Review: Compelling #10

Compelling #10 (Winter 2017)

Cover of Compelling #10
“Inside-of-Body Experience” by Pip Coen (short story)
“The Virgin of Santos de la Tierra” by E E King (short story)
“Hostile Intent” by Mike Adamson (novelette)
“Museum Piece” by J. D. Popham (short story)
“Redo” by Larry Hodges (short story)

The tenth issue of Compelling (which ends the bi-monthly era and begins the bi-annual one) brings us five tales which include a couple of aliens, a robot, a future corporation, and a variety of religious experience. None are bad, and the last couple are the best.

“Inside-of-Body Experience” by Pip Coen (science fiction short story)

A woman and her crewmates must deal with her discovery that an alien (she says “parasite,” it says “symbiont”) has infiltrated her body and wishes to “share” the “vessel.” The opening first person narration of the paralyzed protagonist is initially confusing. The repeated “I did [something]… except I didn’t” which is meant to express her wish to talk, laugh, scream, whatever, and her inability to do so, gets tiresome. Finally, while the theme appears to be addressed by the end of the story, it feels like the plot is cut off abruptly. All that said, it’s readable and provides some things to think about.

“The Virgin of Santos de la Tierra” by E E King (science fiction short story)

This tale of a woman seeing the Virgin in the water stains on her building (and what happens to her city and beyond) initially had me wondering where the SF was but it finally appeared. This long flash/very short story is not especially related to Arthur C. Clarke’s “The Star” and not on par with it, of course, but it made me think of it in a way.

“Hostile Intent” by Mike Adamson (science fiction novelette)

Ruinous climate change is pushing corporations out into space while leaving the poor folks behind. A woman who lost her parents to a space mining accident has risen to a high position in one of those corporations when an attack is made on one of their space resources. Dealing with this attack is just the tip of the iceberg.

Despite the off-screen space action and the futuristic setting, this story doesn’t focus on its science fictional aspects and, partly because of something the author’s doing with the main character for plot purposes, she isn’t fully engaging, so the story’s basically about corporate shenanigans that have an interlocking puzzle-piece interest but not a lot beyond that. And ultimately, the theme, however worthy, seems kind of simple and labored. It’s not a bad story insofar as there are several points of interest to keep the reader going but it’s just not fully rewarding.

“Museum Piece” by J. D. Popham (science fiction short story)

After all its siblings have been destroyed as a threat to the human workforce (a second story partly concerned with future economics), an old robot makes its break for freedom against many obstacles. This action-adventure tale may not suit everyone but I liked it a lot. It was very exciting and the multiple stages of the robot’s efforts were very well conceived and described.

“Redo” by Larry Hodges (science fiction short story)

Mesen, the giant alien caterpillar, has been taking a census of the Earth as it was when he arrived through the magic of his redo device. With certain provisos, it resets the Earth back to how it was. Thus people on Earth have passed over 80,000 years into the galactic future in ten minute increments without ever knowing it. So it happens that he meets a woman who seems to be his best interview until the interview quickly turns into his worst. An alien invasion fleet is just one of the many issues. But with the magic of the redo device and a lot of ingenuity, he and his new human friend can try to save the day.

There is a loopy part in the late-middle of the story which isn’t a lot of fun to read and something I can’t put my finger on isn’t entirely satisfactory but this is a heck of an idea which is generally executed well and the story is pretty amusing, not least due to a very charmingly conceived alien. I kept having the feeling that there was an internal logic failure or other flaw and then kept rethinking it and realizing the story had it right, as far as I could tell. So, again, not actual hard SF (or “plausible”) but with a lot of the mental fun of it. Good stuff.

Edit (2017-12-01): add bi-annual note, modify markup.

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Summation of Online Fiction: November 2017

As I mention in the relevant recommendation, I belatedly discovered that the SFWA had added the flash zine Grievous Angel to its list of pro markets, so I caught up on it. Even with its intermittent microfiction help, this was a light month in which I read about 135K words from thirty-five of thirty-seven November stories. This month’s recommendations and honorable mentions, especially for science fiction, are also fairly light. There were still several good stories, though, and the 238th number of Beneath Ceaseless Skies was especially noteworthy.

Recommended:

Science Fiction

  • Odd Hours” by Tony Pisculli, Grievous Angel, SF/F short story (rec)

Fantasy

Honorable Mentions:

Science Fiction

Fantasy

From the backlog of Grievous Angel stories, “Candont” stuck out, which I discussed in the “Odd Hours” rec. I don’t ordinarily read reprints but Flash Fiction Online had the Lina Rather, who’s impressed me before and it was a quick flash from 2017, so I gave it a try and it’s worth a mention. (She also had a story published in The Arcanist which was fine, too, but a shade below “Night.”) “Night” is about a starship survey mission becoming a colonization mission when Earth wipes itself out but they don’t have much of a chance until an astronomical coincidence occurs. This story works on a symbolic level much more than a literal one but is evocative. “Fire” is an “if this goes on” which takes us to the ultimate conclusion of asteroid mining and is nicely bittersweet. “Arsia Mons” starts with the spectacularly unpromising premise of battlebots on Mars and makes a story of it which reads very quickly despite its length.

“Faerie” is the second Kayembe story I’ve read this year which is very good in many ways yet has a very damaging hole in it. The protagonist calls on supernatural aid but what ultimately occurs could have been done more cheaply without it. As a horror story, it’s also better suited for Nightmare than Lightspeed. All that said, it has compelling characters and situations and is well-written, much like her earlier “idiot-plot” “You Will Always Have Family: A Triptych” (which was published in Nightmare). This one also deals with a family: a little girl, her parents, her sister, and the sister’s very disturbing new husband. As “The Siret Mask,” recommended from the same BCS issue, had thievery and identity revelations, so “Serpent” has scam artists and revelations of motivation. The characters aren’t as appealing, the plot is somewhat simpler, and the style is a bit more Victorian but it’s a solid read.

(Postscript: Tor.com would have ordinarily released a story today but apparently ended its year, if not its life, about three weeks ago. Terraform may release a story tomorrow but hasn’t for a couple of weeks, so I’m not holding my breath, or this post.)

Edit (2017-12-01): update number/word count of stories read to reflect that Terraform did release that story.

Links (2017-11-27)

History

Humor

Science

Science Fiction

And now for the tunes… 2017 has really had it in for musicians.

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Rec: “Three May Keep a Secret” by Carlie St. George

Three May Keep a Secret” by Carlie St. George, Strange Horizons 2017-11-20, fantasy (horror) short story

Scarlett had been told a ghost story by her friend, Sammy, and swore never to tell it to anyone else. When Scarlett breaks that promise and drunkenly passes it on to her new friend, Matt, both find themselves haunted in different ways. Ultimately, the story, its hauntings, and its secret become a matter of life and death (again).

There’s something “Afterschool Special” about this in the sense that it’s targeted at kids and they’re supposed to say, “I’ve learned something today,” after reading it. Also, there’s a glitch that bugs me when the protagonist breaks her phone and then, without explanation, is using a phone right after that. That said, this is a remarkably fast-paced and action-plotted story (especially for Strange Horizons) with a weighty theme and is generally effective and powerful.

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. Davitt, 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.

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.