appeal to my reading sensibilities. Lucius Shepard’s Softspoken is such a book.

Shepard’s short novel weaves a Southern Gothic tale around Sanie Bullard, a 28-year-old housewife left pretty much to her own devices while her husband, Jackson, studies for the bar in the family’s decaying mansion in a backwoods region of South Carolina. While struggling with boredom and being cutoff from the urban lifestyle to which she’s accustomed and prefers, she starts hearing spirits in the house calling out to her and soon they begin actually appearing. Already coping poorly with her loneliness, a crumbling marriage, and the possibility that Jackson appears to be succumbing to the same mental instability that claimed his father and already seems to afflict his brother, Sanie starts struggling with her perceptions about Jackson, reality, and herself.

While I enjoy stories that toy with the fringes of reality the way a kitten plays with dangling strings, there’s something about the presentation of Softspoken that didn’t fully appeal to me. However, I can appreciate why others may find it enjoyable. While the novel doesn’t begin and conclude in the exact same fashion, there’s a kind of Dahlgren-esque quality to the novel in the way the narrative becomes somewhat unreliable and ultimately comes full circle. This results in an ambiguous ending which leaves you questions what exactly happened during the novel’s coda.

By the end of Softspoken, there are differing possibilities which explain what really happened. While I don’t mind questioning reality and our perceptions of it, I prefer a firmer foundation in the narrative – a grounding by which to form a comfortable opinion on the events contained within – than Shepherd provides in Softspoken. As a result, I found the uncertainty of the ending somewhat unsatisfying. However, those who like a multi-faceted ambiguity will certainly enjoy playing with the possibilities inferred/implied by the ending, and I will not begrudge them one minute of that enjoyment.

Future Americas edited by John Hellers and Martin H. Greenberg

Future Americas Cover

ISBN-13: 978-0756405083
ISBN-10: 0756405084
Publisher: DAW
Pub. date: June 2008
$7.99, 320 pages,
paperback

Reviewed by Danny Adams

[Editor’s Note: The following review was originally written for the October 2008 issue of Some Fantastic, which was never published. This marks its initial publication.]

Cory Doctorow has made a point of explaining his stories by saying that he doesn’t predict the future — he predicts the present. He wasn’t necessarily following any slippery slopes to someday conclusions, but rather extrapolating all of the potential consequences for things happening right now. While most of the stories in Future Americas aren’t quite that immediate, many if not most do take that next logical step. If you can genetically tailor your children, what happens if the child still doesn’t meet the standard you wanted? Are there alternatives to burial in an environmentally-challenged land? Is forensics becoming too technical at the expense of human instinct?

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Zoe’s Tale by John Scalzi

Zoe's Tale Cover

ISBN-13: 978-0765316981
ISBN-10: 0765316986
Publisher: Tor Books
Pub. date: Aug. 2008
$24.95, 335 pages,
hardcover

Reviewed by Danny Adams

[Editor’s Note: The following review was originally written for the October 2008 issue of Some Fantastic, which was never published. This marks its initial publication.]

When I was first given the opportunity to read Zoe’s Tale, I had bought a copy of Old Man’s War just weeks before but hadn’t yet started reading it. And after some thought, I decided I wouldn’t read OMW — at least not yet. I realized that I would be missing out on a lot of substance and nuance from Scalzi’s universe if I skipped ahead to Zoe herself, but I’d heard that Zoe’s Tale worked as a standalone novel. So, I grew curious to judge that for myself.  The review that follows thus is written from the perspective of someone who really doesn’t know what the heck was going on before (aside from generalities from the world of OMW) but nevertheless discovered that Zoe’s was a good read in itself without its predecessors after all.

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Editorial: “October 2008, The Lost Issue (#17)”

When I placed Some Fantastic on indefinite hiatus in the fall of 2008, I did so rather suddenly, with no effort to properly wind things down. Publication actually ceased while in the middle of compiling and editing material for the October 2008 issue. In fact, even though there was enough material to produce a final issue, I unfortunately lacked both the time and wherewithal necessary to make it happen. So, for nearly five years, that material has lain dormant in archived emails. However, with the impending official relaunch, change in format, and ongoing transfer of the original Some Fantastic material to the new site, the opportunity to finally bring the material online is finally here.

