Rec: “Take Us To Your Chief” by Drew Hayden Taylor

Take Us To Your Chief” by Drew Hayden Taylor, Take Us to Your Chief and Other Stories, 2016 (Strange Horizons, 2017-01-30), science fiction short story

Tricked. Tricked, I tell you! I wasn’t expecting Strange Horizons to release any more original fiction this month but, lo, they release a story today and it’s copyright 2017, so I read it. Then the author blurb I’d avoided until the end says it’s the title story of an already-published collection. So I look at the ISFDB and, indeed, it’s a reprint from 2016. So what’s with the copyright, SH?

But… it was a good trick. Because I enjoyed it and hope you do, too. I’ll spoil the opening to the, uh, point where it hooked me:

The men sitting on the couches in the middle of Old Man’s Point didn’t need the screeching of the cicadas to tell them how hot it was. The sweat on their foreheads and on the beer bottles gave them ample evidence. The sweat was cyclical: the more sweat on their foreheads, the more need for cold beer, which in turn became sweat in the humidity of the summer woods.

Old Man’s Point was located near the eastern shore of Otter Lake, named for an old man who used to stand on the bank and point at all the boats going by.

There follows a story very centered in place (though Otter Lake doesn’t seem to be anywhere near the Ojibway regions around the Great Lakes so I’m not sure where that place is) which yet goes pretty far afield when the alien spaceship lands. This is a first contact tale like (and unlike) many, many others but was crafted very well, paced superbly (and sedately) and just full of the quirky details I often love. A finer (and quieter) set of protagonists haven’t been depicted very often.

Reading the 2016 “Best” Stories (Part 3/Conclusion)

For previous installments, please see Part 1 and Part 2.

To the best of my figuring, Clarke, Dozois, Horton, and Strahan selected thirty-eight stories from the web for their year’s bests and those total 289,888 words by my software’s count. I’d previously read two and I’ve decided to pass on one but read the rest since late last month. Assuming the whole is equal to the web part, Dozois is still the king. But this post concludes the project with Horton and Strahan.

Horton’s eight solo selections are overwhelmingly fantasy and, even when they’re SF, they’re fantasy. Chaz Brenchley’s “In Skander, for a Boy” starts well with a salty seaman narrating his tale of his rough, virtuous home and the decadent big city to which he sails and paints a picture of what could almost be a neighbor of Lankhmar but then basically undoes it all in an abrupt and unsatisfying ending. Kameron Hurley’s “The Plague Givers” seems more interested in its four genders and invented pronouns than the story seems to require but narrates some action pretty well, if only I could care about the characters enacting it. “Plague” hunters fight plague givers while magical talismans and alligators abound in this swampy tale. There’s a dose of humor in Helena Bell’s “I’ve Come to Marry the Princess” and A.T. Greenblatt’s “A Non-Hero’s Guide to The Road of Monsters.” The Bell is a surreal bit about an abandoned boy, eternally at camp, and the play he and his girlfriend practice, and his dragon’s egg. A free-association of whimsy that has its quirky, funny moments. Greenblatt’s is about a modern, tweeting, unheroic adventurer showing us how to face a dragon in postmodern fashion. Again, not a very strong story in most ways but not without its humor. Perhaps the strongest of these fantasies is “Gorse Daughter, Sparrow Son” by Alena Indigo Anne Sullivan which may draw much of its strength from being a retelling of a fairy tale (precisely which one I can’t recall) involving the princess spinning incessantly to deal with her grief and causing her kingdom to be overgrown by impenetrable vegetation. The hero (who reminds me somehow of the elf who wanted to be a dentist in Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer in terms of his “leading nebbish” character) is interested in saving her in this utterly sexless tale.

Moving into things which might not strictly be fantasies, Jason Sanford’s “Blood Grains Speak Through Memories” (from BCS‘s “science fantasy” issue) is a posthuman “might as well be magic” coercive environmental sermon though it is uncomfortable with its coercion. Again, it ends in an unsatisfying way even if arguments can be made for its in-story logic. I’d previously reviewed “The Bridge of Dreams” by Gregory Feeley which is another “indistinguishable from magic” tale. Finally, while seemingly the most grounded, Paul McAuley’s “Something Happened Here, But We’re Not Quite Sure What It Was” is basically a space western in which the big bad railroad company sets up a telegraph station the townspeople take a disliking to and about the mayor’s and sheriff’s efforts to keep order. Of course, it’s a radio telescope to be used for SETI and does have an interesting argument for why this could be useful even after first contact has been made but it ultimately feels like an interstitial chapter in a fixup rather than a story in its own right.

