Review of Pulphouse #2 for Tangent

The reanimated Pulphouse is back with issue #2. The kickstarter made a point of saying that “Pulphouse has no genre restrictions” and this issue’s editorial offers an explanation regarding Pulphouse‘s unlabeled reprints. Here at Tangent, we do follow genre restrictions and label reprints [in the contents listing], which shows that, leaving aside the quality of the total fiction, there’s simply not much new fiction of genre interest in this issue….

Full review at Tangent: Pulphouse #2, April 2018.

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Summation: April 2018

Ten of this month’s eleven noted stories (five recommended) come from the 58 (of about 240,000 words) that I’ve read with a publication date between April 1 and April 30. Nature and Terraform had a good month with a recommended story and an honorable mention each. Some venues appeared for just the first or second time this year (Grievous Angel, On Spec (reviewed for Tangent), and Strange Horizons (with an especially strong story)), though some of the usual suspects (BCS, Clarkesworld, and Lightspeed) also pitched in. Aside from unusual venues, this month’s wombat is a relatively large number of SF (and no fantasy) honorable mentions.

The eleventh noted story is another first-time appearance. It comes from Slate‘s “Future Tense Fiction” department and coverage of that is one of three changes in Featured Futures to report. The latest “Weekly Webzine Wrap-Up” caught up on the stories already released this year and future stories will be continue to be covered there. Meanwhile, Lightspeed and Nightmare have been covered in the “Wrap-Ups” but will be covered as monthly issues beginning in May. Lastly, Featured Futures is going to the final frontier: coverage of short fiction in books. So far, there are a couple of collections and maybe an anthology I’ll see about covering in May.

Oh, and I also extended and (hopefully) improved the menus just under the banner.

Recommended:

Science Fiction

Fantasy

  • “Death and Natalie, Natalie and Death” by Jordan Taylor, On Spec #107, [April] 2018 (short story)
  • Strange Waters” by Samantha Mills, Strange Horizons, April 2, 2018 (short story)
  • The Thought That Counts” by K.J. Parker, Beneath Ceaseless Skies #250, April 26, 2018 (novelette)

Honorable Mentions:

Science Fiction

  • Carouseling” by Rich Larson, Clarkesworld #139, April 2018 (short story)
  • Domestic Violence” by Madeline Ashby, Slate, March 26, 2018 (short story)
  • Moonshot” by Andrew W. McCollough, Grievous Angel, April 18, 2018 (science fantasy short story)
  • A Most Elegant Solution” by M. Darusha Wehm, Terraform, April 27, 2018 (short story)
  • Requiem” by Christine Lucas, Nature, April 4, 2018 (short story)
  • What Is Eve?” by Will McIntosh, Lightspeed #95, April 2018 (novelette)

Reviews of the Above:

Edit (2018-05-01): Updated after reviewing Pulphouse #2 for Tangent on April 30.

Weekly Webzine Wrap-Up (2018-04-28)

Weekly Webzine Wrap-Up image

Original Fiction:

  • The Witching Hour” by Ekpeki Oghenechovwe Donald, Cosmic Roots and Eldritch Shores, April 23, 2018 (fantasy short story)
  • My Favourite Sentience” by Marissa Lingen, Nature, April 25, 2018 (science fiction short story)
  • Into the Gray” by Margaret Killjoy, Tor.com, April 25, 2018 (fantasy short story)
  • The Thought That Counts” by K.J. Parker, Beneath Ceaseless Skies #250, April 26, 2018 (fantasy novelette)
  • Angry Kings” by Bonnie Jo Stufflebeam, Beneath Ceaseless Skies #250, April 26, 2018 (fantasy novelette)
  • Nitrate Nocturnes” by Ruth Joffre, Lightspeed #95, April [26], 2018 (fantasy novelette)
  • A Most Elegant Solution” by M. Darusha Wehm, Terraform, April 27, 2018 (science fiction short story)

Original Fiction, Special Edition:

  • The Minnesota Diet” by Charlie Jane Anders, Slate, January 17, 2018 (science fiction short story)
  • Mother of Invention” by Nnedi Okorafor, Slate, February 21, 2018 (science fiction short story)
  • Domestic Violence” by Madeline Ashby, Slate, March 26, 2018 (science fiction short story)

The last week of the month is nearly as strong as the first week of the month. Also, unlike last week, the stories tend to be long, though one of the best is the shortest.

