Review: Analog, March/April 2018

Analog, March/April 2018

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“The Spires” by Alec Nevala-Lee (science fantasy novelette)
“The Streaming Man” by Suzanne Palmer (science fiction short story)
“Razzibot” by Rich Larson (science fiction short story)
“The Selves We Leave Behind” by Gwendolyn Clare (science fiction short story)
“Beek” by Tom Ligon (science fiction short story)
“An Incident on Ishtar” by Brian Trent (science fiction short story)
“The Tailgunner’s Lament” by Brendan DuBois (science fiction short story)
“Sicko” by Jerry Oltion (short story)
“Car Talk” by Mary A. Turzillo (science fiction short story)
“Frog Happy” by Bruce McAllister (science fiction short story)
“Sun Splashed Fields and Far Blue Mountains” by Susan Forest (science fictional short story)
“Lab B-15” by Nick Wolven (science fiction novelette)
“Physics Tomorrow” by Gregory Benford (science fiction short story/article)
Probability Zero: “The Being” by Bill Pronzini (science fiction short story)
“Big Thompson” by James Van Pelt (science fiction short story)
“The Camel’s Tail” by Tom Jolly (science fiction short story)

This issue of Analog saves the best for last, but I’m not going to. “The Camel’s Tail” is simply What It’s All About. In 2079, an alien probe enters our busy, bustling system full of off-Earth colonies and ships investigating, among other things, microbial life in the asteroids. Many ships chase after the probe for knowledge and profit and meet a variety of fates. This is told through the very human interest of the protagonist husband and his wife, who are prospecting in space, trying their best to make up for a family member’s dishonesty which damaged the family fortune back in Somalia. The tale also manages several nice cross-connections such as the Earth setting and a bit of tech (Clarke would be proud) and the story’s title and its contents. A very exciting, smart, space-based adventure with characters to care about and a future that’s enticing. Strongly recommended.

Perhaps the next best stories are, oddly, not quite science fiction or futuristic at all. “Physics Tomorrow” uses the method of Asimov’s “Thiotimoline” fictional science articles to talk about the plasma beings and gravwave communications devices of the author’s and Niven’s “Mice Among Elephants” and is really nifty if naturally a little undramatic. You probably should read “Sicko” but may regret having done so. It describes a very strange “Typhoid Marty” character who goes around purposefully spreading germs for the greater good. Ambiguous and highly disturbing but concisely and cleverly executed. “The Tailgunner’s Lament” is very close to being an honorable mention but really needed some more editing as it’s full of typos and continuity errors (beer cans turning into bottles and back) and oddities (writers “like” [d]e Camp and Doc Smith? Sure, two peas in a pod). More importantly, the ending and some things contributing to it could have been changed to make it much stronger. However, this tale of a B-29 tailgunner in 1945 developing a friendship with a professor/colonel and encountering “foo fighters” was an Allen Steele-ish historical love letter to SF, did a nice job evoking the lives and deaths of WWII bomber crews and, without at all being didactic, made an interesting implicit evaluation of the use of The Bomb.

Moving on to lesser, but adequate tales, Bill is forced to take a job piloting Sam and Cora on a crazy mission to see “The Spires” of a city in the sky over Alaska because it’s the 1930s and times are hard. And Cora is attractive. Sam is a follower of Charles Fort and Cora believes that we need crazy people to push the envelope. The main weaknesses of this story are that it lacks drama and Cora turns out to be a red-hairing, so to speak, as she’s just there to spell out the theme, but it’s otherwise just another competently executed tale from Nevala-Lee. While there aren’t any evil machinations of Man and cryptozoological furies putting him in his place, it is a Fortean “science” fiction logic-buster. If you like these things, you’ll probably like this but, if you don’t, you won’t.

