Month in Review: March 2019

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This post is a work-in-progress which recaps the three big printzines (plus two more which were reviewed for Tangent) and BCS, Clarkesworld, Lightspeed, and Galaxy’s Edge which combined to produce 82 stories for 330K words. Other than Galaxy’s Edge, I’ve yet to read the March stories from any of the selectively reviewed zines (and, since Tor.com neglected to produce a second bi-monthly issue, I haven’t read the March stories from it, either), so I’ll finish reading all that in April and update this post then.

Noted Stories

Recommended

Science Fiction

  • “Better” by Tom Greene, Analog, March/April 2019 (novelette)
  • “Contagion’s Eve at the House Noctambulous” by Rich Larson, F&SF, March/April 2019 (novelette)
  • “Instantiation” by Greg Egan, Asimov’s, March/April 2019 (novella)
  • “Second Quarter and Counting” by James Van Pelt, Analog, March/April 2019 (short story)

Fantasy

  • “Totenhaus” by Amanda J. Bermudez, Black Static #68, March/April 2019 (horror short story)

Honorable Mentions

Science Fiction

  • “The End of Lunar Hens” by M.K. Hutchins, Analog, March/April 2019 (short story)

Fantasy

  • Hellhold” by Sean Patrick Hazlett, Galaxy’s Edge #37, March/April 2019 (horror short story)
  • “The Mark of Cain” by John Kessel, F&SF, March/April 2019 (short story)
  • “Mr. Death Goes to the Beach” by Jack Dann, Asimov’s, March/April 2019 (short story)

Reviews

Magazines

Books/Other

News

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Review: BCS #272-274

Beneath Ceaseless Skies, #272-274
Feb. 28, 2019/Mar. 14, 2019/Mar. 28, 2019

bcs274

Original Fiction:

In “Sirens Sing,” the Queen Mother wants Velia and her siren sisters to steal a serving dish from an arch-wizard and it turns into a minor romance story (and yet another BCS music story) with the mincing pseudo-fairy-tale style turned up to 11 (except when it collapses into bathos with “smooches”). In the other water story, “The Boy” is bought by Kal because she thinks he might make a good assistant for her profession of divination by drowning (though not actually drowning as in “baleen, baleen” (Alexandra Renwick, Interzone #274, March/April 2018) but simply playing with the magic weeds underwater for awhile). When he develops a special relationship with those weeds which she lacks, things go off the rails. While the climax is disturbing, neither (especially Kal) ever came clear as characters for me and the actual ending is underwhelming, as is the preamble that takes the first third of the story and the overly detailed and then dropped scene with Lord Westin.

Whiskey Chile” has lost his mother and is going after his bad father for a reckoning in this Weird Western which is soaked in demon alcohol. Narrated by a fire-belching bullfrog named Jeremiah, this world has no joy but some may enjoy the boisterous style which, to me, teetered out of control or the tale’s visuals, which might make an entertaining TV episode. “New Horizons” is a Disney-like sketch about waifs losing  their home to the evil empire and making another. It shares the boisterous tone, Weird Western vibe, and familial motifs (turned to different purposes) of “Chile” but reads like the other 90% of the story went missing.

Undercurrents” has an evil empire keeping the non-binary rivers down but a cell of resistance dowsers works to destroy the evil empire’s evil technology. Heavy-handed, with an oddly Pollyannish ending. In the other tale of the mighty being laid low by the oppressed, a pregnant raped maid who lives in a castle where people are jealous of her accidentally acquired magic realizes she is “Destiny” when an immensely powerful pseudo-twin conquers this domain and wants something from the maid and is willing to trade for it. The “heroine” shows herself to be really small-minded and the only interesting part of this power/revenge fantasy was the idea of magic, like money, being passed on at one’s death (which is how the maid got hers when the dying duchess decided to be whimsically spiteful to her family).

Selected Stories: 2019-03-31

Past Dinosaur Fantasy Future Prehistoric

Noted Original Fiction:

  • Hellhold” by Sean Patrick Hazlett, Galaxy’s Edge #37, March/April 2019 (horror short story)

I’m behind in this month’s reading of the selectively reviewed magazines and have only gotten to Galaxy’s Edge so far. It produced a mix of mostly okay stories, though it included a particularly bad one which shall remain nameless, and one notable story I will name.