In the future, several students write paragraphs about “My Favourite Sentience.” No, there’s no plot but, wedged into less than a thousand words, there are a great variety of voices and a flood of ideas (with a couple of brilliant touches) that some would use to fuel trilogies. I don’t know if the world we see through these tiny windows is delightful or terrifying but everyone should take a look.

Turning to BCS, “The Thought That Counts” is a variation on Faustian themes which opens with an innocent country girl chattering on, seen through the mordant eyes of the narrator/protagonist. She’s going to the city to become a painter and he’s glad to be rid of her once they arrive but he’s not so free as he thinks. When she’s arrested for, essentially, being a murderous witch, he finds himself compelled to get involved. This has everything needed to make an excellent story but depends a lot on the breezy, discursive narration of its brilliantly delineated protagonist, the “cleverest, wisest man who ever lived” (and a “thief” and “con man”). He could wear on some people, I suppose, but I enjoyed this story a lot.

The other BCS tale involves a princess complaining about her evil father while returning to the palace in order to try to fix him after having run away. Interspersed with her recollections are retellings of other stories of “Angry Kings,” at least some of which are traditional. I oscillated uneasily between sympathizing with her and finding her a bit maudlin and “self-insuffcient,” so to speak. It all ended up feeling like an inauthentic self-affirmation speech. That said, the prose was mostly decent and it may well resonate strongly with some readers.

The remaining stories from this week were similarly mixed. “The Witching Hour” involves an evil witch’s good disciple trying to counteract her malign influence. It’s too oblique at first and then gets too talky. Despite some “dark goodness,” it still operates in a “good and evil” mythos. The climax is way too easy. But it does an excellent job of creating a magic milieu and mood. “Into the Gray” is a reverse-variant retelling of “The Little Mermaid” folktale (in which a boy/girl wants to become a mermaid like the entity s/he is infatuated with) and read fairly well but there is misdirection and then there is not firing Chekhov’s gun. The theme was expressed through a botched drama, making it ultimately unsatisfactory. (Also, fantasies shouldn’t have pikes and swords and such and have the protagonists anachronistically refer to their “adrenaline.”) Finally, “Nitrate Nocturnes,” reads like a combination of “Strung” (Xinyi Wang, Diabolical Plots #31A, September 2017) and Lightspeed‘s own “The Independence Patch” (Bryan Camp) from the last issue, in that it’s about a timer (manifesting on people’s arms) counting down to the time they’ll meet their soulmates. A college student will apparently not meet hers for some forty years but then her timer starts acting funny. This is exactly the most significant problem with the tale. Even though fantasy is fantasy, it generally has its own rules and logic while this was capricious, twice changing the rules with no explanation beforehand and little or none after. This is a story of author fiat rather than one which feels like an organic sequence of events; a case of theme preempting plot. That said, the narrative voice and some of the speculations on lives and loves and time (and some authentic party scenes) made it an easy read.

Incidentally, Lightspeed‘s reprint this week is “Mozart on the Kalahari.” I liked it (next best after “Death on Mars”) when I read it in Visions, Ventures, Escape Velocities (where it’s still available). That takes us nicely to today’s special feature. The same Arizona State University Center for Science and the Imagination which helped bring us that anthology, is also helping to bring us a monthly series of short fiction (each with companion non-fiction articles) published at Slate for their “Future Tense Fiction” department which I’ll begin covering here, going back to this run’s start in January. The theme of the first quarter of the year is “home” and the three stories universally take that to mean terrestrial “smart” homes and cities.

The Minnesota Diet” follows a group of young urban professionals living in New Lincoln, which is a smart city. However, when the food supply trucks start being diverted from the city and extreme governmental gridlock prevents any relief, two of the three million inhabitants are unable to leave, so face starvation. While most of us are dependent on our current technological society for survival and many things do get replaced without a suitable backup being retained, truth is stranger than fiction and this particular situation strained credibility and seemed contrived. Also, the characters, despite blue pompadours and the like, didn’t really come alive for me. Points for grappling with several important motifs, though.