Selves We Leave Behind” involves a first contact that doesn’t go too well when a hivemind becomes aware that humans are infiltrating its world. This is a fairly tired tale, though it has one of the best alien descriptions of humans I’ve read (including: “Its central nerve cluster resides within a hard bulb protruding from the top of its body.”) but the ending, however natural, is fictionally weak. In one of a pair of “ooh, internet!” tales, a young girl gets a “Razzibot” (which is not “razzy bot” but “paparazzi-bot”) and becomes an internet phenom after streaming her life (akin to Sterling’s 1980 The Artificial Kid). Aside from theme and regardless of her family breakup and live agony, I have a logical question as to why she’d particularly stick out. “The Streaming Man” involves a guy putting monitoring implants in his body which emit sounds for diagnostic purposes which turns him into a popular internet “music” stream to the point that he even has nutjob fans – including one who shoots him. He survives but he sort of loses his mind and the rest of the overlong story is about him trying to find his way back. I don’t buy that the sounds are “a cacophony, but not” and his later behavior didn’t make him very likeable. Aside from nods to printed organs, etc., “Sun Splashed Fields” isn’t really SF at all, but discusses a man needing a medical procedure and his wife needing to become a participant in a medical trial to pay for it. It seemed to have a chance to go for a “medical industry as vampire” theme but lacked focus and concentrated more on the ironic relationship of the couple.

Lesser tales include “An Incident on Ishtar,” in which an autistic girl tries to make up for a “Terrible Mistake” by moving to a habitat atop Venus, which suffers from implausibility and bathos and ironically appears in the same issue as part of a Kunsken serial when it reads something like an inferior version of that author’s “Persephone Descending” (which had its own political plausibility problems). “Frog Happy” is a somewhat surreal tale of strange animals appearing and being perhaps even stranger than they seem. “Big Thompson” tries to soften its SETI infodump half with a decent human interest half involving a boy, his somewhat abusive mom, and a flood, but the thing that ties them together is weak. “Beek” is all infodump, from a beekeeper to a president, except for its “let’s make it SF” twist. “The Being” has a comical alien that worries the protagonist.

All the above stories fall short more in retrospect than in the reading. The only stories that were difficult to get through were “Car Talk,” in which a woman argues with her self-driving AI car about her boyfriend’s politics, which is just a “theme dump” and is the type of story about annoyance that is annoying. Finally, “Lab B-15,” may well end up highly regarded by some folks but, for me, this looping tale about modeling people’s brains for digital upload after death uses a tiresome method and takes a looong time to cover an old subject before reaching obvious conclusions and is a lot like everything from the author’s own “No Placeholder for You My Love” to things like PKD’s 1957 Eye in the Sky.

By the way, I should point out that, while this issue includes a serial segment, it includes no novellas and only two novelettes (“The Spires,” “Lab B-15”) according to its table of contents, though “Tailgunner” seems to be a novelette based on my word count. Of the other short stories, only three are longer than about 4K (“The Streaming Man,” “Ishtar,” and “Camel’s Tail”), two of 3-4K (“Beek,” “Sun Splashed Fields”), and the other eight are less than that, going on down to about 800 words. While the short stories were stronger than the novelettes in this issue, I’ll say again that I’d really prefer to see somewhat fewer but longer, more substantial stories.

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Weekly Webzine Wrap-Up (2018-02-17)

Weekly Webzine Wrap-Up image

  • On the Occasion of a Burial of Ernest Zach Ulrich” by Mary Kuryla, Strange Horizons, February 12, 2018 (fantasy short story)
  • Got Time?” by Lee Rutty, Cosmic Roots and Eldritch Shores, February 14, 2018 (science fictional short story)
  • Decoy” by Eric Lewis, Nature.  February 14, 2018 (science fiction short story)
  • Penitents” by Rich Larson, Beneath Ceaseless Skies #245, February 15, 2018 (science fantasy short story)
  • Red Dreams” by R. Z. Held, Beneath Ceaseless Skies #245, February 15, 2018 (science fantasy short story)
  • The Last Human Child” by Milo James Fowler, Beneath Ceaseless Skies #245, February 15, 2018 (science fantasy novelette)
  • Such Were the Faces of the Living Creatures” by Josh Pearce, Beneath Ceaseless Skies #245, February 15, 2018 (science fantasy short story)
  • A Coward’s Death” by Rahul Kanakia, Lightspeed #93,  February [15], 2018 (fantasy short story)
  • Artful Intelligence” by G.H. Finn, Diabolical Plots #36B,  February 16, 2018 (fantasy short story)
  • Dísablót” by Alice Godwin, Grievous Angel, February 16, 2018 (short story)
  • A Second Opinion” by Robert Bagnall, Terraform, February 16, 2018 (science fiction short story)

This was an unusually heavy and unappealing week (apologies for all the negativity in this review). In addition to the eleven stories reviewed here, there’s a Wild Cards yarn from the recently deceased Victor Milan up at Tor.com if you’re interested. (I don’t generally knowingly cover shared-world stories.)