Moving to Strahan’s eight solo choices, his are all fantasy (except one mainstream piece) and a pretty strong bunch they are, overall. The only two I really didn’t care for were his two selections from Uncanny. E. Lily Yu’s “The Witch of Orion Waste and the Boy Knight” makes me wonder why it’s hard SF that routinely gets criticized for poor characterization as these seem like fantasy cutouts placed before a sketchily rendered background in this tale of a good witch, a knight, a femme fatale, and a dragon or three. Alyssa Wong’s “You’ll Surely Drown Here If You Stay” is a Weird Western that, by contrast, seems over-elaborate and somewhat confusing but seems to have some good aspects (creative phantasmagorical imagery and an interesting mood) which are completely buried in the mistake of second-person present tense narration. “You turn your head and spit a brown, dusty gob into the dirt. You hope she doesn’t notice the fur and tiny bone fragments caught in it. ‘Who do you take me for?'” Apparently she takes you for me, dude, but I’m not spitting any gobs anywhere.

Two more were okay. Charles Yu’s “Fable” is not fantasy but has a man talking to his psychiatrist with fantasy imagery. It’s emotionally effective at times and there’s nothing really wrong with it beyond it not being speculative and not really seeming like a “year’s best.” Swirsky’s famous/infamous “Dinosaur” was the same “emotional, mainstream, but with imagery” story, but better. Delia Sherman’s “The Great Detective” is a steampunk fantasy with AI robots and ghosts (in and out of dolls) as well as a bizarre origin story and isn’t my cup of tea but, as a stylistic exercise, it was pretty good.

In “honorable mention” territory, Joe Abercrombie’s “Two’s Company” is a funny and entertaining tale of a female Fafhrd and Grey Mouser making love and war against and with an apparently famous character from Abercrombie’s other works and the two groups of people who don’t want any of the three wandering freely. It just doesn’t feel especially significant, though. Theodora Goss’ “Red as Blood and White as Bone” is nine-tenths superb with slight flaws and one-tenth flawed. The initial tale of the orphaned servant girl and the “princess” she lets in from a storm is very effective and then the WWII-era stuff bolted on at the end is thematically apt but the wrong length (either too long for a coda or too short for a second part) and destroys the mood. The first part was really good, though. Yoon Ha Lee’s “Foxfire, Foxfire” has a really excellent style which is fairly elaborate but never trips over its own feet in an action tale about a shapeshifting fox and a mecha pilot. (This is another from BCS‘s “science fantasy” issue but true science fantasy is more fused while this is an SF and F mashup.) It would be an easy recommendation except it is also shaky on the dismount. The blatantly spelled-out non-ending basically makes the entire story feel like an excerpt or serial installment where, without really changing a thing, the ending could have been more implied and would have made a much better story to me. But this, too, for the bulk, was really not my kind of thing but was really good.

The Strahan story I was thoroughly delighted with, though, was Alice Sola Kim’s “Successor, Usurper, Replacement.” (Extra credit to Strahan for pulling this from outside the usual haunts as I’d never have seen it otherwise and I’m really glad I did.)

Four friends in a writing group get together immediately prior to a storm. When a fifth person shows up, things get strange. While this is a story that works in basically every way, the style/tone/perspective is superb. I’m very likely to love any story that can describe the aftermath of the power going out and a moment of sitting in the dark like this:

Then everyone remembered that they had their phones and one by one they appeared in the dark as busts glowing delicately blue in a far-future museum, the unspecified museum they were trying to make it into with their writing, as stupid as that sounded and whether they admitted it to themselves or not, because it wasn’t as if their jobs or families or stations in life or beauty or kindness or cruelty would get them there.