In “Mother of Invention,” the father of a pregnant woman’s child turns out to have been married, leading to the woman being shunned. She lives in the father’s third smarthome and has developed a fatal allergy to the pollen from the genetically modified plants which surround her when that pollen goes into overdrive as it will shortly do. However, she refuses to leave because she fears that will mean the father will reclaim his house. The crisis arrives when she goes into labor and the storm comes but she’s not quite as alone as she thinks. The story resolves too obviously and easily (but in such a way that begs the question why the end didn’t come at the beginning and solve most of the problems presented in the story in the first place) and I question a mother who, rather than losing an ego battle with an estranged lover (and his wife) and becoming homeless, would risk the life of her forthcoming child, as well as her own. (In trivial but aggravating terms, there was a reference to a thing which “sprung” back.) Still, it did evoke feelings of hopelessness effectively and the portrayal of the home (which was more of a character than many in the previous story) was interesting.

The last, coincidentally best, story on the theme is “Domestic Violence.” Kristine, a company’s “chief of staff,” is dealing with an employee who literally had trouble “getting out of the house.” Kristine eventually deduces that the employee is in an abusive relationship in which the couple’s smart home is being used against her, such as sometimes briefly imprisoning her. It turns out that Kristine has a particular interest in this sort of thing and takes drastic steps to address the problem. I can’t reveal why but one of the best things and the worst thing about this story is Kristine herself, who helps make the story involving but also holds it back for me. Otherwise, barring an infodump paragraph, the technology is cleverly interwoven both structurally in the believable society and verbally in the story. The characters feel real and mostly sensible, if very odd. As with the other stories, this addresses genuine, serious concerns with present and near-future technology and feels even more tangible and compelling.

Edit (2018-04-28): Terraform didn’t have a story Thursday and, since they’d posted two last week, I thought they were taking a break, but they did publish another story yesterday which I didn’t see until just now. Ironically, it starts by talking about “Deaths on Mars” and has a “home” motif (with habitat-building) such that it connects in a couple of ways to the ASU/Slate stories.

A Most Elegant Solution” comes so close to being not only a recommendation, but a “year’s best”-type story, but ends up being an honorable mention. It opens with a nanotech programmer being engulfed by her “gray goo” creations as her colonizing teammates already have been, while she recaps what led her to that position. The ending combines a couple of my favorite books and would really be “goshwowsensawunda” but I saw it coming from pretty early on (partly because of past experience but partly because of the way an early element was handled in the story) and, not only that, but the ending wasn’t a clean revelation that would have really sparked poetic awe but was a bit labored and, even if you hadn’t seen it coming, would have made it like you saw it coming. (It also depends on some problematic programming.) Still, a mostly well executed tale with a great idea.

Links (2018-04-27)

This one piled up fast so I’m not waiting for May. Writers, please note the last item before the musical break.

General

When an English Lit Major Tried to School Isaac Asimov | RealClearScience. Some site reprinted this but then did something that annoyed me (probably spewed out one of those pseudo-popups), so I’ve repressed which it was. This, in turn, points to a reprint of one of Asimov’s great essays: “The Relativity of Wrong.” (To be fair, sometimes science does grab the extremely wrong end of the sphere, so to speak, but his main point is almost completely correct. This is applicable to everything.

Humor

Didn’t see anything freshly funny on the net for awhile, so reached into the memory banks and pulled out a couple of my favorite examples of the best strip ever: Calvin and Hobbes.

However, xkcd eventually came through with this:

History

Politics

  • News: 2.7 billion tweets confirm: echo chambers in Twitter are very real – Aalto University. “Bipartisan users, who try to bridge the echo chambers, pay a price for their work: they become less central in their network, lose connections to their communities and receive less [sic] endorsements from others.” I don’t use Twitter but it’s wider than that and I am not even infinitesimally surprised.
  • The Second Amendment comes first in teaching constitutional law. There’s an old joke that has something to do with telling Democrats from Republicans based on whether they support the First or the Second Amendment. I support both but it’s becoming increasingly common to support neither. This article is not overtly pro or con but merely argues that it’s a pedagogically rich subject.
  • Rapid rise in mass school shootings in the United States, study shows: Researchers call for action to address worrying increase in the number of mass school shootings in past two decades — ScienceDaily. This confirms some idle research I made after the last big one: it’s not just my impression, but a fact that mass shootings used to be rare. We’ve had guns in this country for as long as this has been a country so I don’t know where they get the “easier to get” argument. Many kids owned guns distinct from their parents’ guns from early childhood. While not necessarily against logical restrictions and training requirements, I also don’t understand how raising the age limit is a solution when half of the most recent major school shootings and most other shootings were perpetrated by people outside the range of 18-21. I do accept the mental illness element, though. Weapons have not become significantly more common or dangerous since 1980 or 2000 but this country and others have clearly gone insane. One of the most effective steps to take would probably be for the media (which has changed radically in that time) to stop making the perpetrators famous. Passing laws restricting gun ownership, when murder is already illegal and a much bigger law to break, is useless at best. Not having schools be like miniature training grounds for fascism and not having the media promote the shooters and their acts would probably not be useless. The more we’ve militarized schools and dehumanized the students (and people in general) and popularized these acts, the more they’ve occurred. This insanity is not restricted to the US and going after guns is mistaking a correlate for a cause. It’s no solution, as this event today in China demonstrates: 7 students killed in stabbing rampage at middle school in China – CBS News. Should we raise the age of legal knife ownership to 29 so this person who was seeking to commit murder would have been deterred from breaking the knife-owning law? Or should we say he’s part of a mass psychosis and figure out how to deal with that? The thing that most bothers me about this issue is not the guns, as such, but the illogical, emotional response to an illogical, emotional problem.
  • What Greek tragedy illuminates about James Comey. I think current American politics would be more fittingly illuminated by Aristophanes but I love Greek tragedy and have to share any article that works it in like this.

Science

Science/Fiction

One question that occurs to me about this: had there been a previous civilization 55 million years ago (as in the story), would we have found as much oil as we have? A lot of oil in the Middle East and the US is older than that and would likely have been used by a predecessor.

Anyway – from the article (first the author, then the reporter):

“It might be the detectable period of a civilization is much shorter than its actual longevity, because you can’t last a long time doing the kinds of stuff that we’ve been doing,” Schmidt explained. “You either stop, because you’ve messed it all up, or you learn not to do it. Either way, the burst of activity, wastefulness, and massive footprints is actually a very short amount of time.”

Or you get off the planet. If not, it is indeed a very short amount of time and you spend the rest of it living in miserable conditions like the Middle Ages, awaiting the GRB or asteroid or plague to deliver the merciful killing blow.

The same logic holds for any previous civilizations that may have flourished on Earth, only to either collapse in ruin or scale down on activities that threaten their lifespan. There are definitely some not-so-subtle lessons that humans can take from this forked path which is, after all, an industrial version of the age-old evolutionary mantra–adapt or die.

The logic of the article accepts the premise that species survival is a good. Therefore those two options are not good. There must be a third. While galaxies are very hard to destroy, stars are very short lived and twitchy (lasting only billions of years and prone to temperature variations, flares, novas, etc.), and planets are ludicrously unstable, not to mention the species on them. Whether GRBs, asteroids, plagues, wars, or whatever else, something will wipe out most every planet-bound species in short order. If you want the species to survive, it must spread to other planets, other stars, ideally widely separated stars. To do that, you have to utilize the planet smartly to extract its energy to get you where you need to go.

The idea of living sustainably on a single planet is like the idea of living sustainably on a desert island periodically wracked by hurricanes. The human species can survive much better and longer on the whole earth than a single person who carefully tends a single coconut tree on an island before both are washed away by a storm. Similarly, the human species could survive much better on multiple habitats than on this island earth in a desert of vacuum. We have a narrow launch window before our resources are exhausted and conserving them will only slightly delay our inevitable extinction. I’m pro-environment but also pro-technology. We shouldn’t waste resources but if we don’t use our energy wisely, it’ll be “adapt and die.”

(Science) Fiction

Tunes

Nothing to do with them literally but, since I’ve got links about dinosaurs and rats, here are a couple of tunes. Somebody needs to re-up the first one in HD stat. I couldn’t find any other version on the web.

Continue reading

Review: Uncanny #22

Uncanny #22, May/June 2018

Uncanny_Issue_22
Original Fiction:

  • “Blessings” by Naomi Novik (fantasy)
  • “Sucks (to Be You)” by Katharine Duckett (fantasy)
  • “Discard the Sun, for It Has Failed Us” by Marina J. Lostetter (science fiction)
  • “What Gentle Women Dare” by Kelly Robson (science fiction)
  • “If We Die Unjustified” by A. Merc Rustad (fantasy)
  • “The Cook” by C.L. Clark (fantasy)

All stories are short with the third and sixth being short-shorts. This review will also be short.