Starting this weekend, I will post most of that material online. Yes, the reviews are nearly five years old, but I’m of the opinion that it’s never too late to bring attention to deserving genre entertainment. After those reviews are online, the official launch of Some Fantastic 2.0 will begin in earnest.

Matthew Appleton, Editor

A Deposition Regarding The Dispossessed

By Matthew Appleton

In his introduction to the 20th anniversary edition of Neuromancer, William Gibson discusses the challenges of reading classic sf when you start reading it in your teens. In particular, the very nature of the genre means that unforeseen technological innovations or the unanticipated consequences of correctly projected technological evolution will eventually rip away the referential moorings of a particular work as it progresses into its imagined future. Thus, a reader encountering for the first time a classic work of sf will need to compensate, thus “shouldering an additional share of the imaginative burden.”

When I recently finished reading Le Guin’s classic, The Dispossessed, it was the first time I read it. However, I don’t believe that merely knowing that I read a 40-year-old novel gives the proper context. To provide perspective by way of example, when I was a teenager, I read reprints of two Groff Conklin Golden Age anthologies: The Omnibus of Science Fiction and Treasury of Science Fiction. At that time, the majority of the stories were of the same relative vintage as The Dispossessed currently displays. Although the experience of reading a novel written when I was still a toddler required less of an imaginative burden than reading short fiction from the ‘40s whilst in my teens, at various times I contemplated whether, technological issues aside, my perspective must be far different than that of a contemporary reader when The Dispossessed first appeared in bookstores.

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Jennifer Government by Max Barry

Jennifer Government

ISBN-13: 978-0385507592
ISBN-10: 0385507593
Publisher: Doubleday
Pub. date: Jan. 2003
$19.95, 321 pages,
hardcover

Reviewed by Matthew Appleton

This review originally appeared in the October 2003 issue (#184) of The New York Review of Science Fiction.

I.

Imagine a novel where two umbrella organizations battle for control of consumers’ hearts and minds with ubiquitous and sometimes misleading advertising. These two groups will use any method to increase sales, even if it is questionably legal. In fact, the battle between the two groups gets downright nasty at times, with corporate warfare literally taking place. The government is little more than a figurehead, its power usurped by corporations. Elements of society toward the bottom of the economic totem pole are starting to rebel, attempting to change the system. It sounds an awful lot like Frederik Pohl’s and C. M. Kornbluth’s The Space Merchants. It also happens to sum up Max Barry’s Jennifer Government.

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Red Moon by Michael Cassutt

Red Moon Cover

ISBN-13: 978-0312874407
ISBN-10: 0312874405
Publisher: Forge
Pub. date: Feb. 2001
$25.95, 352 pages,
hardcover

Reviewed by Matthew Appleton

This review originally appeared in the September 2001 issue (#157) of The New York Review of Science Fiction.

Most Americans are familiar with the basic details of the American space program in the 1960s and its climatic finish in beating the Soviets to the moon in July of 1969. Conversely, it’s probably safe to say that other than Sputnik, Mir, and putting the first man in space, most Americans couldn’t tell you much about the Soviet program as a whole, if anything at all. In fact, the closely-guarded press of the Soviet Union made sure that they only reported the details highlighting the successes of the program. As a result, most Americans lack the capability to tell you why NASA succeeded in its goal of putting a man by the end of the decade and why the Soviets never actually made it there despite strenuous efforts. However, thanks to accomplished historian Michael Cassutt, who has written and compiled the three editions of Who’s Who in Space and is also a regular columnist for the Science Fiction Weekly webzine, we now have a highly engaging fictionalized account of the Soviet space program in the 1960s and their ultimate failure in beating the Americans to the moon.

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