Summation of Online Fiction: March 2017

Compelling was off this month and the other twelve prozines produced forty-nine stories of 168K words. Only three of those struck me as especially noteworthy but that was partly offset by several honorable mentions. Tor.com came alive (mostly thanks to Ellen Datlow) when most other zines were below their average. Like Tor, Nightmare was also a little more impressive than usual – and in a month when it had a lot of competition, as many zines seemed to want to include some horror in this spooky month of March.

Recommended:

Science Fiction

Fantasy (billed that way, anyway)

Honorable mentions:

Science Fiction

Fantasy

Both stories from Nightmare and the one from Apex are horror or akin to it. “Triptych,” especially, was close to a rec but an “idiot plot” and other issues hurt it. Similarly, “Nightshade” was an offbeat, enticing, almost Burtonesque tale but ended up being too beholden to incompatible fantasy conventions. Tor.com went on a “Women’s Day” binge of mostly unremarkable mostly flash pieces but a couple stuck out more than the rest, with the “hyperbrain” story “Margot and Rosalind” being my favorite. Another AI short-short, Norman Spinrad’s “Mr. Singularity,” was a bit too much of a straw man and not entirely convincing, but was interesting and idea-centric.

Review: Analog, January/February 2017

I haven’t reviewed Analog since the December 2014 issue at the old site but I’m getting back on the horse at this new site. It’s a slow horse, but I’m covering January/February in March, hopefully will cover March/April in April, and should be right on top of May/June.

This issue (the first of the much longer bi-monthly issues) is fair overall but has a few pieces of at least some note.

Analog cover image

Analog, January/February 2017

Non-fiction

The non-fiction is quite good. James Gunn (emeritus professor of English at the University of Kansas and science fiction author/editor) provides a guest editorial, “Canons to the Left, Canons to the Right,” which is a capsule history of SF and the attempts to establish its essential works. There’s a computer expression that is applicable here: “The great thing about standards is that there are so many to choose from.” Richard A. Lovett produces another excellent science fact article, “Rendezvous with a Comet: How ESA’s Rosetta Mission Is Decoding Ancient Planetary Mysteries,” which teaches us about comets and what they can tell us about how the solar system formed, as well as discussing their presence in past science fiction and encouraging contemporary writers to get busy. John G. Cramer‘s Alternate View, “The Discovery of Planet Proxima B, has been cast into the shade a bit by the recent announcements regarding TRAPPIST-1 but Proxima b is still our nearest known potentially habitable neighbor and the article talks about its pros and cons as a prospect for an eventual human colony. Don Sakers’ The Reference Library column discusses solar system locations that have been popular or unpopular in science fiction and then reviews half a dozen titles. And there are the usual poems (by Ken Poyner and F. J. Bergmann), monthly author interview (of Tom Greene), Brass Tacks letter column, preview of next month’s issue, and convention listings, and annual AnLab ballot and Index for the previous year.

Science Fiction

“The Proving Ground” by Alec Nevala-Lee (novella)

Haley Kabua is setting up wind towers to provide power to her artificial island in the Marshall chain when she’s attacked by a bird. The bird attacks increase in size and frequency. She and the other colonists struggle to survive. Behind this simple, um, homage to The Birds (which is quoted at the beginning of the story) is a complicated bit of cli-fi and corporate skullduggery. Basically, the nations most affected by climate change are planning to sue for reparations from the nations most responsible for it. However, the nation must actually exist to have legal standing so the Marshall folks are creating a self-sufficient artificial island as a base to sue from when the natural islands disappear. A corporation has given them assistance in return for a cut of the prospective funds but has decided that two possible revenue streams are better than one.

The action foreground is competent and the complicated corporate background seems to mostly make internal sense but neither is especially impressive. This is just another of Nevala-Lee’s “humans screw up and animals attack” stories (“The Boneless Ones,” “Cryptids,” etc. – indeed, if you’ve read “Cryptids” there’s almost no reason beyond the cli-fi element to read this) that seem fundamentally technophobic and more akin to horror than SF. In short, this may appeal to some (who like The Birds, Zoo, etc.) but probably won’t to others.

“Twilight’s Captives” by Christopher L. Bennett (novelette)

Some human colonists have become part of the “Nocturne League,” which is exemplified here by a sort of lizard predator species and two of the many varieties of a weird scavenger species. The lizards and we monkeys have a misunderstanding and the lizards decide that capturing the kids and taking them to be raised by their broodfolk will help the kids and punish the adults at the same time. Naturally, this isn’t done without some resistance and there are casualties on both sides. Madeleine Kamakau, the famous diplomat, and her scavenger buddy are brought in to mediate while a different sort of scavenger helps represent the lizards. The conflict and resolution of two differing worldviews (balance, stability, and loyalty to the League vs. “give us our damn kids!”) forms the crux of the tale.