Then a drinking game is initiated in which they all tell stories about themselves, all of which are quirky and interesting, even – perhaps especially – the story that doesn’t get told. This also serves as an excellent signaling of what lies ahead in terms of pacing before the final section where it gets weirder still. I love that it’s in third-person, past tense and that the narrator sounds like a sixth character who would fit right in. I love the fact that this is utterly mainstream except that (a) it’s not at all stuffy and (b) it’s completely a fantasy, with a couple of wonderfully casually handled elements, the second of which is the snuffleupagus in the room. I love the understated darkness to the whole thing. The “ha ha, only serious” aspects. Go! Read! Enjoy!

Summation of Online Fiction: January 2017

I tried forty-three stories of 176,695 words from thirteen January 2017 pro-rate webzines (Apex, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Clarkesworld, Diabolical Plots, the final issue of the now-defunct Fantastic, Flash Fiction Online, Lightspeed, Nature, Nightmare, Strange Horizons, Terraform, Tor.com, and Uncanny). I didn’t finish four stories. Thirty-four ranged from bad to good with honorable mentions for “A Human Stain” by Kelly Robson (a horror novelette from Tor.com that at least sticks – like coagulated blood – in the mind) and “Playing for Keeps” by Judy Helfrich (a time travel short-short from Nature). I recommended five (12%). Those five, divided by genre and alphabetized by title are:

Science Fiction

Fantasy

Reading the 2016 “Best” Stories (Part 2)

Following on from Part 1, I’ve now read the eleven stories that only Clarke or Dozois selected. Part 1 left off with a question about whether multiple quality Dozois selections and a slower start from Clarke would continue.

As far as Clarke’s selections, I didn’t care for Margaret Ronald’s talky alien infonet tale “And Then, One Day, the Air was Full of Voices” and I previously ambivalently reviewed Lettie Prell’s artsy post-human “The Three Lives of Sonata James.” I couldn’t go for a full-tilt recommendation of Karin Lowachee’s “A Good Home” (paraplegic vet adopts PTSD android) or Sarah Pinsker’s post-apocalyptic “Sooner or Later Everything Falls Into the Sea” but they’re certainly reasonable selections to me and you probably wouldn’t go wrong to give them a try.

The only solo Clarke selection that really impressed me was Rich Larson’s “Extraction Request and that in a very specific way. It is undeniably effective but if you don’t wish to read nihilistic military horror SF (The Dirty Dozen economized to an Evil Eight and then dropped in a blender with Aliens and The Blob) then you can safely give this a pass. I wouldn’t have wished in advance to read such a thing but, as I say, it does effectively draw the reader in and is quite creative, especially in certain sadistic details.

I would also recommend Dozois’ selection of Rich Larson’s “Jonas and the Fox more generally but with reservations. Jonas is the older brother of Damjan. They’re living through a revolution when a distant relative, the Fox, who had helped start the revolution prior to being deemed an enemy by it, arrives and hides out with them. Damjan later falls to his brain-death and the Fox has his mind sideloaded into Damjan’s body to hide more effectively. Our story picks up at this point as starry-eyed and contrary (and guilt-plagued) Jonas and his parents and the Fox deal with their situation and try to survive informant teachers and bloodhound soldiers and so on. The reservations come from this being a gripping story throughout yet not especially satisfying in the end. The ending is certainly apt enough and prepped for but somehow the story overall feels like a slight letdown. Also, I’m perfectly happy to swallow the personality/consciousness/soul backups and several other things but, even in that context, the plausibility of aspects of what can and can’t be detected (at least three things) bothers me. Still, quite good and just as gripping as “Extraction Request” with psychological horror but without the visceral horror and nihilism.

Dozois’ other selections were pretty solid. I was least impressed by Maggie Clark’s “A Tower for the Coming World” (interconnected sketches dealing with a variety of people connected to a space elevator) but it wasn’t bad. Eleanor Arnason’s “Checkerboard Planet” wasn’t great, but was a pleasant good ol’ planetary exploration tale starring her recurring Lydia Duluth character. Like Larson’s tale, only more so, Mercurio D. Rivera’s first contact tale, “Those Brighter Stars,” suffered from a somewhat unsatisfying ending (albeit by design) in a tale of abandonment on both small and large scales but was mostly brisk and vivid.

