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"Kid Dark Against the Machine", the new short story by Tansy Raynor Roberts, is the latest entry in Book Smugglers Publishing's season of superhero stories. It's available as an ebook as well as on the Book Smugglers blog

I can't even pretend to be objective about this story. It's got superheroes and reunion narratives, it plays with tropes and gender roles, and it's got Tansy Raynor Roberts, of whom I am a huge fangirl, mostly for her work on the Galactic Suburbia podcast -- my first foray into the world of fannish podcasting. But for all that I love Roberts as a commentator and fellow fan, I haven't spent much time reading her fiction. Happily, the one story of hers that I have previously read is "Cookie Cutter Superhero", her contribution to the (most excellent and highly recommended) anthology Kaleidoscope. This story is set in the same universe as Kid Dark and features a few of the same characters. I enjoyed "Cookie Cutter Superhero" a great deal, so when I learned there was a follow-up, I jumped on the chance to read it and spend a little more time in this fascinating world.

The underlying premise is that superheroes are real, their powers and identities chosen essentially by a lottery -- all over the world, there are machines that select one person to gain superpowers every six months, assigning them a codename and skill set. When a new hero is called, the machine selects an existing hero to retire, and they lose their powers. So anyone can be a hero, but only by the whims of fate, and there's no guarantee of how long it will last -- a few heroes only get one six-month term, while others remain active for decades. It makes for an interesting dynamic, both among the heroes (who, at least in Australia, where both stories are set, live and work together as a team) and the unpowered people.

"Cookie Cutter Superhero" focused on a teen girl who is called by the machine to become powered; "Kid Dark Against the Machine" takes us to the other side of the equation, and introduces us to a young man who was a hero in his youth but has since returned to live among the "mortals". In the good old days, he was Kid Dark, sidekick to a brooding crime fighter named The Dark (if you think this sounds familiar, that's clearly intentional). Now he's just a guy called Griff, doing odd jobs at a group home for children, reluctantly studying for his social work degree, and avoiding his past as much as possible. He thought he was out of that life forever, until one of the kids, a boy named Liam, reports that he's dreaming about another machine -- one that makes supervillians instead of heroes. And Griff is forced to do two things: ask an old teammate for help, and admit that he might miss being a superhero after all.

Cut for spoilers )

All in all, I can easily recommend this story to anyone who enjoys superheroes, coming of age, interesting world building, and/or men and women being friends. And now I'm off to explore the rest of Roberts's short fiction, which I'm sure will be a pleasurable journey.
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When he got to the coast, the sun was setting, and the brightness blinded him. He drove down a rattling road to get to the sand. There were waves still, white and green and blue, and he made a sound he wasn’t expecting to make. He thought about red oceans and orange caverns.


Maria Dahvana Headley's "Solder and Seam" follows the journey of an alien revolutionary, living on a quietly post-apocalyptic Earth as a farmer, as he steers a wooden whale to the sea. It's a real weird story; part of the New Weird subgenre I adore, and yet became a little estranged from in 2015. Is it even called the New Weird anymore? I'm so out of touch.

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We never would have believed, before the dead girls started climbing out of their refrigerators, that people could be literally resurrected by sheer indignation.

Probably it should have been obvious. People have been brought back to life by far more ludicrous means and for far more ridiculous reasons.


If you need a moment of feminist recognition - a moment when you feel the relief of knowing someone else gets what you are low level angry about all the time - I highly recommend setting aside some time to read Sunny Moraine's "Eyes I Dare Not Meet In Dreams". Susan mentioned this story in Our Favourite Media of September 2015, and I'm so glad she did. I had heard absolutely nothing about this story anywhere else but I needed it in my life. Reminder to boost your favourite short fic, people.

Moraine's story is a piece of media criticism wrapped up in a sharp and solid fictional shell. A refrigerator appears in Pennsylvania; a dead girl climbs out of it. Across America, refrigerator after refrigerator appears. Women who have spent some time down the rabbit hole of TV Tropes, or y'know being alive and consuming media, are going to get the reference right off. Yes, Moraine's creepy short story is taking on that most despised of tropes - fridging the ladies.