For this week’s flash, “Dísablót” is a Grimm-like tale of a fiancee at a ceremony in the woods when things turn dark and is only implicitly and not necessarily fantastic. In “A Second Opinion,” we see a woman visit a couple of Eastern mystics and a tarot reader before visiting a different kind of not-a-doctor. This seems like it wants to draw interesting parallels and contrasts between the biological and non-biological but doesn’t actually seem to do much. Finally, with “Decoy,” Nature gives us futuristic safe crackers after last week’s futuristic grave robbers. This is about the perils of being an early adopter. Aside from excessive deception with the setting, it’s not bad but it’s not all that funny throughout and the rhythm/punchline is specifically off at the end.

There are four stories in the 2-5K range (BCS‘ are longer) and two are fairly minor. Minerva Wilde is constructing an “Artful Intelligence” or thinking machine in 1888, provoking the ire of her religious brother, Henry. He gets even more upset when, after his complaints about the thing lacking a soul, first Minerva and then the machine itself see about constructing one. This is a metafictional piece that puts the pun in steampunk but covers familiar ground (which had little cause to become familiar in the first place) and a good chunk of the wordage is taken up by repetitive MACHINE+THOUGHTS. In “Got Time?” a code monkey who’s been ripped off has a chance to strike it rich after all when an alternate version of himself shows up with news of a time machine. But it’s not that simple, of course. The story is helped by the pace of its wild string of events but not by its unoriginal core or the inexplicable appearance of a second character.

I have no idea how to say anything about “On the Occasion of a Burial of Ernest Zach Ulrich.” The first paragraph made me think it might be wonderful. That was a mistaken impression. It turns out to be an overlong, overwritten, and obfuscated slipstream confession of horrible things. Some may find this literary and significant. “A Coward’s Death” is about a dissident dissenting against a kind of Egypto-Roman fantasy empire. The emperor is building a statue to himself, so conscripts all the first-born sons, and one refuses even though it may mean deadly punishment to those around him. Events go downhill from there. The story is certainly striking and initially seems to be doing something good with a brisk, breezy, vulgar tone providing a zesty, darkly comic contrast to some very serious matters but my reaction at the end was, “What are we supposed to do with that?” The story seems like an empty exercise in sadism (or masochism, depending on your point of view) and submission, raising issues and displaying conflicts without pushing through them to any sort of breakthrough. Some may find this profound.

The first half of BCS‘ science fantasy month wasn’t exactly a happy-go-lucky trio of AI/starship/space opera tales but it was a frolic through the park compared to this double issue’s quartet of technophobic post-apocalyptic misery.

In “Faces,” we’re off to see the Hottentotsgot to cure little Annie of his/her fatal scabs in this largely senseless picaresque across a post-apocalyptic nuclear wasteland of mutated weirdness delivered in a tone that I think is meant to be comical and with a resolution that definitely isn’t. “The Last Human Child”  is similar, if more directed. Evil scientists spliced human and animal DNA and the Spliced rose up and smote their creators. The survivors of the apocalypse have created a killing machine of a little girl and, when she’s captured by a spliced “trollgre,” the girl kills a bunch of Spliced leaders as intended. Then she keeps killing so, with the trollgre having turned guardian, they both traverse a gengineered bad-dreamland with cartoon villains tracking them. Even for a fable (whose length unwisely breaks the novelette barrier), the characterization is poor and the bond between girl and trollgre is under-motivated. “Red Dreams” waffles between tension and dullness, the former coming from the main character having dreams which, she believes, means she’s turning into an insane killer and the latter coming from everything else, including being set in yet another post-apocalyptic world, perhaps of nanotech run amok. (This was also particularly poorly edited/proofread.)