Blessings” involves a woman holding a bash for a half-dozen fairies, hoping one will bless her new-born daughter. Things go better than she could have hoped and worse than she probably feared. It’s a simple and abruptly ended tale of what could be feminism but reads more as misandry along with some antipathy towards beautiful women. It seems to love men in comparison to “What Gentle Women Dare.” Early on, I ironically thought this was exactly the kind of fantasy which made me love science fiction as it detailed the squalor and misery of a prostitute’s life in 18th century England but it becomes SF (I’m assuming the ghost of the protagonist’s murdered daughter is a manifestation of her insanity and not a fantasy element) when the corpse who washed up in front of the prostitute and reanimated is revealed to be, not “Satan,” but a weird parasitic alien apparently conducting a referendum on whether to kill all the men who, of course, cause all the evil in the world. And that is a loving story in comparison to “If We Die Unjustified.” In it, a little girl hates killing and is killed. When a tardy “angel” finally responds to her “prayers,” it kills and resurrects her dog and also resurrects her (more or less… actually less). The girl eventually gets around to killing practically everyone. Like Rousseau, she will force people to be free and, like the US military in Viet Nam and many stories these days, she has to destroy the world to save it. The puerility of these don’t merit further comment beyond saying that the first was perky and the latter two exuded miasmas effectively.

In “Sucks (to Be You),” a succubus of sorts meets her match when social media modifies her and her favorite. The stream-of-consciousness monologue from the narrator (who is far more impressed with herself than anyone else is likely to be) is too convincing because actual stream-of-consciousness is boring and artifice generally tries to make it less so and would also usually force it to convey some sort of plot which this doesn’t really do.

Finally, of the two flash pieces, “The Cook” is an underplotted piece about a warrior falling in love with a cook between battles. The other, “Discard the Sun, for It Has Failed Us,” was the only story of the issue that mildly appealed to me. Ken Liu’s “Cosmic Spring” (which I also honorably mentioned) was the most recent story (as far as I know) to use the idea of feeding a sun as one would tend a cosmic hearth. This story applies that idea to our very own sun, eons after we’ve outgrown it. This tale is also a little lacking in plot, basically being an argument between an unimaginative pragmatist and a more sensitive soul, but it’s quite an argument:

“The sun is the only god empirically proven to exist,” I yell. “It created life on Earth. Gave life-sustaining energy. It gave and gave and gave, and—no matter our millennia of trying—our sacrifices could not reach it.”

Now, with our hydrogen-bearing starships, they can.

Review of On Spec #107 for Tangent

The 107th number of On Spec brings us two familiar science fictional dystopias and five fantasies of much greater variety, ranging from superpowers to magic rites to battles with rogue familiars to the afterlife, the latter of which is the most appealing tale.

Full review at Tangent: On Spec #107, Vol. 28, No. 4, April 2018.

Recommended:

  • “Death and Natalie, Natalie and Death” by Jordan Taylor

 

(Incidentally, it’s (approximately) my third Tanniversary. My first review for Tangent appeared on April 22nd, 2015  and this is my 60th. Oddly, On Spec is a Canadian magazine while that first review was of Tesseracts, a Canadian anthology.)

Weekly Webzine Wrap-Up (2018-04-22)

Weekly Webzine Wrap-Up image

Original Fiction:

  • Her February Face” by Christie Yant, Diabolical Plots #38B, April 16, 2018 (fantasy short story)
  • Old Fighter Pilots” by Samuel Jensen, Strange Horizons, April 16, 2018 (science fiction short story)
  • Under the Sun” by Gavin Schmidt, Terraform, April 16, 2018 (science fiction short story)
  • Moonshot” by Andrew W. McCollough, Grievous Angel, April 18, 2018 (science fantasy short story)
  • Wasteland of Sand and Ice” by Tomás McMahon, Nature, April 18, 2018 (science fiction short story)
  • Don’t Pack Hope” by Emma Osborne, Nightmare #67, April [18], 2018 (fantasy short story)
  • Worth Her Weight in Gold” by Sarah Gailey, Tor.com, April 18, 2018 (fantasy short story)
  • The Elephants’ Crematorium” by Timothy Mudie, Lightspeed #95, April [19], 2018 (science fantasy short story)
  • #CivilWarVintage” by Nan Craig, Terraform, April 20, 2018 (science fiction short story)

This week’s fiction creates a theme of “short” (all stories c.750-3900 words) while fitting into the general monthly theme of “not bad; not great.” It’s odd that the more interesting tales came at the beginning of the week, though that’s not the order I read them in.

