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the genre's premiere review magazine for short SF & Fantasy since 1993

Apex Magazine #52, September 2013

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Apex Magazine #52, September 2013

Reviewed by Matthew Nadelhaft

Apex Magazine is, according to the Hugo nomination mentioned on its website, a “semiprozine.” Judging by this month’s original fiction (three out of the five pieces in the issue, rounded out by one reprint and an excerpt), the line between semi-professional and professional is pretty bloody slim. The quality of the stories showcased here is as high as can be found anywhere. The relationship of the stories to each other, their complex themes and strengths, has me convinced reviewing them in the order they appear does little justice to both the stories and this issue of Apex, so I’m going to try something different: reviewing them in a kind of ladder of merit.

Perhaps the weakest story of the bunch is Hal Duncan’s lyrical and provocative “The Boy Who Loved Death,” which isn’t exactly a shameful position. I’m not sure if the lush prose of this piece is the proper complement to the subject matter – a school shooting perpetrated by an alienated and bullied boy – but the concept of the piece is clever and powerful. The unnamed boy – and leaving him unnamed is, itself, a strong and thoughtful move – rampages throughout his school shooting classmates. With his fingers. Each person he discharges his imaginary gun at dies at some point in the future. Of course, they would have, anyway, wouldn’t they? It’s his hallucinogenic encounter with Death prior to the shooting spree that makes us believe he is the agency of his victims’ deaths. But whether he is or isn’t, the way his classmates flee in terror from his pointed fingers and whispers of “bang” leads us to think about the conceptual nature of school shootings; of intention, perception, and causality; and of the way a shared media makes traumatic events real for us.

“Someone Like You,” by Margaret Ronald, pursues a somewhat more traditional – but no less interesting – storyline. Seema and Athéne, former lovers, work together on a fascinating project exploring alternate dimensions. Capsules, much like deep-sea-exploration vehicles, one imagines, are “lowered” into realities, known as folds or tiles. Many of these realities have their own, parallel, research projects, staffed by versions of the same scientists and explorers. This fascinating premise could have made a fine adventure story, but Ronald uses it as the backdrop for an even more complex look into relationships and personality. When the tether anchoring Athéne’s capsule breaks, an alternate Athéne is brought back – one who still loves Seema. But in this Athéne’s home tile, Seema is dead, killed in a fire. Athéne decides to remain, and Seema is faced with a dilemma. Is it right to accept this love? Beyond the moral problem are deep philosophical issues about identity, free will, and determinism. Is it the same woman she loves? If it is, then is it inevitable their relationship, too, will end? And if it isn’t, is their new relationship founded on falsehood and betrayal? Frankly, a full exploration of these questions could well have suited a novella, and my only complaint with this story is that it wasn’t long enough, and Seema’s decision seemed arrived at too abruptly.

Anaea Lay’s “Turning the Whisper” also involves themes of identity and personality – among others. This story of artificial intelligence might be the strongest I have seen on the topic to date, exploring with great philosophical complexity and wonderful prose almost every imaginable issue involved in relationships between human and machine consciousnesses. Pavi has modified and nurtured her computerized space craft until it attains selfhood. She calls it Mike, and he becomes her companion and best friend during the lonely hours of space travel. Together, they steer a wide berth around the vast and sentient Aydan-machine, an artificial intelligence that absorbs all other machine consciousnesses into itself. But when Pavi is critically wounded, the Aydan-machine may be their only hope, and Mike must decide whether to save Pavi when doing so means the loss of his self. And to do that, he must understand what his self is. This remarkable story, with extraordinary prose and a beautiful structure, explores issues such as the machine consciousness of mortality – and then goes on to even broader, trickier notions. Mike’s experiences with Pavi and with the Aydan-machine raise questions about who is conscious, how we interpret the experience of consciousness (our own and others’), and more. The story made me think of Greg Bear’s magisterial Queen of Angels, of the mind-altering best fictions of Philip K. Dick, while being its own uniquely moving and powerful reading experience. I could probably write an essay entirely about it, but, on the other hand, find it just as satisfying to sum up with one word: Bravo.