James Patrick Kelly’s “One Sister, Two Sisters, Three” – a tale of siblings, jealousy, mortality, religion, and the Fibonacci sequence – is an embarrassment for me since I have to confess I don’t get it. It seems really superb until the end where I think I understand what happened and why but then simply do not understand the lack of response to it in the denouement. I understand why there wouldn’t be much focus on a certain kind of response but an absence? So I don’t know what to say about it. If the whole thing does hang together and is as good as the bulk, it’d certainly be recommended.

Along with the Larson, the other tale I can clearly recommend is Ted Kosmatka’s “The One Who Isn’t which stays confusing and disorienting for almost too long but finally crystallizes into a remarkable story. As such, it’s one I hate to say anything about because even a simple characterization would spoil the journey. The setup “starts with light. Then heat.” It goes on with a woman “in a porcelain mask” testing a child on his perceptions of colors. Given his inability to distinguish blue and green, she informs him he’s “getting worse.” Then she tells him a bedtime story and I encourage you to go find out about it.

For awhile now, I haven’t been thrilled with Dozois’ annuals but, if the parts I’ve read are at all reflective of the whole, this seems like a very good anthology. One of my major complaints has been an excess of depression, death, destruction, and dystopia in the annuals of late. This certainly has some of all that but in more tolerable quantities and with a lighter or more nuanced touch. Of the nineteen stories from the volume I’ve read thus far, I especially liked eight of them and disliked or wasn’t interested in only a handful with the rest at least being okay. That’s a pretty strong batting average.

Next up, the Horton and Strahan solo selections to finish up this little project!

Edit (2017-01-29): And here’s that conclusion.

Rec: “Cease and Desist” by Tyler Young

“Cease and Desist” by Tyler Young, January 18 2017 Nature, science fiction short story

Humanity receives a legal notice from the IP folks (and that doesn’t stand for Interstellar Patrol).

This is kinda perfect. This flash fiction blends form and function in a clever and concise satire of a major aspect of our current corporate and legal structure. And, like the best satire, it’s actually at least as sad and serious as it is funny. Astounding/Analog has a section called “Probability Zero” and this would be perfect for that except that it may be Probability One Hundred.

Rec: “The West Topeka Triangle” by Jeremiah Tolbert

“The West Topeka Triangle” by Jeremiah Tolbert, January 2017 Lightspeed, fantasy novelette

In 1987, a young social misfit who is fascinated by the paranormal has a mystery close to home to deal with. Kids have been disappearing from his neighborhood, which he decides is the “West Topeka Triangle.” Not only that, but he has to deal with a kid who particularly picks on him.

The very insufficient synopsis is because I really don’t want to give away anything at all. I thoroughly enjoyed this tale, in large part due to all those little things (quirky little observations and descriptions) that, individually, don’t have to be in the story but make it concrete and detailed and believable and without any of which, the story likely wouldn’t work. For instance, when a kid’s video game malfunctions and the other kid has to leave hurriedly, the story continues:

“I’m going to call the Nintendo hotline and yell at them until they send me a new game,” Brendan says, red-faced and sweaty. I let myself out as he dials the number, apparently from memory, and begins yelling.

The detail of “apparently from memory” instantly paints a picture of all the previous phone calls the kid has made and what a big part of his life is like and noting it as “I let myself out” gives it a wonderful off-handedness.

This may be part of a general “80s nostalgia” and when Brendan says, “I get to be player one,” I immediately thought “Ready,” even though I haven’t even read Ready Player One. But I don’t think the story relies on its 80s-ness for its core effect. It relies more on its characterization and how life of any era would be for such characters. As the other details do, the period details simply bolster the tangibility of the tale. Either way, it avoids being sappily sentimental or nastily bitter but approaches the historical and personal eras with equanimity.

Another part of the tangibility derives from the fact that this is hardly speculative fiction at all. If anything, from the junk science and rudimentary rationalism of the protagonist, this is almost pseudo-SF more than pseudo-fantasy (though Lightspeed is publishing it as a fantasy) but there’s little in it that requires it to be read as anything but the perceptions of an imaginative kid. (The end of a dinner table scene is perhaps the strongest indication of an actual fantasy element but even it could be dismissed.)