There were times when I thought this might be using the lizards to mock extreme “it takes a village” views from an individualist angle but that doesn’t seem to be the point. The idea of the new form of fast travel between the stars leading to strife rather than harmony may also parallel the quick collisions of earth cultures via the internet, but that may be reading too much into it. Either way, the aliens and worldviews and dramatic situation were all quite good with the only real problem being an overextended, multi-part, sputtering ending combined with some very awkward speechifying at a climactic point.

“Orbit of Fire, Orbit of Ice” by Andrew Barton (short story)

A couple of astronauts attempt to adjust the orbit of an old space station before it collides with another bit of hardware when their corporation’s plan to maximize profit goes wrong and they must fight (for some values of “fight”) for their lives.

Hard SF is often given a hard time for lack of characterization but I feel this story is more interested in its astronauts (both Japanese women, one lesbian) than in its orbital mechanics. Either way, it’s a generally adequate story.

“Long Haul” by Marie DesJardin (short story)

Jubrin is a lonely spacer so she gets a “pet” alien but encounters a couple of thugs, one of whom is especially vicious. One bad thing leads to another.

The depiction of Jubrin and her alien friend had moments of effective sentiment during its upswing but this story didn’t have much more to it and, while it gained an extra fillip from being science fictionalized, nothing required it to be science fiction.

“Catching Zeus” by Tom Jolly (short story)

Red and Churro are in Canada with their gaussmeters and magnetometers looking for special lightning, magnetic fields, and rocks which may all add up to naturally occurring perfect “room-temperature” superconductors. The Chinese and Russians are doing the same, which produces small bits of isolated conflict and it looks like the protagonists may lose out.

The plot and characterization are very thin and this is an oddly cryptic crypto-geology story. Granted, such a find would be pretty amazing but, if crypto-geology doesn’t rock your world, there’s not much here.

“Drifting Like Leaves, Falling Like Acorns” by Marissa Lingen (short story)

Sgt. Bismuth arrives at a forest fort on the outskirts of an apparently endless war and starts handing out psychoactive frogs to calm the PTSD vets. She’s also puzzled by the Gliders who were engineered from human stock into flying squirrel-monkeys. Then comes word from the worrisome LT that their supply lines may be cut off. Then perhaps some paragraphs go missing (perhaps not the first to do so) and the Sgt. and her Cpl. are suiting up and saluting.

I was forced to read this very short story twice but I give up. The characters meant nothing to me; the plot less. Theme? Nobody knows where they’re going or why? Suffer the consequences of going along for the ride rather than taking responsibility? Whatever the case, why is this in my Analog?

“Throw Me a Bone” by Stanley Schmidt (short story)

I shoulda seen it coming. This “Probability Zero” short-short involves a paleontologist finding a single bone of a Titanosaur. People assume he’s involved in some sort of hoax and his career is ruined. One day, while he’s working at a grocery store, a fellow paleontologist shows up with a job offer and an explanation.

This economical and unpretentious story hit its mark.

“Dall’s Last Message” by Antha Ann Adkins (short story)

Dall is a “seasaucer” living in a “pile” with other seasaucers, dealing with storms and apparently dumb predatory “waterwraiths” and, indeed, is caught by one. Seasaucers seem to communicate in a tactile way with their bodies and, when they die, they harden to become their own tombstones with some last message written on themselves. Dall wants his to be a good one and his experience of being captured by the waterwraith may provide him with material.

The action within the rather vague milieu was hard to follow, the ending was strangely anti-climactic, and I do not share the fascination with weird, fuzzy, very short (non-Probability Zero) stories that Analog has developed but these approximately three pages weren’t completely uninteresting.

“The Last Mayan Aristocrat” by Guy Stewart (short story)

The title character is trying to run her village after her father’s disappearance. Things aren’t going so well, with villagers leaving and conquistadors taking over. Then, one day, a god calls her for an audience. Being a god herself, she’s a bit put out but eventually goes. No points for guessing what the god is. It is cut off from its people and dying but has a plan to help both itself and the Mayan leader attain a sort of immortality.

I don’t know what an “authentic Mayan story” should feel like but this still wasn’t it. One of the few things I know of the Mayans is that the major cities were abandoned and they were precipitously declining centuries before any conquistadors so the date of the tale is an odd choice. Either way, this is just another “let’s explain history mysteries by making up things behind the scenes” story and not a compelling one.