In “Penitents,” a giant alien cube-thing has taken a girl’s friend and she’s left her protected enclave and met up with a tough po’girl who, for a price, will try to help her rescue the friend. The enclave protects the pampered folks from an utterly environmentally destroyed earth.

I thought this might be a pretty strong recommendation until it (with plenty of warning, in retrospect) tanked the ending by taking a primitive moral attitude which damns unto the Nth generation the “bad” people and gives the “good” people a bit of an undeserved pass. This could be viewed as simplistic moralism of my own but the story’s ethos damages its aesthetic integrity, making the ending (penultimate ending, but primary psychic one) ring false. At least, in my opinion. Still, I’ve read plenty of “surreal alien thingies” and “save the brainwashed friends” and “we destroyed the environment” stories and this still felt fresh and powerful and had me captivated until the end and others may be impressed throughout so: honorable mention, go check it out if so inclined.

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Administrivia: I sometimes got hits on this blog from people following pingbacks from stories I’d reviewed negatively (or at least non-positively) and I didn’t like the idea of “negative pingbacks,” so I tried to link to magazine issues or the like for those stories so I wouldn’t trigger such a pingback but people could still find the stories relatively easily if they really wanted. But that wasn’t always possible and was a pain for me even when it was and probably wasn’t any fun for some readers, either, so I’ve gone back to linking everything directly. It’s still the case that only recs (of which there are ironically none this week) are linked in the main body of the post, though.

Review of Cirsova #7 for Tangent

The seventh number of Cirsova brings us a novella, five short stories, and two flash pieces of what is intended to be pulpy science fantasy, fantasy, and horror fun. Some may enjoy the energetically delivered colorful subject matter and many may be dissatisfied due to the shortcomings of craft.

Full review at Tangent: Cirsova #7, Spring 2018.

Review of Recently Read “Year’s Best” Stories

At this point, fourteen stories listed in the collated contents of the big “year’s bests” have annotations saying the evaluation was “late.” This was because the stories were initially unavailable on the web or came from odd venues. I’m reviewing them now, expanding on the brief “read,” “honorable mention,” or “recommended” labels.

For reviews of the Visions, Ventures, Escape Velocities stories, please see this post.

I read “Charges,” “Hunger,” and “Sidewalks” in mid-/late-December without thinking to actually review them, but simply jotted down my usual notes, so what follows on them are just belated restatements of those notes.

I felt that “Charges” (about an attempt to “cure” transgender people in the near future by torturing them and transferring them into non-transgender corpses) was extremely dated (transposing past treatment of homosexuals into an exaggerated future) and plain silly “science” fiction. It had a sort of horror movie intensity but that’s about all that could be said for it. “Hunger” addresses the potential ennui of (relative) wealth which, while not completely invalid in some nuances, is suitable for 1% propaganda generally. More importantly in fictional terms, the protagonist talks about “the romance of death by adventure” and notes that “I faced a less newsworthy ordeal.” Which made for a less interesting story as this was a boring grocery list of “actions” and, as said, largely unconvincing thoughts. In “Sidewalks,” a speech pathologist meets a woman from an alternate reality who speaks a form of Old English and comes from California, though she’s initially taken to be a gibberish-speaking nut. The details of this make little sense and, generally, this sort of story has been done many times before and much better.

Moving on to recent reads, “Persephone” is an initially interesting slipstream/dark fantasy which has quite a few strong images and ideas and an interestingly shifty narrative technique as it describes a pseudo-orphaned lost girl but seems underwhelming given the wind-up. “Confessions” describes the perfect storm of higher education, corporate rule, and social media, through a narrator who’s modded down from a “Pro” member of society to a “Con.” Unfortunately, most of this is already here and isn’t science fictional at all. It’s also unfortunate that it doesn’t make for the perfect story as it’s rather dull and unpleasant but not in a compelling, effective way. Perhaps it’s to the point but the narrator protagonist was hard to engage with and, while it did go for an emotional ending, it didn’t quite work for me. It’s not bad, but not remarkable. “Wind“—in which a fiddle player and history teacher on a generation starship tries to explain to her resistant kids why even broken history (and music and tradition and creation) is necessary—is a story with nice ideas and decent characters and most everything else needed for an excellent story but basically forgot the plot or, more specifically, the drama. It’s a mostly good but dull story and I’m someone who loves starships and history and music so I imagine it’d be worse for those who don’t. The zestier “Monkey” is somewhat clever with its structure of a fragment of history interlarded with scholarly notes which depict some gorilla warfare, so to speak, in which the meek will inherit the earth if they jujitsu for it and the most striking thing was the very isolated elements of humor or discordant notes delivered with a perfectly straight face in the course of a generally serious tale. This story doesn’t do much wrong aside from the contrivance of not having the religious order’s noncombatants expelled along with the royal family and I think it merits an honorable mention (I’ve waffled a bit) but it didn’t overwhelm me.