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You can’t say no. Not that you’d want to. Not if you’re a real soldier.

And I am. I’m a real soldier.

A real fucking hero.

I’m made of light.


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The discovery of the pocket universes had proved the Titius-Bode law — all orbital systems of the pocket universes had stable and self-correcting orbital resonances with each other. In those resonances was the music of the spheres, and in those resonances, my calling.


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Reading Amal El-Mohtar's "Pockets" sent me rushing back to re-read "The Truth About Owls". I read this odd story when it first appeared online in January, and my strongest memory of that reading is an intense respect for the author's craft but also a deep sense of confusion about the story's publication in Strange Horizons. Calling "The Truth About Owls" an SFF story felt tenuous even to me - a reader who loves to see genre boundaries set aflame.

What a difference new reading circumstances can make. Having excised my thoughts on 'real SFF' in my post about Sophia Samatar's "Walkdog", and having recently read Silvia Morento-Garcia's weirdly normal SFF novel Signal to Noise, I approached my second reading of "The Truth About Owls" with much less genre weight on my back. Before, I was mildly in love with this story. Now, I've reached the shouting-from-the-rooftops-let's analyse-this-in-depth stage. I can tell you're all super excited about that.

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"Hunting Monsters" by S. L. Huang was easily the story I was most excited about when Book Smugglers Publishing announced its first round of releases. Feminist retellings of "Little Red Riding Hood" get me every time, and when a story also mixes a bit of "Bluebeard" and "Beauty and the Beast" in there, well, just try and hold me back. Even if that combination of influences hadn't immediately grabbed me, I would have been sunk just by seeing the striking cover Kristina Tsenova created for "Hunting Monsters". Woah.

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When it comes to Kameron Hurley's work I've lost it; I'm a fully fledged fangirl and a fool for her words. I signed up for her newsletter and I actually read it—that's how deep I'm in.

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Malinda Lo's story "The Cure" may be short and relatively simple but it's a smart story that knows exactly what it's about. It merges horror, female-focused history and sexual subtext to create a vampire story that sticks in the mind.

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The first strange thing Nadia pulled from her pocket was a piece of fudge. It was a perfectly ordinary piece of fudge. But Nadia hated fudge, and couldn’t imagine how she’d come to be carrying it around. She remembered this in particular because it was a bright, cool autumn day and she’d dug into her jacket pocket instinctively, looking for change to leave in a busker’s open violin case, and had come upon the piece of fudge instead. After staring at it awkwardly for a moment, she dropped it into the violin case and hurried away before she could see whether the busker was scowling at her or not.


After reading Amal El-Mohtar's "Pockets" and "The Truth About Owls" back to back I suspect I'm going to spend June cramming all of her work into my eyes. Although very different in tone, both of these stories appealed to me for similar reasons. Both display a concentration on the pace and flow within individual paragraphs, show off El-Mohtar's sharp eye for detail, and manage to hit my feels by leveraging just the right amount of melancholy optimism. If loving "The Feels" is wrong I don't want to be right (also it's not wrong).

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cover of The Mussel Eater shows a woman with blood on her lips craddling a dying man


“You smell like the sea,” says Karitoki.

“What else would I smell like?” she says, and beneath the salt and the brine and the under-tang of shellfish is a faint, sweet odour of rot, of mussels left too long on the beach and under the sun, of the torn fragments left by seabirds, breaking open calcium carbonate and leaving fleshy feet to spoil. When he is done with her hair, he sits back and watches her coat herself with oil.

As part of their quest for world domination, The Book Smugglers opened their new publishing arm Book Smugglers Publishing in 2014. The theme of their debut collection was Subversive Fairy Tales and they published six original riffs on older stories from "Red Riding Hood" to Scheherazade's story in One Thousand and One Nights. So, far I've read two of these stories and I'm impressed by Ana and Thea's selections.

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“Petra,” I said. “Hey. Hey from Spain.”

“Happy Apocalypse,” she said. “Hope you don’t mind me calling. It’s kind of a tradition now, you and me and the end of the world.”

“I’m coming home,” I blurted.