In “Hellhold,” a middle-aged man who was born twelve years previously is being tried in Salem for witchcraft and he tells the story of how those years passed for him, beginning with pirates attacking his father’s ship and continuing on through a nightmarish and hellish journey to take a dread object to a dread place. This was obviously written with some effort at evoking the time and place but isn’t always pitch-perfect (or even grammatically correct in one instance, using “tread” for “trod”), uses perhaps overly familiar motifs, and the ending, depending on one’s reaction, may thrill or disappoint but this sea horror tale was entertaining and effective for the most part.

Captain Marvel, Memorabilia, and Music

Captain Marvel Mini-Review

(I don’t think I’m spoiling anything in the sense of revealing anything non-obvious but, if you want to be in suspense about whether, in the most general sense, Captain Marvel saves the day or not, skip to the next sections.)

It wasn’t my idea but I saw Captain Marvel this evening. It opens with an infodump which shows part of the plot, sci-fi comic book stuff notwithstanding, to be something suitable for a WWII movie with a spy behind enemy lines in need of extraction. It then intermittently moves between action and talk as the heroine tries to Discover Her Identity and Find Her True Strength. There follows an unbelievable reversal (though probably obvious and taken-for-granted if you’re more familiar with all this stuff – the movie assumes you’re steeped in its lore and innumerable related films) and then the net comes completely down as everything turns to ludicrously hot butter before the Woman (the grrl-power motif is extremely ham-handed: male pilot to female pilot, “You know why it’s called a cockpit, don’t you?” and the Montage in which the female is repeatedly knocked down but, nevertheless, she persists, and so on). That said, it looks fantastic with spiffy special effects (but for what movie is that not true these days?) and segments of it are entertaining with a nice 90s soundtrack (not an easy feat) and lots of other period elements as well as a couple of young SHIELD agents. And, of course, I’m evil and boneheaded and wrong for saying such offensive things and she’ll kick my ass, but the heroine is attractive and has an appealing sense of whimsy. I assume fans of this sort of thing will enjoy it and those who aren’t won’t find it too painful (aside from the butter thing).

Musical Interlude

My “rock/classical” ratio has been skewing more classical than usual lately and it occurs to me that, if I had to pick a dozen favorite composers on a sort of combo of the two factors of being reasonably massive and really enjoyable to me (as opposed to relatively obscure people or one-hit wonders I like inordinately) they would be (in chronological order): Corelli, Albinoni, Vivaldi, Telemann, Bach, Handel, Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Mendelssohn, Brahms. Which is to say, my taste in classical music is very boring, I suppose. (Now playing: Telemann’s first set of Paris Quartets.)

They Don’t Make ‘Em Like They Used To

When I was reading Berserker recently, my 1978 copy had accidentally doubled inserts from the SFBC (Science Fiction Book Club) and one of them sort of fell out and I sort of fell off my chair looking it over. (I meant to comment on this after the review post but forgot.) The insert offers 25 books from which you need to pick four for ten cents. You have to buy four more books in the next year, which will cost at least $1.98 (plus the shipping and handling, which will be more than you’d imagine but still leave it a decent deal). What struck me was that I would have been perfectly willing to take twenty-three of them. I currently own sixteen and have read two others. Titles such as Asimov’s The Hugo Winners, Vols. I & II (2-in-1) and The Foundation Trilogy (3-in-1). Wollheim’s 1977 annual (with Varley’s “Overdrawn at the Memory Bank,” Asimov’s “The Bicentennial Man,” and Tiptree’s “Houston, Houston, Do You Read?”). All My Sins Remembered by Joe Haldeman. Gateway by Frederik Pohl. The Faded Sun: Kesrith by C.J. Cherryh. Starlight (2-in-1) by Alfred Bester. The Best of L. Sprague de Camp. The Book of Skaith by Leigh Brackett and The Adventures of the Stainless Steel Rat by Harry Harrison (both 3-in-1). More titles by Burroughs, Silverberg, Ellison, Clarke, Anderson, Niven, Benford, Dickson, etc.

Musical Conclusion

Dick Dale, the king of surf guitar, dies at 81. Sad news that I had to note. A true trailblazer. In addition to the unbeatable “Misirlou” and the great version of “Pipeline” in the article, here’s “The Wedge.”

Links: 2019-03-15

Science Fiction

Birthdays

Apologies to Al Jaffee – I edited the ISFDB to reflect his birthday and then ironically neglected to put him on this list last week.