Buckell has two stories in the annuals, both of which seem more like honorable mentions to me. “Shoggoths” is a reasonably clever science fantasy about GPS and automated vehicles being used to try to summon monster monsters. The vehicle for conveying this concept is a tale of a couple of tow truck operators stealing a drug dealer’s stolen car in order to return it to the original drug dealer for a reward. This is a fun read but doesn’t strike me as especially significant. The more problematic “Zen” has a cardboard villain representing tradition and inflexibility start and lose a starship fight with the modern, flexible good guys. When he survives and sneaks aboard the victorious starship, he and a mind uploaded into the form of a maintenance bot vie for supremacy, with the bot’s programmed lack of freewill complicating the struggle. This has a gosh-wow-sensawunda suitable for both old and new space opera and homages several things from previous SF but its simplistic ethos is discordant in a new space opera. Further, the wondrous setting being mostly a clever plot contrivance is bothersome. Still, the story’s pace and imagery are noteworthy.

The Discrete Charm of the Turing Machine” is an unusually funny story for Egan (not saying that it’s an outright comedy, but it definitely has its lighter, stranger moments). When the protagonist unceremoniously loses his job and he and both his immediate and extended family go through some financial troubles, some discussion with a tin-hat brother-in-law and an attempt to debunk his theories lead to pondering the nature of economies and emergent systems. This description doesn’t do it justice as it doesn’t convey the calm, confidently unhurried but efficient pacing, the tangibility of the characters and their plight, or Egan’s usual thoughtful angle on things. While I still prefer “Uncanny Valley,” both novelettes are great reads.

And wow: “An Evening with Severyn Grimes” is a date you don’t want to miss. The idea of mind uploads placed in borrowed bodies and the religious/ideological people who oppose this is a bit familiar (and not completely dissimilar from “Zen”) and the hackery of one of the characters is a bit magical, but this tale—of a woman, for reasons of her own, infiltrating a cult which wants to seize a rich guy currently in such a borrowed body so they can kill him painfully and publicly—is sheer brilliance. The old mind in the young body is constantly seeking thrills to make him feel alive again and that’s just what this short story does for the reader. This needs to be the basis for a slightly expanded movie or something. Further, it does something “Zen” does not do in that it has complex characters working at complex cross-purposes who can sometimes align just enough to make things really interesting. Very enthusiastically recommended.

Links (2018-02-12)

The last link post was almost a month ago (January 17) so there are a bunch of links in this one. I kept meaning to post this and never getting around to it and it kept growing though I have deleted some links I was originally going to post.

Humor

Politics/Tech

History/Science

Science

  • A mosquito’s foot at 800X magnification – Imgur. Found this via The Art of Darkness. However cool (and creepy) you think this is likely to be, it’s probably more so.
  • The Likelihood of Massive Exomoons
  • SF and Nonsense: Space-y matters. “Space-y Matters” includes several links of its own. I picked three to specially note here. On the first, it’s nice to see someone trying to explain stuff without resorting to space fairies and, on the last, speaking of space fairies, I don’t know that it rules out the early manufacturing stages of a Dyson sphere on the one hand and, even if it is just dust, it begs the question why this one system has its very own special fairy dust no other system has. The article does eventually touch on that, but it’s just as important as the “final explanation,” itself. The middle one is just cool. Could be.

Science Fiction

General

Specific Authors

Black Gate has been running a lot of birthday reviews as well as a few interesting general reviews and, of course, many people also do their own birthday things, as well as other memorials. Also, because I picked up another Arthur C. Clarke non-fiction work recently, I was wondering if I had everything I wanted and found a neat resource.

