Review: Asimov’s, May/June 2019

Asimov’s,
May/June 2019

Original Fiction:

  • “Unfinished Business” by Bill Johnson (science fiction novelette)
  • “The Doing and Undoing of Jacob E. Mwangi” by E. Lily Yu (science fiction short story)
  • “The Memory Artist” by Ian R. MacLeod (reprint science fiction novelette)
  • “Sacrificial Iron” by Ted Kosmatka (science fiction short story)
  • “Never the Twain Shall Meet” by Peter Wood (science fiction short story)
  • “Chasing Oumuamua” by Sean Monaghan (science fiction short story)
  • “Recrossing Brooklyn Ferry” by John Richard Trtek (science fiction novelette)
  • “Not Only Who You Know” by Jay O’Connell (science fiction short story)
  • “The Intertidal Zone” by Rahul Kanakia (science fiction short story)
  • “Gremlin” by Carrie Vaughn (science fiction novella)

One story, Ian R. MacLeod’s “The Memory Artist,” which is set in his “Breathmoss” universe, is a reprint1. The other six of the first seven had me convinced I was going to write a uniformly negative review. Two of the last three (the exception being a short-short) saved the issue2.

Unfinished Business” is a “Ship” story. The Ship is a vessel containing various layers of Earth flora and fauna which has returned to acquire another layer, resulting in all sorts of sociopolitical shenanigans, both on Earth and in the Ship. In this case, two humans and a dog have witnessed signs of an alliance between two antagonistic Ship factions, making them part of the “skine” (or tableau of the event). The (re)enactment of the event is complicated by saboteurs and the humans must figure out how to thwart the latter while preserving the former. This might produce a fair story but I’ve read at least one in this series and could barely hang on. I would not recommend starting with this, especially because the opening scenes are confusingly disjointed and so much of the background is so sketchy. Also, the love-“hate” relationship and bickering of the protagonists didn’t work for me. Between the decent concepts and uneven execution, this was basically average, though it might seem better in its complete context.

Recrossing Brooklyn Ferry” is another novelette of about the same length with far less content. Though it lacks action and is initially elliptical, genre readers will know they’re reading a time travel tale (though I suspect non-genre readers would be utterly mystified) and it eventually becomes clear that people are escaping their oppressive government in the present by leaping over the wall of time. One thread of the story occurs in its present and another occurs in 1923 America as we follow various hunters and runners. The only interest I had in the story centered around the mystery of a woman’s death which later seemed to be intentional deception rather than any actual twist (though I could have read it wrong); one character is a walking “easy button” who personifies the authorial fiat around a main character and a point is made of how boring the former is when the latter has even less personality; there’s a red herring involving metal spike fragments.

The previously mentioned short-short, “The Intertidal Zone,” lacks any genuine science fictional element: shorn of its many-legged and -eyed “aliens,” it’s just about a woman getting plastic surgery. I would have liked to have liked “Never the Twain,” which is possibly the only SF story to be set in Kinston, NC or to deal with barbecue, but just as in “Zone,” you could substitute twins for “entities split in a transporter accident” and make the “robot” worker a human and the result would be an essentially unchanged mainstream story, this one about sibling rivalry and barbecue (Eastern barbecue is the only barbecue). “Chasing Oumuamua” has little more SF: a sister has to get spaceship plans out of her mad scientist brother so NASA can catch the next interstellar object after Oumwhoozits. The siblings and the insanity are mainstream and touchingly done but there is nothing essentially science fictional in the story’s frame. It’s also full of weird things: it claims to be set in 2024 and has a character who must be at least 57 who listens to Matchbox Twenty on the oldies station and claims Star Trek was dated when he was a kid; it’s full of namedropped brands like it’s a cyberpunk story; it messes up heavy metal handsigns; and it messes up the dramatic timing of the brother’s five minutes of lucidity with an excessive spasm of descriptive writing.

