Rec: “Odd Hours” by Tony Pisculli

In July, the SFWA added a webzine called Grievous Angel to its list of qualifying markets but I somehow didn’t notice it until a few days ago. Since it’s nearly a microfiction site (700 words or less) and has published only 25 pieces of fiction this year, I was able to catch up in a day or two. It’s mostly not my sort of thing but I did encounter a couple of noteworthy items with the most recent serendipitously being the best. (It’s the second story in a single post.)

Odd Hours” by Tony Pisculli, Grievous Angel 2017-11-14, SF/F short story

The editor calls this a foray into “cyberpunk,” indicating the whole thing occurs in a VR but, even so, it didn’t strike me as having anything to do with cyberpunk. I started with the January stories and had taken to reading the blurbs last because they were often spoilery or otherwise conditioned the reader’s approach to the stories so I just took this as a modern/urban fantasy with the changes occurring by magic. The issue here is the nature of the imaginative element: a club or bar which metamorphoses from one time period or style to another and stands for chaos. The narrator is waiting for his girlfriend to show up, giving us elegant flashes of character like:

Update from Ani. She’s around the corner. Which means everything, and nothing. The more specific her location, the more uncertain her momentum. Still, the simple fact that she’s nearby thrills me.

So it has a genuinely imaginative element (and perhaps the Heisenberg reference does indicate SF more than F) and it’s “literary” but not preciously, showily so. It’s got a little character and, while it’s, of course, lacking in plot, it does have a plot-like arc. It worked for me.

The other noteworthy story (“Candont” by Deborah L. Davit, 2017-05-29) is more in honorable mention territory. It uses quantum mechanics to look into whether the characters’ world is the worst of all possible worlds. It appeals to my streak of whimsical pessimism and I like its sly ending, though it’s a fairly simple story and such inversions don’t hold up if read too critically or literally.

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Rec: “The Şiret Mask” by Marie Brennan

The Şiret Mask” by Marie Brennan, Beneath Ceaseless Skies #238 2017-11-09, fantasy short story

This is a tricky story to discuss without ruining and a tricky recommendation. Viorica is narrating the story of how she came to be dangling from a rope while facing her death which involves telling us of her friendship with Oana and the latter’s relationships with a mysterious nobleman and her childhood friend. Meanwhile, a famous thief is in town and threatening to steal a famous and desired (but not especially beautiful or valuable) mask from Oana’s unpleasant brother. It’s basically a heist story.

Viorica is a brisk, wry, and entertaining narrator/protagonist and the story moves quickly with many reversals, complications, and identity revelations in a brief span. It’s really little like a Lankhmar tale, I suppose, but something about it did make me think of that fantastic city and the thief just seems like someone the Grey Mouser would have known. Over the course of reading it, I was initially involved enough but didn’t have the feeling it would end up as a rec but, by the end, I found I’d enjoyed it immensely.

It does have two (or three) problems, however. The narrative framing device is very effective for an opening hook and serves the purpose of foreshadowing, creating tension, and establishing the tone. However, it really makes little sense – she’s not telling this while hanging from a rope and so it’s clearly artificial. Secondly, there is something that occurs in the closing sequence of the story which would seem to have significant effects outside the frame of the story which no one in it (and perhaps not even the author) seems cognizant of. (A third issue, if not a problem, is that, despite being a secondary world and mentioning wizards, there’s nothing actually magical/supernatural in it.) Still, the blemishes don’t really affect the exciting, twisting tale, itself, and I recommend it.

(The other story in this issue (“His Wife and Serpent Mistress” by Gillian Daniels) has some obvious similarities with this one and is also noteworthy. It lacks the particular problems but also lacks the particular excellences, so I’m just giving it an honorable mention but some may prefer it.)

Rec: “An Unexpected Boon” by S. B.  Divya

An Unexpected Boon” by S. B. Divya, Apex #102 November 2017, fantasy short story

(Apex is on a roll, with a recommended story in the last issue and another in this.)

The viewpoint of this tale shifts a bit between Aruni and Kalyani (a brother and a sister) the latter of whom seems to have something like a pronounced Asperger’s Syndrome. She’s very smart but can’t read expressions well or stand to be touched by people. When the parents leave Aruni in charge for a time while they’re away and a sage arrives, Aruni is extremely worried because (Indian?) custom dictates that Kalyani must serve as hostess. Much to his surprise, things go well and Kalyani is given a boon – a magic beetle (lightning bug, I think) – because she asked for a friend. When a second sage arrives, however, things do not go well at all and he curses the home. The siblings’ handling of this curse, and its ultimate effects, fill the remainder of the tale.

Aruni is sympathetic as the caring, but exasperated, brother, the milieu and the lightly (and then heavily) fantastic elements are well-handled, and the contrasting sages are intriguing, but Kalyani steals the show. Her disabilities and struggles and compensating extra abilities (even before her beetle kicks in) are well-drawn and induce, but don’t unfairly coerce, the reader’s affection and the working out of the ecumenical parable, while familiar, is satisfying.