Arthur C. Clarke

C. M. Kornbluth

Ursula K. Le Guin (There were naturally a few billion of these but these are two distinctive ones that aren’t from the usual suspects.)

Katherine MacLean

C. L. Moore (and Henry Kuttner)

John Shirley

James Tiptree, Jr.

Tunes

Here are some interviews, notices, and tunes that won’t be of interest to anyone other than fans of C.O.C. and vintage thrash. Continue reading

Review: Visions, Ventures, Escape Velocities

Visions, Ventures, Escape Velocities: A Collection of Space Futures

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Edited by Ed Finn and Joey Eschrich
Center for Science and the Imagination, Arizona State University
(December) 2017
347 page PDF, available in other formats including Print-on-Demand

“Vanguard 2.0” by Carter Scholz
“Mozart on the Kalahari” by Steven Barnes
“The Baker of Mars” by Karl Schroeder
“Death on Mars” by Madeline Ashby
“The Use of Things ” by Ramez Naam
“Night Shift” by Eileen Gunn
“Shikasta” by Vandana Singh

(Apologies for the odd style and lateness of this review—I didn’t originally intend to cover this at all and then the coverage took place in several confused and expanding chunks of reading and writing over a long period of time.)

This book includes seven stories, with pairs set in low earth orbit, Mars, and the asteroids, ending with a single indirectly interstellar story. Each story has a beautifully done illustration and is followed by one or two essays by other authors (nine essays, plus an opening pair and closing trio) which I’m not going to get into much beyond saying that, unlike the art and unusually for me and science non-fiction, I didn’t feel they added much value. None really address the quality of the fiction as fiction, simply taking the stories as given unless some implausibility is pointed out. They aren’t intended to be literary critiques, but it undercuts the connection of the essay to the story and sometimes brings to mind people insisting the emperor, in fact, has clothes, undercutting a sense of credibility. Further, few even address the science (physics, chemistry, etc.) of the stories, which I would think was to the point, but are more interested in the social aspects. Perhaps most strikingly, while not speaking with one voice and being ostensibly created through the efforts of Arizona State University with a grant from NASA (that is, you, the taxpayer), they mostly promulgate a pro-corporate “higher education as vo-tech,” “NASA as free corporate R&D” view to the point that I wondered if this was sponsored by a university or by corporations through a university as a form of “idea-laundering,” though hopefully that’s an unjustified suspicion.

“Vanguard 2.0” by Carter Scholz

The protagonist is sent out by his corporate overlord to steal a small, old satellite, which the plutocrat really does want, but the job is primarily a way to clear witnesses away from his weaponizing of space. How the protagonist reacts is supposed to be the crux of the drama but, as written, there is no drama in this essentially plotless, albeit idea-filled, story. Despite being chosen for a “year’s best,” I wasn’t particularly impressed by this, aside from its researched, thought-out, hard SF nature.

“Mozart on the Kalahari” by Steven Barnes

Michael “Meek” Prouder is a smart kid with an interest in gene modding plants but lacks the resources and social infrastructure to maximize his talents. This has left him with a shady past, a bizarre condition, and difficulty trying to realize his dream of going to space. He hopes things may start going better for him when he learns of a contest with a prize that would get him to space but things become complicated when he actually enters it.

This seems to be partly a homage to Arthur C. Clarke’s Islands in the Sky and is mostly very effective at portraying the main character and addressing his plight in a way that will resonate for some readers (including this one, in ways). My only real problems with the story are that the character seems too smart to be so dense or vice versa and the plot seems a little too coincidental (both issues making the fiction as strange as truth), and that the big reveal may be too telegraphed and involves an element that has been done before, though I can’t recall the story (or stories) that did it. That was mostly outweighed by how engaged I was with the character and the story and how rewarding they were.

“The Baker of Mars” by Karl Schroeder

A woman who is feeding a bunch of time-displaced “Martians” comes up with an idea to transform the human race’s economy, method of governing itself, and its expansion into space, so heads off to the U.N. to explain it to the Powers That Be. The setup for this is that some humans who are among the legions of unemployed have begun “prospecting” on Mars, creating the infrastructure of a colony remotely by VR (we’re assured the time-lag isn’t a problem). But this is only due to the “no claims” space treaty and the corporate sponsors are really just waiting for all this to fail so the treaty can be torn up and the real gold rush can begin.

