Aliya Whiteley, Skyward Inn (2021)

Author: Aliya Whiteley

Title: Skyward Inn

Format: E-book

Pages: 304

Series: –

I requested Whiteley’s novel after I’ve read her collection of short stories, From the Neck Up and Other Stories. These were unusual, dark and difficult to classify, straddling the border between horror, fantasy, and science fiction. Not all of them were great, but they were unique enough for me to want to read more, with questions concerning identity and humanity, and a significant dose of body horror thrown in the mix. And so I picked up Skyward Inn, whose blurb admittedly didn’t sound too interesting – I gave it a pass the first time it was available, because it just seemed like another generic “alien encounter” novel. But after reading the short stories I reconsidered: nothing written by Whiteley could be really generic.

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Alfred Bester, The Stars My Destination (1956)

Author: Alfred Bester

Title: The Stars My Destination

Format: e-book

Pages: 258

Series: –

Bester’s SF classic, Tiger, Tiger!, renamed later to The Stars My Destination for the American market, remains one of his most popular and highly valued novels. Praised for originality as a forerunner of cyberpunk, and for respect for classics as a SF retelling of The Count of Monte Cristo (and clear inspiration from Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels and Blake’s Songs of Experience), The Stars My Destination remains an immensely readable book. It’s hard to believe that it’s nearly 70 years old, as the prose and the meta-level of skilfully interwoven references and tropes are still very, almost cuttingly fresh. 

There is a lot to like in this novel, certainly; intriguing ideas, masterful worldbuilding, fast-paced and delightfully twisty plot. The only problem I had with this book was the characters themselves 😉 And it is, sadly, a rather big problem, all the virtues of Bester’s novel notwithstanding. But ad rem.

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Aliya Whiteley, From the Neck Up and Other Stories (2021)

Author: Aliya Whiteley

Title: From the Neck Up and Other Stories

Format: e-book

Pages: 368

Series: –

Other: Short story collection

A collection of 16 short stories from the murky border of fantasy, horror and science fiction. Whiteley has a penchant for infusing the mundane with the strange and the uncanny, successfully punching holes in the surface of our perception of everyday life with her creepy little tales. She is a skillful writer, seemingly seamlessly combining lightness of style and a wide range of topics with socio-philosophical observation. As usual with collections of short stories, the quality is uneven – but I did find a few gems here, and I’m quite happy I gave this anthology a chance.

As usual, I will review and rate each story separately and in conclusion I will give a general rating which may, or may not, be a simple average of the stories’ scores.

Brushwork 8.5/10 stars

A cli-fi novella, almost 80 pages long, about a world roughly resembling that from Snowpiercer: the Gulf Stream stopped, the land started becoming colder and colder, the vegetation died off under heavy snow and frost, and only corporate farms offer a possibility of a secure live – for the price of freedom. There is a lot going on in this novella: reflections on aging and the division between young and old; meditation on living with one’s past regrets and difficult choices; inequality and terrorism, slavery and trust. It’s one of the strongest stories in the collection, and I enjoyed it quite a lot.

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Un-su Kim, The Cabinet (2021)

Author: Un-su Kim

Title: The Cabinet

Format: E-book

Pages: 400

Series:-

Among my recent reads this novel turned out to be the strangest one; for me, it resembles mostly an early attempt at a Frankenstein’s monster: sewn together from disparate parts it ends up having three arms, one leg, and an off-color head tacked on back to front. The first 60% were highly enjoyable, but afterwards, an inexorable downward spiral got me in the end to a disheartening feeling of “wtf did I just read?”

It’s a pity, really, because the premise of Kim’s novel is quite promising, with a lot of potential: the life in modern cities became so unbearable for humans that their evolution accelerated rapidly, creating first cases of a post-homo sapiens species. The mutations don’t seem to be adaptive, at the moment, but as evolution works through trial and error, we might see some that would become highly effective.

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Nina Allan, The Art of Space Travel and Other Stories (2021)

Author: Nina Allan

Title: The Art of Space Travel and Other Stories

Format: E-book

Pages: 224

Series: –

Other: Short story collection

I am partial to collections of short stories. I very much like the format, which for me works as a beginning of a conversation between the writer and the reader. A story comes into being as an idea: it may be not fully thought through, unpolished and raw, but it’s scintillating enough that cannot be left alone; it needs to be shown to the world and elicit a reaction. I read short stories to be intellectually challenged, however minutely or extensively. There are always some good or even great stories in collections and anthologies, but sadly, the opposite is also true: rarely a collection of disparate stories can hold up an exceptionally high quality level throughout. That said, it’s the gems I hunt for among the sand, and I’m always happy to find new favorites.

I confess I requested Nina Allan’s collection on a whim; I have never read anything by her and decided short stories are a good place to start. And indeed, The Art of Space Travel and Other Stories is as varied a collection as one could wish for. The stories, arranged chronologically, span about two decades and showcase both the continuity and evolution of thought, as well as a development of skill.

As usual, I’ll present a short review and rating for each of the stories, and give an overall summary at the end.

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