  • 1921-03-13 Al Jaffee
  • 1939-03-15 Joseph D. Olander
  • 1946-03-16 Chris Foss
  • 1948-03-17 William Gibson
  • 1842-03-18 Stéphane Mallarmé
  • 1946-03-19 John Gribbin
  • -0043-03-20 Ovid
  • 1932-03-20 Jack Cady

The data in this section is from the ISFDB. ISFDB entries usually have SFE and/or Wikipedia links for biographies. For free works of older authors online, try sites like FreeSFOnline, Archive.org, Gutenberg, or PoemHunter.com.

Science

Other

Humor

Music…

Continue reading

Review: Black Static #68, March/April 2019 (at Tangent)

This issue of Black Static contains two novelettes and four short stories
whose quality are almost uniformly inversely proportional to their length,
with the shortest story achieving excellence, though a few may be sufficiently
creepy to entertain.

Continue reading at Tangent.

Recommended:

  • “Totenhaus” by Amanda J. Bermudez (horror short story)

Review: Berserker by Fred Saberhagen

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Date: September 1978 (originally January 1967)
Format: Paperback
ISBN: 0-441-05404-8
Pages: 243
Price: $1.75
Publisher: Ace (originally Ballantine)

I was intending to re-read Nightwings and discuss it but caught a bug early this month and didn’t want to do that in that state, so picked up a different volume to correct a glaring omission in my reading which, coincidentally, also consists of stories published by Fred Pohl in the 1960s. (Some of them are online as part of The Berserker Wars, one of the needless, probably harmful, repackagings of parts of the series and are linked to in the individual story comments.)

Berserker collects the first eleven tales in the series of the same name, plus a twelfth “story” interleaved throughout, in which a pacifist alien presents all the others to us. All the stories have individual beginnings, middles, and ends but about half (and much the longer and better half) also tell a fairly unified main story with recurring characters (“Goodlife,” “Stone Place,” “What T and I Did,” “The Masque of the Red Shift,” “In the Temple of Mars,” “The Face of the Deep”) while several generally shorter, lesser stories tend to alternate with those (“Without a Thought,” “Patron of the Arts,” “The Peacemaker,” “Mr. Jester,” and “Sign of the Wolf”). Even though there is a unified story, it contains mild inconsistencies as exemplified by a belated effort in “Temple” to paper over the disappearance of the mind beams after “Thought.”) I’d recommend “What T and I Did,” “The Masque of the Red Shift,” and “The Face of the Deep” from the core group (but don’t read “Face” out of order) and “Patron of the Arts” from the others. “Masque” was rightly nominated for a major award and, inexplicably, so was “Mr. Jester.”

Given their reputation, I was astonished at how relatively inefficient and ineffective the Berserkers were. The New Wave of British Space Opera, with its Inhibitors and whatnot, were able to build on the Berserkers to great effect. That said, I still wouldn’t want Berserkers to be real and the stories are still often effective. Other influential elements that immediately spring to mind include an element in the later main stories which may have inspired a key element in Pohl’s masterpiece, Gateway; that the original Battlestar Galactica‘s Cylons and Baltar (a character introduced in “Stone Place” and featured in “What T and I Did”) comes almost lock, stock, and barrel from here; and that the conclusion of Han Solo’s Bespin adventure could have come from here. (Though it’s also likely all these things have earlier precedents from Wells’ Martians to Benedict Arnold to the girl in Simak’s Cosmic Engineers or even King Arthur.)

Without a Thought” (originally titled “Fortress Ship”) is almost like Asimovian military SF as there’s a combat puzzle to be solved. A pair of human ships have a Berserker vessel checked but are waiting on a third human ship to arrive and make it checkmate. In the meantime, the Berserker is using its mind control weapon on the nearest human ship which is crewed only by Del Murray and his aiyan, or dog-ape pet-ally. The Berserker sets up a contest by which it hopes to know if the human has succumbed to its weapon and the human has to use his own very limited resources and his alien buddy of limited intelligence to try to trick the machine into believing he’s still in possession of his faculties. The machine’s mind control weapon is a bit of magic but the parameters are laid out fairly and the story’s pretty clever.

Goodlife” is a much more substantial tale and not just because it’s a novelette. One of three humans is dying when they are captured by a Berserker who has raised a captive human, known as (an example of) Goodlife. That human brutally finishes off the dying man and the other two are brought aboard the Berserker vessel. The man, Hemphill, has a bomb but is holding off until he can use it for maximum effect. The “nature vs. nurture” elements aren’t bad and the depiction of the Berserker vessel is excellent but Maria, the female prisoner, is a bit too sentimental without sufficient motivation. The stark and dark conflict in which suicide bombing seems like a decent plan made me think of some Baxter stories, such as the Silver Ghost tales.