The colonization-by-VR feels fairly novel but it probably hasn’t been used much because it isn’t very workable. The “Martian Timeslip” or “Sliced-Crosswise Only-On-Tuesday World” isn’t so fresh, nor is the way it makes interplanetary colonization dull and mundane and mires it all in a socio-politico-economic treatise thinly wrapped in fiction. Schroeder’s fiction is generally very wonky but in a very cool way and is much better than this particular example.

“Death on Mars” by Madeline Ashby

Part of the rationale for an all-female crew on a proto-colonization mission to Mars includes a social-bonding experiment and that bonding is stressed when it is revealed that one of the women has known she’s dying and lied about it. It is further tested when a man is shipped in (alone) on an emergency flight to help with some problems.

This story is very nearly crippled by a serious early flaw and a milder later flaw, but manages to barely survive both. The first is that almost any human will be sympathetic to almost any depiction of death but the specific agonies of the dying woman and her distraught crew are not things we can actually share because, for example, this paragraph—

Donna was dying. Donna, who had calmly helped her slide the rods into the sleeves as they pitched tents in Alberta one dark night while the wolves howled and the thermometer dropped to 30 below. Donna, who had said, “Of course you can do it. That’s not the question,” when Khalidah reached between the cots during isolation week and asked Donna if the older woman thought she was really tough enough to do the job. Donna, without whom Khalidah might have quit at any time.

—comes in the middle of the story, rather than at the beginning. We don’t know Donna or Khalidah or the others when Donna’s imminent death is revealed and the emoting begins. The second problem is that, once we are up to speed and emotionally involved in the tale, it has many valid insights and feelings (such as how one death seems to raise all previous deaths a person has experienced right back to the present) and seems genuine but then pushes it a hair too far, giving a taste of saccharine sentimentality. (A third minor problem is that I don’t feel the sub-story of Khalidah and dad and the baseball is ever really “finished.”) All that said, this is another researched, hard SF tale whose character interactions eventually ring mostly true and which conveys some truths, such as how badly some things can be wanted and how badly they need to be wanted and what costs this can have. This has also been selected (twice) as a “Year’s Best” and, while I doubt it would have actually made that cut for me, I still recommend it.

“The Use of Things ” by Ramez Naam

A lone man working on an asteroid finds himself in a life and death situation when an inexplicable explosion breaks his tether and hurls him away.

This tries to be a good old-fashioned problem story but its “manned or unmanned” theme is too blatant, the idea that an unmanned mission would be retrofitted as a manned one at the last minute (for “PR”—to have a “face of the mission”) is virtually impossible and this is the second story I’ve read recently of a panicking astronaut, not to mention one who entertains for an instant the idea that a thrown roll of tape could counteract the force of an explosion that ripped a tether and his suit apart. Finally, the astronaut’s fate has nothing to do with his character. I did find this bit funny (in a sense), though:

The data center of the future would have just one man in it, Jimmy said, and one dog.

The man’s job was to feed the dog.

The dog’s job was to make sure the man didn’t touch anything.

“Night Shift” by Eileen Gunn

A woman is working the “Night Shift,” monitoring an AI as it deploys the nanobots that will transform an asteroid into its valuable components. She reminds me of Ghostbusters‘ Egon (who “collects spores, molds, and fungus”) except that her thing is just slime molds which, with her hacking skills, she parlays into nanobots. Things get a little complicated when, due to her anthropomorphizing of “Seth,” she is initially unaware that “he” has disabled the killswitch which prevents uncontrolled replication.

This is a winning first-person narration and touches on “remote colonization” like “The Baker of Mars,” but more convincingly and handles the “is it human or Memorex?” quandary of “Shikasta” in a far superior way… at first. But then the story reaches a very mild and trivially solved crisis point, makes a little speech, and just stops. “That’s it?” is never a good reaction on turning the page and not finding any more story.