My favorite story this week is “Moonshot,” which is a fantasy about rockets to the moon with cold equations, so I label it “science fantasy.” This is a very short prose poem about a boy seeking to escape his unpleasant home life and is nicely written (in poetic terms) with great descriptions. The most serious problem with it is that, while it may be the point of the whole thing, I felt the last paragraph could have been cut without changing the substance of the tale while giving it a different and more palatable flavor. I can’t give this a full recommendation, but I did like it.

There were two other stories perhaps a cut below that. “Old Fighter Pilots” feels almost like a Ballard, or other old New Wave, story and feels like the sort of thing Strange Horizons used to publish more of. It’s set in 1997 with a woman starting and going about her day while the narration seamlessly slips back in time to a lesser or greater (sometimes geologically greater) degree. Then it also slips forward in time to an apocalyptic 2040, bringing in an older version of a previously introduced character and becoming fully subjunctive and metafictional. This would usually annoy me but is deftly handled and seems integrated rather than contrived. All that said, “quiet” (as it says of itselves) or not, it didn’t light me up. It’s worth a look if you like this sort of thing or it sounds interesting to you, though. “Her February Face” starts like a preciously written fairy tale and is full of minor issues (skies “let go” before they “drizzle…[and then]…pour,” people listen “rapt,” the expression “February face” is used as a commonplace before it is introduced as something special, the “r” is dropped from “joie de vivre,” etc.) and is too familiar in general, but becomes an otherwise well-told and strangely involving tale of a woman who’s husband has disappeared (death, divorce, other?—one of many stories with a population of females and inexplicably disappeared men) and whose heart, which used to be proudly and decoratively displayed, and whose faces, which used to be light and smiling, are replaced by darkness and frowns until she meets another older woman who changes her. The misspelling of the French phrase was ironic because I was thinking of “mauvaise foi” (existential “bad faith”) as part of the story’s theme. Also, it reminded me of the generally quite different (and better) “Break the Face in the Jar by the Door,” and the connection became irresistible when the protagonist hung “her face by the door.”

The last story that interested me this week, mostly for extra-literary reasons, was “Under the Sun,” because it’s another example of “science fiction by scientists” and tries to dramatize the actual discovery of signs of a previous technological civilization on Earth, the possibility of which is part of a scientific fact paper the author of this fiction has co-authored. (Terraform published both this story and a companion article on the paper.) There’s nothing really wrong with the fiction and I’m generally especially drawn to such things, but it’s a little lacking in distinctiveness despite a seemingly realistic sketch of academia and discovery.

Terraform also unusually threw in an extra story, “#CivilWarVintage,” which is of a type that’s also part of their bread and butter, but a part I like less: the caricature of trendy things. In this, women are used to sell civil wars like they used to be used to sell car polish and people use social media to follow and donate to the the sides that appeal to them.

The other stories, from shortest to longest, are “Wasteland of Sand and Ice” which is all elaborate misdirection about a killer asteroid heading for Earth (which is described as traveling one-sixth the speed of light and which an AI somehow takes as natural!) which leads to a familiar punchline; “Don’t Pack Hope,” which is a second-person present tense tale in which you’ve had a sex change which resonates with the ongoing zombie apocalypse, which is not horror, even so; “Worth Her Weight in Gold,” brought to us by Tor.com while they sell novella chapbooks and a collection in the series, about a guy in a Weird South having problems with his hippo because his hippo has problems with her teeth; and “The Elephant’s Crematorium,” a less successful take on a core theme of “The Martian Obelisk,” which—aside from being billed as SF and depicting effects caused by a war rather than a wizard—is a sheer fantasy about everything going melty, nothing being able to reproduce, and elephants immolating themselves, told from the viewpoint of a pregnant woman.