“The Shallowest Waves” by Thoraiya Dyer & Alvaro Zinos-Amaro (novelette)

Charlotte and Jurek are in two different times and two different places but share familial dysfunctions and both look to Europa, knowingly or unknowingly, for forms of solace.

While Charlotte could react to her misfortune any number of ways, given that Europa connected to it the way it did and given that she reacted at all the way she did, her looking to it for anything is psychologically unconvincing. Further, these sorts of character/psychology pieces (especially suicidally depressing ones) in which there’s no real interest in the science – “Hey, we’re swimming around under the ice of Europa with our super high-tech toys! Let’s be depressed and focus on things 19th century Russians wrote about!” – do not generally appeal to me. But they obviously appeal to many folks and, aside from a glitch or two like the main one I mentioned, this is done well enough.

“Necessary Illusions” by Tom Greene (short story)

This is apparently a long short story but feels more like a novelette with a great deal of backstory exposed very well. Basically, humans have spread throughout the galaxy and most worlds have fallen under the dominion of the Pax Capricornus. One world, that is still free as the story opens, is ruled by an elite which manipulates the people (and itself) through the power of myth – crafted narratives, assumed personas, and ritual. How this stands up to the Pax’s habit of conquering worlds, often bloodlessly, with a handful of people is shown in the course of the story.

As I say, this story had a complex milieu but it all came out easily and cleverly, never impeding the story’s flow. The focus was on the fates of worlds and empires as it should be, but the depiction of Ilra, the leader-in-waiting, and her brother, the current leader, gave the story an individual human interest. As another example of that and of one of the several effective scenes, her interview with the long-imprisoned and tortured emissary of the Pax was particularly vivid and memorable. Another thing I particularly liked was the naturalness with which the technology was handled. The concern with myth and ritual gave it a primitive feel but the high-tech was seamlessly integrated and gave it a futuristic feel so that it seemed to project forward and backward in time almost equally. An interesting dramatization of and reflection on truth and power.

“Paradise Regained” by Edward M. Lerner (short story)

Through the eyes of a man with only vestiges of human culture, we learn that humans came to Paradise in a multi-generational starship and realized they would cause the extinction of the native ecosystem without extensively modifying themselves. They produced an airborne retrovirus which changed their biology and sociology to keep their population down and cause them pleasure when the environment was thriving and pain when it was not. When a single-generation ship arrived much later, the crew found a ruined society and became infected themselves. The captain set the shuttle’s AI to work on the virus problem and established a lineage of ship keepers, of which our protagonist is the latest… and perhaps the last, as the ship is running out of its helium-3 fuel.

This is a pretty transparent statement against excess environmental passions, promoting the idea that humanity needs a large population utilizing natural resources. But, ideology aside, the colonists are improbably stupid and foolhardy, the protagonist’s grammar is inexplicably unaffected in comparison to his general knowledge and vocabulary, the timing of the finale is remarkably convenient, and the entrapment of two incommunicado starships is contrived.

“Briz” by Jay Werkheiser (short story)

Aliens, for whom “podless null emitter” is a mortal insult, are choosing which destination to take in their search for boron-11 and/or survival after their starship was damaged and lost most of its supply. They have both personal and pod identities, with their ability to mate with the queen being determined by their success in problem-solving and winning her favor. Briz has a good idea involving a hot star whose planet is emitting what seems to be artificial radiation but the villainous Squeech has its own ideas.

Basically, if the above holds no interest for you, you can safely skip the story but, if it does, you (like me) will probably like it.

“Split Signal” by Joel Richards (short story)

An unscrupulous villain has made a copy of a dead novelist’s mind state and is forcing it to write novels he can pass off as his own. The only slightly more scrupulous dead author sends a couple of lawyers out to deal with him, culminating in a courtroom scene.

This is another “new technology leads to new legal issues” story and another “consciousness upload” story. It was doing pretty well until it stopped plotting and just skipped over some tricky stuff. Further, the courtroom scene had a sort of logic that could almost be construed as clever but, really, seemed quite illogical and unbelievable.

“After the Harvest, Before the Fall” by Scott Edelman (novelette)

A man has developed or adopted a religion of rewards in the afterlife to make his villagers calmly accept being harvested by the rich folks who want the villagers’ bodies for lived-in status symbols that the rich peoples’ brains can be dumped into, supposedly keeping them immortal. One of the villagers doesn’t want to go gently into that good night and those two folks’ conflict (and the threat posed by the rich folks’ soldiers) forms the bulk of the tale.

This was hard to summarize because it had such a contrived milieu and even more contrived climax. This had a potential for religious satire but seemed to do nothing interesting.

