Summation of Online Fiction: June 2017

The twelve prozines of June produced thirty-eight stories and I read thirty-five of them at about 165K words. (Tor.com should have posted a fourth story on the 28th but didn’t. If it comes out today or tomorrow, I’ll update this post accordingly.)[1] The random flukes of this month were a large number of honorable mentions (with not so many recommendations) which were mostly SF, half of which came from almost the entire issue of Compelling Science Fiction. Given that, I’ll basically do a mini-review of the whole issue after the lists.

Recommended:

Science Fiction

Fantasy (billed as):

Honorable Mentions:

Science Fiction

Fantasy

In “What’s a Few Years When You Get Money and Friends in High Places?” I couldn’t buy the “Head/Off” premise (a body builder and a rich guy whack their bodies and heads apart and trade pieces) and the ending was pretty trite but, in between, it was well done, interesting, entertaining, and didn’t always do the expected. “Integration” features a constituent of an AI collective loading itself into a robot body to learn how the other half lives and seemed quite fresh though a little too cute and slightly constructed, especially for its heavily theme-centered thrust. “Fathom the Ocean, Deep and Still” gets major points for taking a can-do approach to climate change where we don’t solve the climate change problem but do work around it in an amazing way. As someone who takes climate change extremely seriously, I don’t think this “when life hands you lemons” approach is ideal, obviously, but have to admire its boldness. On the other hand, the plot is extremely predictable, though executed well enough, given that.

The one story I didn’t single out as noteworthy was “Cogito Ergo Sum” which takes the very tired approach of using a robot (here questionably called an android because of a flesh surface) to question “what makes us human?” and is one giant “as you know, Bob” with some unconvincing emotions tossed in, but even it is readable.

In sum, I thought this was a good issue of Compelling and I’m rapidly becoming a fan of the zine. I love that I can’t detect any right-wing or left-wing agenda but only an agenda of idea-centered sci/tech-centered fiction which, to me, is what science fiction is really about. Incidentally, the recommended story, “Thinking Inside the Box,” while not being explicitly “retro” or derivative,  does remind me of science fiction of the sort which played a part in first making me a fan, in which humans and aliens and their psychological issues weren’t taken directly from current, transitory socio-political issues or made to be thinly veiled symbols but seemed like fresh, individual constructs rooted in genuine thought experiments and which, nevertheless, did make you walk a mile in some alien shoes and question your own preconceptions and which did have a genuine positive mental and social effect without being plain propaganda. (If there was any propagandizing, this sort of classic SF was preaching just the virtues of open and rational thought and scientific accomplishment.)

Of the other honorable mentions aside from Compelling‘s, “Bourbon, Sugar, Grace” has thirty-four confusing uses of “moms” and a somewhat implausible premise (likely cost-ineffective, among other things) and deus ex ending but is otherwise interesting and unusual and its milieu of a hardscrabble colony being shafted by the corporation felt tangible and plausible once the premise was granted. “Marcel Proust, Incorporated” is an infodump of unconvincing melodrama but had a fairly fresh idea of brain-stimulated learning and was interesting despite its problems. “Utopia, LOL?” is severely flawed by its choice to project yesterday’s webspeak into the far future but, if you can get past that, this almost Futurama-esque tale of thawing out the cryogenically-preserved primitive is reasonably funny and entertaining and with a serious undertone. Finally, “Owning the Dragon” is a wacky (symbolic) take on a woman and her dragon and juggles a surface (and much more individual) whimsy with its own serious intent.

[1] Edit (2017-07-04): Well, Tor.com didn’t publish another story but I did notice I’d missed Diabolical Plots‘ “B” story again, so read it, which brought the totals up to 36 stories of about 171K words.

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Rec: “Thinking Inside the Box” by Michèle Laframboise

Thinking Inside the Box” by Michèle Laframboise, Compelling Science Fiction June/July 2017, SF short story

It’s a familiar setup when we see two human diplomats through the cognitive estrangement of alien perception but angels (so to speak) are in the details just as much as the devil. The aliens’ love of constant, arbitrary change is interesting and they are generally nicely judged, not being “bumpy forehead” aliens nor incomprehensibly bizarre for its own sake but merely comprehensibly strange. When things go haywire and the shapeshifting ability of the alien spaceship is damaged, the psychological and mathematical elements of the tale come even more to the fore and they are quite interesting. In a way, this is a very old-school tale—one might wonder why the alien engineers haven’t foreseen this potential problem and developed some kind of “VR” solution or something—but I like the “beings and ships” sort of flesh-and-steel pre-cyberpunk sensibility. And I’m not sure it’s not a flaw for a part of the ending to be dependent on insider information but at least very few SF fans will fail to get it. I enjoyed this one.

Rec: “Crossing the Threshold” by Pat Murphy

Crossing the Threshold” by Pat Murphy, Lightspeed June 2017, short story

This is billed by Lightspeed as fantasy but it’s only fantasy if you want it to be. It also discusses the scientific concept of entropy but isn’t really SF unless you really want it to be. This is sort of indicated in the story itself when, after meeting an old man stuck on a fence and helping him over, the protagonist/narrator says,

I realized that I could think about that old guy in two different ways.

Here’s option number one. He was an ordinary old man….

Then there’s option number two, an option that might occur to you in the dark of night a couple of months after your father died when you’re drinking red wine and reading an article about the devil.

I’ll grant that this story may not have the tightest structure or the most climactic of climaxes and that I’ve had a weakness for Pat Murphy stories for many moons now. Still, it’s a good, quirky, San Francisco treat and I hope folks will read it and enjoy it as much as I did.