“Yeah?” Her voice lifted happily. Behind it, there was music, something choral and ancient–sounding.

“Yeah,” I said, and I pressed my free hand to my eyes to keep them dry in the chilly Spanish wind.


I found Claire Humphrey's "Four Steps to the Perfect Smoky Eye" smart and layered, so when I saw that someone had added another story of hers to our Hugo (2014-2015) spreadsheet I jumped right on it. "The End of the World in Five Dates" is rather different in form to "Four Steps to the Perfect Smoky Eye" - like "Four Steps to the Perfect Smoky Eye" it's built around linked episodes and follows one set of characters, but "The End of the World in Five Dates" skips through time quite quickly and requires the reader to follow some sharp story jumps.

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Everyone thinks my brother is nice. He set up a rescue centre for birds, after the terraforming accident poisoned the lake. That's always the image of him, holding a bird covered in sludge. The birds are never the same after they're cleaned, but the gossips never talk about that.


Polenth Blake's "Never the Same" is a strange, dark story that shows the importance of shaking up well used SFF narratives and introducing radically new fictional voices. It's also a story that left me wondering if I could trust anything that I'd read, and yet still weirdly satisfied by what I'd read.

A little like "If You Were a Dinosaur, My Love" it's difficult to analyse "Never the Same" without giving away all the story's secrets, so consider this your spoiler warning.

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I had a lot of time so I read the newspaper. I read all of the latest news about the killer. He was supposed to be a young white man, blond, blue-eyed, hazel-eyed. He was supposed to drive a silver car, a beige car, a white car. He had been hunting here for months, years. He was likely to have no criminal record.

He caught another girl. Her school picture was on the front page. She had the same long hair as the others, bangs hairsprayed into a neat puff, braces on her teeth, a uniform sweater-vest. She'd been on her way to a music lesson, and they found her violin case, empty, tossed into the ravine. No fingerprints.

Dad said, "You'd better be thankful you aren't out there, walking the streets."

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The town in Claire Humphrey's "Four Steps to the Perfect Smoky Eye" is plagued by a serial killer who targets young women, so Beck's dad buys a safekeeper; a protective device that clamps into a vein on the wearer's arm. The safekeeper shoots electricity at attackers and reports any physical violence against its wearer to pre-programmed numbers. Getting Becks fitted with the device looks like a protective act of parental love and concern on the part of her father, but the reader can see immediately that this 'protection' is at best misguided as Becks is worried and feels pain as the safekeeper attaches itself:

"Oh. I thought it was going to be one of those tennis bracelets," I said, trying not to freak. But by the time I got the words out my dad had my wrist wrapped in his big solid hand, and he snapped the safekeeper on and it was too late.
The safekeeper bit like a viper, the teeth on the skin side finding my vein and latching there. The seal was good enough that no blood ran out, but it hurt like a bitch.


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Illustration by Wesley Allsbrook showing Essie with her purple braid wearing a suit and carrying a gun

It is probably best to for us to embrace subjectivity, to withhold judgement. Let us say that the entity believing himself to be Matthew Corley feels that he regained consciousness while reading an article in the newspaper about the computer replication of personalities of the dead. He believes that it is 1994, the year of his death, that he regained consciousness after a brief nap, and that the article he was reading is nonsense. All of these beliefs are wrong.
(...)
“It’s 2064,” Essie says. “You’re a simulation of yourself. I am your biographer.”

Ana: "Sleeper" by Jo Walton is a story that presents us not only with a technologicaly advanced world where it's possible to create a AI consciousness based on your understanding of a historical figure, but also a world where the stark economic inequalities we're familiar with today have been greatly magnified. The dystopian nature of this world becomes increasingly obvious as the story progresses, thanks to passages such as this:
She finds it hard to imagine the space Matthew had, the luxury. Only the rich live like that now. Essie is thirty-five, and has student debt that she may never pay off. She cannot imagine being able to buy a house, marry, have a child. She knows Matthew wasn’t considered rich, but it was a different world.