Links (2017-11-08)

Historic History

I want to lead off with this amazing piece from The History Blog. It’s so amazing I have a hard time accepting it but, if nobody’s made some weird kind of mistake anywhere, this is wonderful.

Pylos warrior tomb’s tiniest treasure is its greatest

One for Each Funny Bone

xkcd: Digital Resource Lifespan (this is why I’m generally a print guy)

Learn Fun Facts: Business Competition Theorem

Science and a Tune

Centauri Dreams finds out our nearest neighbor doesn’t keep a very clean house, but that’s good for our snooping.

Proxima Centauri Dust Indicates a Complicated System

This is old news for some but, just in case, PBS (among many) gives us a story about spectacular events and how your jewelry comes from neutron stars with love (or at least attraction).

Neutron star collision offers new source of gravitational waves

And now for the tune, because we are stardust, we are golden…

Continue reading

Summation of Online Fiction: October 2017

September was the scary month with few great or even particularly good stories but October rebounded resoundingly with several remarkable tales (out of only thirty-five read of 158K words), and from relatively unusual venues. Flash Fiction Online produced an excellent Valloween issue combining Valentine relationships with Halloween darkness. Uncanny and Apex also had stories above the usual fare. While Nature produced no recs this month, it produced a double-honorable-mention and got into the Halloween spirit with both, one of which would have fit into the FFO issue and one of which was outright horror. Plus there was a trio of quite remarkable near-misses of fantasy from a trio of other sources, at least a couple of which also fit the season and one of which was a rare webzine novella. For those not in the Halloween mood, there were still a few good tales that weren’t so dark. Speaking of scary, though, Tor.com published only one story in September and posted only two original ones in October. Here’s hoping they get back on track.

Recommended:

Science Fiction

Fantasy

Honorable Mentions:

Science Fiction

Fantasy

Much like last month’s “Ugo,” “Crispin’s Model” was a story on the edge of true greatness which just seemed to come apart at the end. One sort of ending could have been great and even the ending it had could have worked if it had been made to seem more earned and fitting and less like a squeamish cop-out. Still, the first part of the tale takes the “weird artist and his weirder relationship with his muse” motif and gives it the nice twist of having the model/muse be the narrator and has her be inspired (and weird) at least as much as he. The initial narration is superb, the atmosphere is creepy, it’s quite suspenseful and thought- and emotion-provoking. For those readers who like the ending, it’ll probably be a masterpiece.

“The Dragon of Dread Peak” is actually a recommendation for those in the market for a D&D-like YA fantasy of a rather conventional, if creatively underpinned, sort but may not appeal all that much to others. Also be warned that this “quest, with dragons” story is a sequel and ends in a way that makes it clear another sequel will be forthcoming.

Terraform presented us with an atypical fantasy story (perhaps taken by the spirit of October) but planted its ghost in the usual Terraformed world of social networking and reality TV. The positive aspect of this one, for me, was the sympathetic ghost (as well as the other swift, deft, characterizations).

As far as the Nature short-shorts, “Daughter” makes me wonder if it cleared legal because it’s basically Alien fanfic (though that’s arguably just van Vogt fanfic in turn), but telling a story from the chestburster’s point of view was disturbing and effective in a heavy-handed way, while “Runes” is an interesting time travel/relationship story that would have fit right into FFO‘s issue (though, aside from the time travel, it’s more interested in scientific facts and details than most FFO stories).

Edit (2017-11-03): Updated numbers to include the belated Apex story.

Star Trek: Deep Space Nine: “Emissary”

Back on February 21st, I posted about getting the complete series of Deep Space Nine and said, “In the coming days, I may occasionally write up my impressions in some posts as I rewatch the series….” So, hundreds of days have come and gone but they’re still coming, so here’s a write-up of impressions. (Apologies for any Trek stuff I’ll misspell in these posts and apologies if I miss the happy medium between belaboring the obvious for watchers or being insufficiently explanatory for the non-watchers.)

“Emissary” is a double-episode premiere that is primarily about finding your place in life. One of the ways in which this is illustrated is by having Commander Benjamin Sisko constantly revisit the scene of his wife’s death and seeing alien-induced imaginary landscapes as stormy and unwelcoming while, for instance, happy Dax, the science officer, revisits her joining with her symbiont and seeing the same landscape as an idyllic summer day. It also takes a larger view of humanity as explorers through a fundamentally clumsy but sometimes effective device of having our temporally linear Sisko explain to some strangely non-omniscient yet non-linear aliens what our existence is like and how that makes us automatically explorers through time and space in everything we do. Meanwhile, it introduces or makes more detailed a new Star Trek setting, a couple of alien races, a fairly large cast of characters, and more. At this early stage, the plotting is sketchy (particularly in the dramatic crescendos) and the acting quality rises and falls intermittently (sometimes it’s a long fall – I can’t watch a bit of the beach scene between Benjamin and Jennifer) and it’s simultaneously slow, yet overly busy, but it’s a promising start.