Rec: “Fool’s Cap” by Andy Dudak

Fool’s Cap” by Andy Dudak, Clarkesworld June 2017, SF novelette

A woman hunting a war criminal gets stranded on a planet with nothing but her drone swarm, the planet’s strange psychoactive alien lifeform, and her prey. Nothing goes as planned and nothing survives unchanged.

While calling this a “sympathy for the devil” story may be a bit much, it is at least a remarkable “let he who is without sin” story. It is perhaps overly reminiscent of things like Alastair Reynolds’ “Turquoise Days” and even Ian McDonald’s “The Tear” except that it is less adroit than either of those tales. It’s also reminiscent of other works I’ve read by Dudak, himself, but is more adroit than those. It’s extremely interesting on both intellectual and emotional levels and feels like genuine science/speculative fiction. It’s an unsettling, uncomfortable read in a good way and I appreciate its lack of self-righteousness and its blending of the thematic focus with an actual dramatic focus and how it wrests such a large scope out of such a seemingly small structure. In sum, a piece worth a solid recommendation.

(It’s also a relief to find something noteworthy in Clarkesworld again. After a strong start to the year, it’s basically been without interest until this story. I look forward to the rest of the issue. Also, since I’ve already read the stories released by the weeklies, bi-weeklies, and other monthlies so far this month, once I finish it and Compelling I’ll be caught up.)

Summation of Online Fiction: May 2017

This May there were even more reprints and translations than usual in fewer issues than usual (and I did skip one story which is not included in the total) which may explain why I get only 33 stories (one unfinished) of 146K words from eleven prozines, but it still seems a little light. I can’t find anything I missed, though.[1] If there’s a coincidental streak or theme to this month’s fiction it’s not necessarily general but resides in my SF recs all being forms of horror. That’s not the kind of SF I like to recommend in the abstract, but I have to play the hand I’m dealt.

Recommended:

Science Fiction

Fantasy

I’d said in an earlier post that I had “several honorable mentions” but my own notes on most of them waffle on whether I was “grading on a curve” because I’d read so many stories I intensely disliked that simply not disliking some made merely decent, publishable work seem artificially special. I’ve decided against curves and will only note the couple that I didn’t quibble much about on the “honorable mention” level.

Honorable Mentions:

Science Fiction

  • Sanctuary” by Allen Steele, Tor.com 2017-05-17, short story

Fantasy

Even there, Murray’s story about asteroids with names on them (like large-scale cosmic bullets) was billed as SF when it’s not remotely and, among other issues, has an opening sentence of mixed tense, but I liked its core.

I don’t ordinarily give more than a line or two to HMs but Steele’s tale of a pair of colony starships encountering a crisis upon reaching their new world was particularly important but frustrating. This was a good old-fashioned science fiction story which makes up about 2% (or less) of the “science fiction” web market these days but it went beyond being “old school” and was just downright derivative. The hubris dynamics have been handled by Theodore Sturgeon and others, including Clifford D. Simak. Indeed, his 1951 story “Beachhead” is almost exactly like this one bio/tech-wise except for the specific type of the point of failure. For another point that I can’t comment on much without spoiling, a minor victory snatched from major jaws of defeat was snatched from out of nowhere – it’s a perfectly plausible and reasonable device if prepped, but it felt like a deus ex. It also posited what I hope will turn out to be odd technological lags such as some members of a starship crew in the year 2266 having dental bridgework. It also does something odd with the completeness of the incomplete log. Finally, while it does have a sort of ending, it makes the piece feel more like a novel excerpt than a story. So all this thoroughly precluded it from being a recommendation. But if you haven’t read all its predecessors it should seem fresh and good and if you’re just really hankering for a starship-is-actually-a-starship tale then this certainly can’t go completely unnoticed. Alas, it still won’t fully satisfy some due to [spoiler], but it’s worth looking into if you’re in its general target audience.

[1] Edit (2017-06-15): I actually did miss a second story from Diabolical Plots, which I’ve now read and brings the total up to 34 stories of 149K words.

Rec: “Sweetlings” by Lucy Taylor

Sweetlings” by Lucy Taylor, Tor.com 2017-05-03, SF novelette

I’m impressed that this science fictional horror story doesn’t have one of those annoying “trigger warnings” prefacing it. It’s an intermediate-future tale of climatic disaster which has resulted in a few weird folks clinging to an unpleasant life in what used to be the inland (now ocean-front) Southeast. Fortunately, things go downhill from there. In all seriousness, what could have been a dreary, dull “cli-fi” tale becomes a gripping, transporting tale of vivid, energetic horror, largely centered on a somewhat rubberized science of very fast evolution. Rather than preaching “Quit screwing up the environment,” this story is a story first and foremost, which leaves the reader saying, “Holy $#!^, man, let’s really quit screwing up the environment!” My only quibble with the story is that, after being quite deliberate and explicit, it has an oddly rushed and almost coy ending, at least comparatively. But even that is still fairly effective and the whole tale is quite an experience. I wouldn’t be surprised if some folks intensely disliked this but, if it sounds intriguing at all, give it a try. (To be fair, I should note that the story doesn’t initially read too much like horror and it does create a very interesting trio of main characters, so has things that will appeal to general speculative fans… and which make the horror all the more effective.)

[I was going to post this and finish up Tor.com‘s May offerings yesterday but my ISP screwed up my internet connection for over a day. Technology willing, I will get caught up soon.]