“Whending My Way Back Home” by Bill Johnson (novelette)

This is a sort of Changewar tale dealing with a man, who has destroyed his future, being somewhat stuck in 9,000 BCE in the vicinity of Carthage and surrounded by almost as many sightseers from a future in which Carthage defeated Rome as he is natives. Along with his sick AI, a Carthaginian-timeline woman who comes and goes, and an even sicker Roman-timeline woman, he tries to bend history in such a way that his future can be recreated.

I’m not sure how much clearer this would have been if I had read the previous two stories in the sequence but each story should stand alone and the exact nature of this multiverse and the nature of the time traveling society and even the nature of the change to be effected in this story was not particularly clear at first (the first two elements still aren’t crystal). That said, it was nicely written, remarkably interesting given that I didn’t know the parameters of “success” and “failure,” and had a complete foreground plot arc (though the big background picture is, of course, unresolved).

Summary Ratings

Rating “Title” by Author (category)
3 “Necessary Illusions” by Tom Greene (short story)
3 “Throw Me a Bone” by Stanley Schmidt (short story)
2.5 “Twilight’s Captives” by Christopher L. Bennett (novelette)
2.5 “Briz” by Jay Werkheiser (short story)
2.5 “Whending My Way Back Home” by Bill Johnson (novelette)
2 “The Shallowest Waves” by Thoraiya Dyer & Alvaro Zinos-Amaro (novelette)
2 “Orbit of Fire, Orbit of Ice” by Andrew Barton (short story)
2 “The Proving Ground” by Alec Nevala-Lee (novella)
2 “Catching Zeus” by Tom Jolly (short story)
2 “Long Haul” by Marie DesJardin (short story)
1.5 “Paradise Regained” by Edward M. Lerner (short story)
1.5 “Split Signal” by Joel Richards (short story)
1.5 “Dall’s Last Message” by Antha Ann Adkins (short story)
1 “Drifting Like Leaves, Falling Like Acorns” by Marissa Lingen (short story)
1 “After the Harvest, Before the Fall” by Scott Edelman (novelette)
1 “The Last Mayan Aristocrat” by Guy Stewart (short story)

Rec: “The Last Novelist (or A Dead Lizard in the Yard)” by Matthew Kressel

The Last Novelist (or A Dead Lizard in the Yard)” by Matthew Kressel, Tor.com 2017-03-15, SF short story

There’s not much to say to summarize this tale. In a future age of neurals, a novelist of pen and paper and self-typeset books who has a terminal condition travels to Ardabaab to work on his last novel while awaiting death. He meets the personification of youth and hope and talent in “Fish,” a young girl who becomes his muse and illustrator and typesetting assistant. All of this goes to answer the question about why and how we persist in doing the things we do.

It’s irrelevant but I can’t help but notice the oddity of reading this, which may well have been written on a word processor, on a webpage.

It’s unpleasant, but to get the quibbles out of the way, the dying author’s writing (given in alternating italicized sections) seemed oddly worse than the rest of the story, being more mannered and flowery. The girl is implausibly innately talented for a real character vs. a symbol. Most importantly, I find it hard to believe we will “wiki” in the future any more than we “gopher” today and that anyone will be from Google Base any more than they will be from AOL Orbital. A similar problem is exemplified by the locals offering the protagonist “braino and neur-grafts and celebrilives.” Everyone from Cordwainer Smith to Bruce Sterling can write lines almost like that but which have an elegant ring of native sfnal authenticity which this lacked.

All that is fundamentally insignificant, though. The characters are likable or explicable and the two main ones have a charming sort of plausibly implausible chemistry. The story is just the right length, with just the right pace (leisurely, but not slow, with an ever-present sense of the ticking clock), and comes together beautifully in the end with some emotional and thematic weight. Basically, other than stumbling over some of the odd diction mentioned above, this was a delight to read.

Review of Little Green Men–Attack! for Tangent

In this, Michelle Ristuccia reviews the first half of the book and I review the second:

Review of Little Green Men—Attack!, edited by Robin Wayne Bailey & Bryan Thomas Schmidt

Recommended: no originals (but it was mostly quite readable; the Cato, Steele, and Ball would be honorable mentions or close to it; and the reprint of Robert Silverberg’s “Hannibal’s Elephants” (1988) is highly recommended.)

Rec: “Come See the Living Dryad” by Theodora Goss

Come See the Living Dryad” by Theodora Goss, Tor.com 2017-03-09, novelette

A woman in the present investigates the murder of her great-great-grandmother who was part of a “freak show” as a “living dryad.” (She actually had an extremely bad (and non-fictional) skin condition.) The story is told through narration in past and present as well as by means of sometimes nested letters, book excerpts, and other sorts of things (such as a box of evidence at a police station), producing the effect of looking through a scrapbook or mementos and family heirlooms which is basically what the present-day protagonist is doing.