Odd thought: anyone who’s more than glanced at this blog or Tangent knows how I feel about present tense narration, even though it’s become virtually omnipresent. This is a present tense story yet I scarcely noticed. Perhaps because it fits with how children often tell stories, “I says such and such and he goes this and that.” Kids are often very in the moment. It doesn’t feel like it was chosen just as the trendy technique but because it was right for this tale. (An opposite argument could be made, though, that a “retro” tale should have especially been told in past tense.)

Whenever it is and whatever it is and however it is told, I thought the results were excellent.

Is Social Media Harming Art?

TRENT REZNOR Says Social Media Is Harming Music

“I’ve always said that what Trent really needs is a blanky and a hot chocolate with marshmallows.” —Tori Amos

Industrial music is not science fiction but the linked article is still relevant to it and this blog.

Reznor is actually conflating two unrelated points, one of which I disagree with and one of which I agree with.

The disagreement, unsurprisingly, is with the elitist idea that “people who have never made anything think it’s okay to talk shit about stuff they have no right to talk about. You got a Facebook account? Nobody gives a fuck. You haven’t achieved anything.”

I’m not aware of there being any licensing requirement for reviewing. I think anyone who invests the time, effort, and/or money in experiencing something and further time and effort to articulate their opinions and then puts themselves on the line in public to share those opinions has met all the requirements there are. Different people may do this with different degrees of “success” (however that may be defined) but the axiom that “everyone has a right to their opinion” has had a time-honored, valued place in the society Mr. Reznor and I share. While I understand he took piano lessons as a child, I’m not aware that he graduated from Juilliard so perhaps he didn’t have the right to make music in the first place? No, everyone absolutely has the right to make music, even if all they can do is bang pots and pans together. And choosing or refusing to listen and expressing an opinion on that music once listened to is also everyone’s right.

(Disclaimer, I own two Nine Inch Nails CDs, which I like okay, though I prefer my many Ministry CDs. And feel free to dismiss as self-interested my defense of reviewers. My only “right” to speak, aside from the Constitution, comes from a passion for the subject exemplified by so many years of reading that I won’t specify, so many thousands of stories and novels read that I can’t specify, and so much money spent in the process that I’d shudder to specify if I could.)

In fact, I think the sort of thing he seems to be advocating here would lead to the same problem he’s diagnosing, but in a different way. Science fiction was basically created by teenagers (as was rock and roll) and engineers and other people who had no “right” to write. It was a DIY literature that made other authors and the literary establishment cover their eyes just as Elvis made many musicians and “right-thinking people” cover their ears. I see a lot of authors reviewing each other and more and more science fiction writers who seem to have little understanding of or respect for science fiction but likely encounter it as one slice of their creative writing classes. While these people also have the “right” to write and review and critique, I think it does increase the likelihood of conflicts of interest and tends to produce an echo chamber effect, not to mention that it tends to sand off the fingerprints that uniquely identify science fiction and effectively turn it into “good literature” (i.e., tends to remove the special things science fiction excels at and reduce it to redundant and boring literature better done in other genres).

The agreement comes from seeing a mass of commentators who apparently have no knowledge of or love for the field (which may be at work in the musical field as well) but have a primarily political agenda and are terrorizing everyone into a meek conformity with their opinions. A field of wild-eyed dreams and a respect for exploring every possible idea and which exulted in having “dangerous visions” has been permeated by a vocal social pack mentality in which many thoughts may not be thought and many words may not be spoken and in which free speech, the essence of the very first item of the Bill of Rights, is not valued at all. This does indeed lead to “formulaic, made to please, vegan restaurant patron-type shit” and “an environment where people are too fuckin’ worried about what other people have to say.”

The irony of this is appalling. In realms of music which were populated by the nonconformists and outcasts and in realms of literature which were populated by the “freaks and geeks” and in realms of politics which were populated by people fighting for freedom and the right to speak your mind and do your thing and to free the oppressed… there is an increasingly restrictive prison cell of oppression in which people cannot say and do things which don’t conform to the party line. Thus, the horseshoe theory (or something much like it) is shown to be correct. And, yes, this is leading to an environment of sameness and a lack of challenging and individualistic notions. Few Princes, few Heinleins, few Asimovs, and we are all poorer for it.