While positioned third in the book, “Patron of the Arts” was actually the sixth published. It’s a very effective look at Piers Herron, an artist who is jaded past the point of most mere mortals, which produces interesting results when he’s captured by machines making war on life. The only problem here is that the theme may a bit too explicit at the end.

The Peacemaker” (originally flipped around with the title “The Life Hater”) involves the murderous machines, as usual, but also with a seemingly insanely naive man who wants to negotiate a peace with them. This is less aesthetically significant than the previous two, settling for a decently presented ironic result.

More than even “Without a Thought” or “Goodlife” (which are stories with combat elements) “Stone Place” is the first clearly “military SF” tale. With nearly twice the length of any other story in the book and multiple aspects (including bringing Hemphill back from “Goodlife” for a minor role), it’s also one of the more ambitious tales. It mainly tackles the “Great Man” concept and the power of belief as well as detailing some internal conflicts in the Solar System which manifest even under Berserker threat. It also throws in a difficulty with a woman who’s been reprogrammed by the Berserkers to reject the leader she’d been betrothed to and who, instead, jumps into the arms of his lieutenant. This later part could have been mined for some powerful effects but wasn’t especially convincing. I also wasn’t convinced by certain gung-ho aspects which aim for the adrenalized thrill of approaching combat but which plummet into bathos. (After one man is skinned by the machines, humans yell “Death to the flayers!” and the narrative voice observes: “The shout ran like a flame through the corridor.”) Finally, there is one moment where the narrative voice also observes: “Now for a time the fight would be computer against computer, faithful slave of life against outlaw, neither caring, neither knowing,” which begs the question why humans present themselves to the Berserkers for combat at all. Still, the story does generally move along and provides some food for thought.

What T and I Did” returns to a much smaller tale, but brings back “Baltar” (here called both “T” and “Thad” and ensconced as human leader of several prisoners in a Berserker ship after the battle of the last story) in an interesting little psychodrama involving the minds of a traitor. In its dark psychological focus, it’s akin to “Patron of the Arts” (which comes right after it in the original order of publication).

Mr. Jester” is a bizarre bit of inconsistency, dealing with a light-hearted man rebelling against the very serious government of an isolated planet with the help of an improperly repaired Berserker which he’s been able to turn into a comic assistant. Perhaps one could applaud the reach of a series which includes genocidal machines and humor and perhaps this coincidental riff on “‘Repent, Harlequin!’ Said the Ticktockman” (published by Pohl a month earlier) would have worked in the abstract but it seems out of place in this book.

Poe! “The Masque of the Red Shift” slams things back into grim violence. Felipe Nogara has become emperor of humanity but perceives his half-brother, Johann Karlsen (featured in “Stone Place”), as a threat, so has frozen him (though not in carbonite) and told the galaxy he’s died of plague. The Berserkers also see Karlsen as a threat to them and want to confirm his death so, when a defeated and brainwashed rebel warrior and his sister are transferred to Nogara’s ship full of decadent revelers orbiting a “hypermassive sun,” they insert themselves in a most morbid and violent way. A very effective and exciting tale, albeit a bit conventionally puritanical.

Sign of the Wolf” is a sort of cute tale about a rustic shepherd on a planet that’s lost knowledge of its technological background stumbling into a situation in which a planetary defense computer wants authorization to defend against an attacking Berserker and he wants a god to help him destroy a wolf who’s slowly making off with his flock. The shepherd seems to not mind an inconsistency in the conclusion as much as I do, but it’s not a bad tale.

In the Temple of Mars” carries on the main story, with Hemphill (now an admiral) and a captain from “Stone Place” (now a journalist) taking a replacement vessel to Nogara but with the plan to divert and rescue an important person. Unfortunately, a group of secret police have turned to berserker-worshiping and a prisoner (now on the loose) has been brainwashed by them to kill Hemphill so that they can take the ship for their own purposes. The use of the female character is weak (as usual) and made worse by a rather ham-handed “Mars vs. Venus” motif (using Chaucer) but the story otherwise moves along at a good clip and holds attention (as usual).

I can’t get into “The Face of the Deep” at all without spoilers, really, so I’ll just say that it is in the main storyline and cleverly wraps up the volume with a nicely staged insight into human nature.