If you need this story to have a revelatory twist, you’ll likely be disappointed as the whodunnit is pretty clear early on. Perhaps more problematically, this story’s vegetable love grows more slow, as Marvell might have it. However, while I value pace more highly than most readers, even I found the backstory, foreground, phrasing of the tale, and strokes of characterization sufficient to keep me involved. Perhaps the most problematic issue is that this is basically a mainstream story (and closer to SF if anything, despite being billed as fantasy). Unless I missed it, nothing supernatural happened and nothing scientific was projected though the story was reasonably scientific in both medical and criminal terms. All that’s particularly “made up” are the plot and characters, as in any fiction. But, much like Apollo 13 is sometimes lumped in with SF because “a space movie equals a science fiction movie,” so this “feels” a bit like SF and a bit like fantasy, so is “of interest” to the field. And, speaking of movies, I feel like anyone who enjoyed The Elephant Man would enjoy this story. There are so many similarities that this story could be dismissed as “derivative” but I feel it would be fairer to say it was partly “inspired by” the story of Merrick (who is name-checked in this tale). Finally, another of this novelette’s better features is its humanist theme which is certainly clear but handled reasonably lightly. While the heroes and main villain conform to today’s standards, the story does not settle for simplistic praise or condemnation (when it has more reason to than many stories) but remains true to its universal theme.

Linky Tunes (2017-03-09)

Previous posts like this were titled “McGregor’s Miscellany” after things like Tottel’s Miscellany but it bugs me in a couple of ways. Of course, you know this means a name change. (Now let’s see how long this one lasts.)

What If There Was a New What If?

In case you don’t subscribe to the RSS feed, xkcd has a new What If? about Electrofishing for Whales.

SciAm on PolCorr

Here’s a newish and oldish article from Scientific American about offensensitivity. (Disclaimer: I’m sympathetic to most aims of most PC folks but very rarely with their methods and find some (some) PC people, bluntly, to be dictators in liberals’ clothing or people who are otherwise projecting personal issues. These articles seem to be quite balanced though, neither defending nor attacking PC/”EI” but merely making observations.)

The Personality of Political Correctness

Too Much Emotional Intelligence Is a Bad Thing

I Regret That I’m Not a Time-Traveling Immortal Speed Reader

Thrice Read has Top 5 Thursday – Bookish Regrets. Regarding Jenn’s #1, I tend to go as far into series as I want (which is sometimes not far) but I do wonder if I’ll ever finish Revelation Space. (Absolution Gap has been near the top of the Pile for years now but never quite gets to the very top.) On #3, I also don’t tend to stop in the middle of individual books much but regret it when I do for the same reason she gives: gotta start over. Probably my biggest book-related regret is when I knew about something years ago but never got around to it and then, when I do, find myself wishing I’d read it earlier. Sometimes this is personal, such as when I finally get around to reading something I’ve known about since I was a teen and suspect I’d have loved it even more as a teen. Sometimes it’s related to reviewing – I could have reviewed B so much better if I had read A first. Sometimes it’s scientific or historical – some science fiction is very timely and it has to hold up then and now but I missed the opportunity to at least read it when it wasn’t “dated.” But we all know time is what keeps everything from happening at once; the only sort of solution would be to, for example, read everything at the same time with that time being yesterday. Still, it’d probably be a good idea to read my newest book now and my old classic later rather than my old classic now so that I don’t get to my new book until it’s an old classic, itself.

Cover Shack

And, as always, the tunes! Today’s a Threefer Thursday because one thing led to another to another…

Continue reading

Rec: “Rising Star” by Stephen Graham Jones

Rising Star” by Stephen Graham Jones, Uncanny March/April 2017, science fiction short story

If nothing else, I like this story for talking about the spatial problems with time travel but there’s much more. The synopsis is quite simple, though. A scientist – or crackpot? – or the author? writes a proposal to a grant committee with great certainty that it will be accepted and explain a (real) mystery.

The only real complaint I can see regarding this story is that, by being a letter, it isn’t the most action/adventure-oriented plot but, by being all about the concept and detailing some pretty intense stuff it’s quite exciting. Otherwise, this has clean narration and the perfect marriage of form and content that “Cease and Desist” had. Further, it’s a genuinely tight and fun concept. I’m a guy who’s a hard sell for time travel stories but I’m buying this one and hope you do, too.