So, to back up: the episode opens smartly with an FX-laden battle scene of Commander Sisko leading a ship into battle against the Captain formerly known as Picard, who has been turned into Locutus of Borg and is leading them against the Federation. While the Enterprises could always pretend to be on missions of exploration and thus not unreasonably have civilians on board, this was obviously a battle situation so why civilians like Sisko’s wife and small child are on board, I don’t know, but such is Star Trek. The wife is killed in the battle and Sisko’s ship is destroyed though he, Jake, and some others escape. This provides the foundation of Sisko’s character as explored in the episode and establishes the motives of some extremely prickly interactions between Sisko and Picard. After that bit of action comes the slow-pening credits, which have always bothered me as the all-time dullest. Next, the characters and milieu are all gradually introduced. The Cardassians have been exploiting Bajor and its subject population before abandoning it. The Bajoran provisional government has invited the Federation in, so they are taking over the Cardassian space station formerly known as Terok Nor and now known as Deep Space Nine. Major Kira is a Bajoran native and first officer/liason officer serving under Sisko. Odo is the shapeshifting foundling security chief who worked with the Cardassians when they were in charge and will work with the Federation now that they are. Quark is the Ferengi owner/barkeep of a gambling house. Dax is the joined Trill science officer who was friends with Sisko when she was an old man in her prior life but is now a beautiful young woman. Bashir is the egotistical doctor out to practice “frontier medicine.” And, of course, O’Brien is the engineer transferring over from the Enterprise.

Things pick up when Sisko meets with Kai Opaka who is sort of the Pope of the Bajorans who are a deeply religious people with a theology built around the Tears of the Prophets which have appeared around Bajor every thousand years or so over about ten thousand years. The Cardassians have rounded up all but one and are investigating them to see if they can find the so-called Celestial Temple so it’s imperative that the Federation beat them to it. (No explanation as to why time is so much of the essence when the Cardassians have presumably been at it for awhile.) With the advantage of the Bajoran historical records and Star Trek‘s magic computers, Dax is able to find the X on the space map and a wormhole opens up. Once inside what turns out to be a kind of celestial temple of aliens and their tech (which includes the wormhole), we have another FX-laden scene of travel inside and then meeting with aliens which has a lot of the same dynamics in relation to the general action that the Yoda scenes have in The Empire Strikes Back – kinda cool the first time, but kinda boring, and very boring later, but not without some germs of enduring insight and perspective. However, the Cardassians are on the hunt, too (with Gul Dukat commanding, who will become very prominent later), and Dax and O’Brien whip up some ST-technobabble and turn the space station into a sort of big slow spaceship, chasing a Cardassian ship to the wormhole. When that ship disappears into the wormhole and more Cardassians arrive and are annoyed with the defenseless space station, things get very tense. Ultimately, the situation is resolved and, rather than being a minor backwater, DS9 and Bajor are now in position to be a major hub of interstellar commerce and exploration.

Random notes:

  • DS9 gets great credit for taking the worst Trek species ever in the Ferengi, and making them somewhat interesting and sometimes tolerable, especially with Quark, played by Principal Snyder, aka Armin Shimmerman. (Though they do over-use them over time.)
  • I love that Picard gets to do the “straighten my shirt” thing twice in the first meeting with Sisko.
  • The Sisko/Quark/Odo dynamics are set up wonderfully with a simple line to cap it when Sisko uses the imprisonment of Quark’s nephew as leverage on Quark to make Quark help the station. Odo ends the scene by saying of Sisko, “At first, I didn’t think I was going to like him.”
  • Kai Opaka is brilliantly cast/played (though, alas, ultimately underused).
  • There’s a nice Windows vs. Linux moment after O’Brien has fought with the computer which resisted doing what he intended to do to save the station because it was dangerous and “not recommended.” O’Brien says, “Computer, you and I are going to have to have a little talk.” Computers should do as they’re told!
  • While there may have been some self-aware mockery (after the six billionth “What is this?” from the wormhole aliens, Sisko says, “I was afraid you were going to ask that.”) the wormhole aliens’ “What is this?” starts to put me in mind “What is this brain? Brain and more brain!” or whatever the line is in the worst TOS episode ever.
  • It bugs me that Sisko originally expressed the idea that he might need to be replaced as he didn’t want the DS9 job and that, when he later changes his mind, he does it because he’s a changed man but it ought to look to Picard like he just didn’t want a crappy backwater job but, now that it’s an important one, he wants it.

Again, while the series didn’t catch fire for me until the Tosk episode, it’s a decent start.