Review: Best of Apex Magazine

This article first appeared on The Oxford Culture Review website on 3 February 2016.

More than any other genre, science fiction is one built on the short story. Really formalising as a genre in the pulp magazines of the early twentieth century, science fiction (or more broadly speculative fiction) often benefits from a sense of brevity, giving ideas room to germinate without becoming over-complicated, and allowing for the creation of sharp, iconic images. It is for this reason that genre magazines persist to this day, and the internet has allowed for wider audiences and new types of stories. What better format for our increasingly advanced (and time-pressed) age? One of the most influential and acclaimed of these new publications has been Apex Magazine. Of the twenty authors in its debut anthology, six of them are either nominees or winners of major SF awards, including Ken Liu, Ursula Vernon, and Rachel Swirsky. This is a book with some serious pedigree, but these authors’ contributions, while overwhelmingly solid, are not the highlights of this collection. More exciting are the newer, lesser-known writers, who bring a sense of freshness and vitality that science fiction needs if it is to continue to sustain itself in the short fiction market.

In the afterword, editor Jason Sizemore describes the Apex house style as “strange, beautiful, shocking, surreal”, and the collection is at its best when it’s pushing the envelope. The opening story, Ursula Vernon’s ‘Jackalope Wives’, presents a compelling and witty riff on North American folklore, with a pleasingly dark undercurrent. What initially looks like a typical bit of male fantasy angst is ruthlessly subverted, as the story becomes a much more interesting examination of age, wisdom and patriarchy, whose denouement leaves the reader profoundly moved. Less traditional but no less powerful is Sarah Pinsker’s superb ‘Remembery Day’, about a group of war veterans who are only allowed to remember their actions for one day a year. It’s an arresting, high-concept premise, and Pinsker elevates it above the level of a gimmick by grounding it in the effect such a paradigm has on a single family, resulting in a story both politically eloquent and emotionally intelligent. That sense of political anger wedded to raw emotional power is also present in Lettie Prell’s ‘The Performance Artist’, which turns an account of a cyber-augmented performance piece into a fascinating meditation on female objectification and technological paranoia. It’s a dense, hypnotic and disturbing little piece, and an undoubted highlight of the collection.

While these stories pack a real punch, the collection also demonstrates a more playful side to the magazine. Brian Trent’s ‘A Matter of Shapespace’ uses ideas about virtual reality and transhumanism to pull some amusing postmodern tricks, and Keffy R.M Kehrli’s ‘Advertising at the End of the World’ wrings a surprising amount of pathos from the comic conceit of door-to-door advertising robots. What these stories have in common with their more serious counterparts is an originality of vision and a willingness to try strange new ideas. It’s an approach exemplified in Russell Nichols’s ‘Blood on Beacon Hill’, which enlivens the already intriguing idea of a court case involving anti-vampire discrimination with a razor-sharp sense of humour and a handful of gloriously on-the-nose gags (my personal favourite being when the narrator’s father, a vampire politician, exclaims that “The State House needs new blood!”).

Unfortunately, ‘Blood on Beacon Hill’ also exhibits the anthology’s main problems, as a brilliant setup is squandered by a stuttering conclusion which answers none of the story’s questions. It’s a weakness shared by too many in the anthology. Moreover, a number of entries don’t even get that far: ‘Going Endo’ by Rich Larson and ‘Blood from Stone’ by Alethea Kontis read as limp genre pastiches, whose obnoxious presentation only highlights their lack of an idea. ‘Going Endo’ is, for me, a particular offender: “They say the reason it’s mostly fems who go endo is because of the whole penetration thing, like us sirs can’t handle the wet interface, but once on leave I got my face pulped in a blood-brawl at Decker’s Draughts & Dopamine, and since the autosurgeon took five whole hours putting my jaw back together I woke up with a supersize catheter stuffed up my cock.” Charming.

The anthology is undoubtedly a mixed bag; the big names perform admirably (Vernon also turns in a wonderful Southern Gothic short and Ken Liu offers a fun cyberpunk riff on Toy Story) and the best new writers shine through the clutter (Pinsker and Prell at least are well worth keeping an eye on in future). But the anthology’s weaknesses are indicative of contemporary science fiction as a whole: there are plenty of good concepts, but the presentation is frustratingly timid, with writers falling back on old habits even when their own ideas demand they break the mould. At best this muddles otherwise interesting stories, and at worst manifests as juvenility.

To my mind, the anthology’s best story is Marie Vibbert’s ‘Keep Talking’, a story about a father, his autistic daughter, and his new girlfriend experiencing a family crisis/alien invasion, building to a conclusion in which the combined skills of daughter and girlfriend work to decode an alien message. It’s poignant, imaginative, and approaches its subject matter with maturity and deftness. It’s the embodiment of what science fiction should be in 2016. If only the rest of the anthology were the same. If Apex can crack that, it’s got the genre’s future sewn up. As it is, it’s only halfway there.

For more information about Apex Magazine or to purchase a copy of the anthology, please visit their website.

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