- “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 , 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.
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.