Later on, Essie tells the simulation of Matthew that,
“The class system needs to come down again. You didn’t bring it down far enough, and it went back up. The corporations and the rich own everything. We need all the things you had—unions, and free education, and paid holidays, and a health service. And very few people know about them and fewer care.”

This is not new territory for Jo Walton. Although at first glance this story is very different from the Small Change trilogy, they also have quite a few things in common. One looks towards the future and another towards an alternate past; one is science fiction and the other alternative history interlaced with crime — but all the same, the themes and political concerns at the heart of the two works are closely linked. I wanted to start by asking you what you thought of the world depicted in "Sleeper". Do you think that despite its brevity the story manages to set up a vivid picture of the threats of uncontrolled capitalism?
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You can read "Sleeper" for free at Tor.com.
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Illustration for The Mothers of Voorhisville, showing Jeremy arriving to town on a hease


The things you have heard are true; we are the mothers of monsters. We would, however, like to clarify a few points.


Jodie: Over the last year, I've noticed that SFF has almost a sub-genre of stories about fantastical reproduction (The Best of All Possible Worlds by Karen Lord, The Brides of Heaven by N. K Jemisin, Maul by Tricia Sullivan to name a few examples). The genre has also produced a lot of stories which imagine, or express concern about, how parents will have children in the future or in magical worlds, for example Starglass by Phoebe North, Motherlines by Suzy Mckee Charnas and God's War by Kameron Hurley all show futuristic reproduction.

The Mothers of Voorhisville by Mary Rickert is one of these stories about fantastical pregnancies, babies and births. SFF has a troubled time with mothers, and the genre is well known for using dead mothers as a quick and lazy way to inject emotional pain into its stories (Guardians of the Galaxy I'm looking at you). Did you have any concerns about the way motherhood was characterised in this story, or did you feel that The Mothers of Voorhisville managed to present a complicated picture of women who were 'the mothers of monsters' without demonising mothers in typical, sexist ways?

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You can read The Mothers of Voorhisville for free at Tor.
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I nod. "Awful day." And because we say it all the time, because it's the kind of silly, ordinary thing you could call one of our "refrains," or maybe because of the weed I've smoked, a whole bunch of days seem pressed together inside this moment, more than you could count. There's the time we all went out for New Year's Eve, and Uncle Tad drove me, and when he stopped and I opened the door he told me to close it, and I said "I will when I'm on the other side," and when I told Mona we laughed so hard we had to run away and hide in the bathroom. There's the day some people we know from school came in and we served them wine even though they were underage and Mona got nervous and spilled it all over the tablecloth, and the day her nice cousin came to visit and made us cheese-and-mint sandwiches in the microwave and got yelled at for wasting food. And the day of the party for Mona's mom's birthday, when Uncle Tad played music and made us all dance, and Mona's mom's eyes went jewelly with tears, and afterward Mona told me: "I should just run away. I'm the only thing keeping her here." My God, awful days. All the best days of my life.


Much like "All Our Pretty Songs", Sofia Samatar’s "Selkie Stories Are For Losers" mixes folklore with a contemporary story of intense female friendship, love and troubled families set against the backdrop of summer jobs. I’m a big fan of small town stories which light up regular lives through the use of carefully chosen detailing. And I love fantasy stories which bring magic down to earth by setting it in everyday situations. So, the variation of urban fantasy in Samatar’s story, which mixes the deliberately mundane like the details of crappy jobs, random jokes, aimless hours spent hanging around with folklore, is a knock out hit for me. The combination of the magical and the commonplace creates a sense of specificity which grounded me and made it easy for me to relate to the story.

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Other Reviews

Susan Hated Literature
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In the beginning, "If You Were a Dinosaur, My Love" seems set to live up to its whimsical title. It starts, as you would expect, with the narrator explaining that her partner would make the most charming terrible lizard:

If you were a dinosaur, my love, then you would be a T-Rex. You’d be a small one, only five feet, ten inches, the same height as human-you. You’d be fragile-boned and you’d walk with as delicate and polite a gait as you could manage on massive talons. Your eyes would gaze gently from beneath your bony brow-ridge.


He sounds adorable. In my mind’s eye, I gave this dinosaur a cane and bow tie.

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