“Shikasta” by Vandana Singh

A handful of good people (one of whom has been killed by bad people) did or do work on a crowd-funded starship mission to send an AI to the eponymous system where it interacts with a variation on the Horta of Star Trek‘s “The Devil in the Dark”—this one is a sort of magnetic wind creature.

This radically over-long, dull, and implausible story is inelegantly exposed and is the worst sort of clumsy combo of “the Two Cultures” with a lot of subjective navel-gazing combined with hard SF infodumps. Also, speaking of two cultures, if this were written in the same way by a Westerner about Eastern cultures, it would be roundly condemned. All that said, it’s in a “year’s best” so I may well be in the minority here.

Weekly Webzine Wrap-Up (2018-02-10)

Weekly Webzine Wrap-Up image

  • “Her Beautiful Body” by Adrienne Celt, Strange Horizons, February 5, 2018 (science fictional short story)
  • “Forty Full Moons” by Blaize M. Kaye, Grievous Angel, February 6, 2018 (fantasy-like short story)
  • “I Don’t Bite” by Nicole Tanquary, Grievous Angel, February 6, 2018 (fantasy short story)
  • “These 5 Books Go 6 Feet Deep” by Ted Hayden, Nature, February 7, 2018 (science fictional short story)
  • “Where Would You Be Now?” by Carrie Vaughn, Tor.com, February 7, 2018 (science fiction novelette)
  • “Six Hangings in the Land of Unkillable Women” by Theodore McCombs, Nightmare #65, February [7], 2018 (dark fantasy short story)
  • “Four-Point Affective Calibration” by Bogi Takacs, Lightspeed #93, February [8]. 2018 (science fictional short story)

First, to quickly cover the usual very short and mostly very fuzzy pieces (the last of which is the best story of a weak week): “Calibration” is a  stream-of-consciousness bit which uses the conceit of calibrating equipment for alien communications to convey its narcissism; “Books” uses the conceit of short synopses of books handy to the futuristic grave robber to convey its fantasy conclusion; “Forty” is a painfully literal “metaphor” about the son of a werewolf not wanting to grow up to be like his father; “Her Beautiful Body” is a longer (c.2700 words) sharply surreal piece presumably on the objectification of people (women) but may also relate to mortality and mind-body dualism, using the conceit of a tour guide telling visitors all the ways they should interact with the exhibit (which appears to be a mindless body) and which gets credit for commitment to its strangeness. However, the only one really worth noting is “I Don’t Bite” which is yet another feminist revenge fantasy and a dialect stream-of-speech story but Tanquary has figured out what so many others haven’t and done this right. It’s very, very short and the monologue conveys a real sense of motion and drama. It’s too thematically trite to get a full recommendation but it’s a nifty 200 words.

Six Hangings in the Land of Unkillable Women” is set in or shortly after 1899, after women have developed a “Protection” which keeps them from being killed (but not injured or changed). Amidst a litany of men being hanged for their crimes against women, the main story’s background tells of a woman who has killed her son and is sentenced to death. But, of course, she can’t be executed, until a woman in the foreground of the main story has the idea that maybe she could be the “hangman.”

At first, this seems like it’s an extended version of “5 Books” only with “Six Hangings” but the hangings merely preface sections of the one main story. Then it seems like it’s going to be a version of “Bite” or “Body” and be heavily gendered and it basically is but in a confusing and unfortunate way. The story ultimately would seem to pack much more punch and be much more interesting if it focused on the psychology and sociology of capital crime, itself, instead of making it particularly gendered but, as is, seems to fall between two stools and doesn’t really work for me.

The week’s only novelette was a disappointment. “Where Would You Be Now?” is set in the world of “Astrophilia” and “Amaryllis” (and apparently is a prequel to the novel Bannerless) which is a post-apocalyptic tale in which Kath carries a shotgun as a defender of a compound of doctors and allied folks. They mostly ask each other where they would be now (if the apocalypse hadn’t come) and, after a vague uptick in tension when a gang arrives outside the compound’s barrier, the story just ends with the protagonist giving her answer. There’s a severe lack of plot and actual conflict here, which really makes it feel like an excerpt from a prequel novel rather than a prequel story. It’s a fine read otherwise—nothing special, but fine—but it’s ultimately very unsatisfying.