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.

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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.

Links (2017-10-16)

This is my 100th post here at Featured Futures. I’ve been at this 300 days (11 last year and 289 of this). So happy century-stuff to me. 🙂 Now, on with the links:

Humor

The Art of Darkness brings us some dark humor (I especially liked the one with the carny) and (link post to link post) a list of links which include a flabbergasting nativity scene and some pretty cool “dethskulpt-ured” mugs.

From the “You’re Not Alone Dept.” xkcd gives us a comic about “State Borders.” He missed my biggest complaint, though – I’ll give Canada the stuff he points out but I want all the contiguous land on the southeastern side of the St. Lawrence in exchange. Not sure how I feel about Baja California… Hm…

Politics

Because I know you can’t get enough, here are a couple more gerrymandering links: CBS has the Supreme Court 101 article on the Wisconsin case (which will likely decide the fate of our democracy) and here’s another cool math link which gives us the cracking and packing primer. You don’t want to be cracked or packed, do you?

Science

Cool stuff in science: dwarf planet Haumea has rings. Bridging science fiction and science: SF writer James L. Cambias blogs the Tennessee Valley Interstellar Workshop in three posts: a-one, and a-two, and a-three. Forget the flying car – I want my starship.

Science Fiction

Now fully into the SF: I came across this remarkable review of Hal Clement’s Cycle of Fire at Lauren’s Super Science Fiction Blog. I disagree that “[t]he objective for the reader was to find mistakes” in the worldbuilding of hard SF novels – I think it’s an objective (which is maybe what the reviewer meant) but the primary objective is to be enthralled by an adventure in a credible but almost unimaginable world in which science and reason are paramount. But aside from that, as a big fan of Clement, I felt a great sympathy with this review, not least because the reviewer was very imaginative and sympathetic.

Tunes

And now for the musical portion of our shew. Inspired by 100 posts in 300 days, here are pieces of music from about 300 and 100 years ago and about 300 and 100 months ago…

Continue reading

Rec: “Fandom for Robots” by Vina Jie-Min Prasad

Fandom for Robots” by Vina Jie-Min Prasad, Uncanny #18 September/October 2017, science fiction short story

Computron is a sentient robot who was created in 1954 in this alternate history story. Years later, he is part of a museum and sometimes answers questions from the audience to demonstrate his sentience. When one questioner asks him if he’s familiar with an anime called Hyperdimension Warp Record which features a robot similar to him, he admits he is not but, later that night, checks it out. The story discusses his entry into the world of anime and fanfic along with his collaboration with a human fanfic writer.

This is a very different story from “A Series of Steaks” from the same author, which I recommended earlier this year, but shares the same sparkling wit. There seems to be an ambiguity in the title where it’s a primer for robots on how to get into fandom but is also speaking of people’s appreciation of robots. There are in-references such as Computron’s being part of the Simak Museum (and perhaps even the Ellison and Williamson references aren’t coincidental) though, oddly, there’s no Asimov reference. The robot is characterized in an amusing way, describing how he can’t possibly be frustrated by it not being time for the show to air, yet constantly checking the time all the same. The descriptions of the quality of much of the fanfic and the chat between a couple of fans were especially funny.

I’m not sure how to interpret the story’s core, though. It obviously deals with “futures past” and how that which seems futuristic at one time becomes dated at another. It also has a elegiac feel when describing how few people seem to care about the old robots and how low-priority the information on them is. But it seems to be a celebration of those images and concepts and perhaps a call to embrace them and continue to reinvent them. There are a couple of contrary notes in the Hexode destruction incident and maybe a subtheme that humans are best suited to write humans while robots are best suited to write robots. Be that as it may, this story entertained me, evoked sympathy for the character(s), and was engagingly written. My only non-thematic quibble was that “bjornruffian” seemed to accept Computron (with the nick/screen name “RobotFan”) as human too easily and thoroughly (Computron’s not unknown and it and the museum would be easily researched, even aside from RobotFan’s remarkable commitment to its robot “role” as “RobotFan”). All in all, another good tale from a likely rising star.

Rec: “Penelope Waits” by Dennis Danvers

Penelope Waits” by Dennis Danvers, Apex #101 October 2017, science fiction short story

The first-person narrator is a twenty-six-year-old student who’s taking her classes just to get a better job, though she likes the dogs she washes now. She’s obviously someone whose potential exceeds her environment and experiences. When her insufficient boyfriend claims he’s been abducted by aliens, she doesn’t buy it but then she meets them herself and the grass suddenly looks a lot greener.

In a sense, this is all character and voice, as the narrator is almost the whole of the story and its greatest success. Aside from her, the story’s room is almost bare, having only the science fictional furniture of alien contact, like a fairly worn easy chair. However, the aliens do manage a bit of distinction and the Greek lit references are fun. I think the narrator will entertain many and her plight will speak directly to some.

Rec: “Claire Weinraub’s Top Five Sea Monster Stories (For Allie)” by Evan Berkow

Claire Weinraub’s Top Five Sea Monster Stories (For Allie)” by Evan Berkow, Flash Fiction Online, October 2017, short story

This story comes with the caveat that, despite its “fantasy” billing and the fact that it is steeped in speculative sensibility and wishful thinking, it is not fantasy. Further, it is one of many examples of the “beloved dies wrapped in metaphor” microgenre of which there are two examples in this single issue. But this is very much the better one (though the other wasn’t bad) and was emotionally effective. The narrator describes the beloved’s favorite stories of sea “monsters” and these are connected to a declining arc in the beloved’s condition, before coming together in a beautiful and fitting image in the final section. I almost wish the image had been the final element of the story without the verbal articulation that actually does close the story. Leaving that possible blemish and its genre aside, this is an excellent short-short.

Rec: “A Siren Song for Two” by Steven Fischer

A Siren Song for Two” by Steven Fischer, Flash Fiction Online, October 2017, science fiction short story

This is the first of two recommendations from the odd (and oddly effective) Valloween issue of Flash Fiction Online in which darkness and relationships are combined.

Some workers are off on a planet of ice where the melting and refreezing of the ice causes a vibratory effect like a siren song which causes people to wander off and die in the unforgiving climate. When a woman succumbs to the lure, her beloved goes out after her.

This works on a metaphorical level more than a literal one but it evokes a vivid environment with effective emotional desires – the sonic singing iceworld is striking and the feelings that the woman has for the sounds, and that the protagonist has for the woman, are plausible enough and powerful. I honestly can’t decide whether to recommend this or just give it an honorable mention and I usually err on the side of strictness but I just feel like pointing this one out.