Doing and Undoing” is at least more speculative but not especially science fictional: a magical spiritual awakening has happened and faded away. In the meantime, society has redistributed its wealth and the “Haves” and “Have-nots” have been replaced by the “Doers” and the “Don’ts” in yet another brick in the mystifyingly solid wall of anti-basic-income stories. The protagonist’s own spiritual awakening is just as much handwaving fantasy or author fiat as the societal one but worse for appearing “on-screen.”

Sacrificial Iron” is superficially more science fictional but has a relatively minor problem with seemingly bad science (the notion that Hawking radiation appears “out of nothing” and that cosmic inflation means the speed of light is inconstant which means we can now produce FTL stardrives). I say “relatively minor” because this is another in the surprisingly populous subgenre of Unbelievably Contrived Space Expeditions Which Go Wrong. Someone somehow thought it was a good idea to send two men into space for years and thought it was good to do so without really knowing anything about their possible destinations. It gets even better because it turns out one of the crew is crazy and the other was expelled for beating up a kid with a baseball bat in school but this somehow slipped past the psych eval team. Then the final conflict shows that the IQ evals must have been just as effective as the psych evals. This Cain and Abel story (which almost reads like a discussion of political parties) interestingly barely precedes the somewhat similar and better “The Skinner Box” (Tor.com, June 12, 2019).

Finally, turning to the better stuff, “Not Only Who You Know” would sound like it would have to be worse. The story opens with a woman having cut off the head (and hand) of her boyfriend. But he’s not dead yet and, if he plays his cards right, he may even get them re-attached. This preposterous but definitely attention-getting concept is carried out with aplomb as the backstory is gradually revealed just ahead of the reader’s impatience (barely) and portrays a sort of “Noctambulous” (Rich Larson, Mar/Apr 2019 F&SF) notion of the rich and the means people will go to get or stay in that state. The character’s behavior and their own self-images are fascinatingly strange and complex and their relationship matches. Aside from the premise (which I could understand some not being able to accept) the only real problems are that the tense and time-critical tale resolves too easily and the denouement is too extended. Aside from those issues, though, it’s an invigorating and entertaining ride.

The last and longest story of the issue is the best. The three-part “Gremlin” opens with a Russian female fighter pilot in a dogfight with a Nazi when the Messerschmidt explodes and she realizes “there’s something on the wing!” – her wing, that is. When she gets back to base, she becomes the confused and secretive ally of a strange creature which eats metal and has all manner of special abilities. Her American granddaughter takes center stage in the second part as a Warthog pilot in Gulf War II. Grandma insists she take a mysterious bag into combat with her. The third part follows an even more remote descendant into the future and out into space with the critter still with her.

The opening section (and the 586th was a real unit of female WWII fighter pilots) is gritty with historical realism which somehow pulls off the SF/F element at the same time. As a fan of the A-10, I was already biased towards the second section which is also vivid but it went beyond that to become emotionally effective with the inter-generational connections and (relatively) contemporary relevance. When a character dies, the main character is devastated and feels that, with her A-10, which “was at heart a cannon with wings,” she could “murder the world, given ammunition enough, and time.” She mentions how her friend would “slip quietly into a statistic” but this story achieves the opposite through the humanizing power of fiction and reminds me how few stories about our current eternal wars are written, especially compared to the Golden Age SF of WWII and how we all need to be reminded that these are not statistics. The third section went exactly where I was hoping it would go, which is to the future and space but, unfortunately, it was the most obligatory and least convincing section as the historical details gave way to futuristic vagueness. It still had an effective action sequence and ended the whole in a satisfying way. I wish the third part could have been as powerful as the first two but I still strongly recommend the tale.


1 It was originally published in Chinese after having been “inspired by” a “workshop” produced by a Chinese “financial services group” and a magazine.

2 It still needs the salvation of better proofreading/editing, though, as there are several typos and outright errors.

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Links: 2019-07-28

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Music

They’re BACK! (Or half of them are, anyway. 2.5/4, maybe.) These are the first two singles from the upcoming album. Both songs are fantastic but, while I don’t usually pay much attention to the non-auditory stuff, the second (from July 17th) has a really striking, artsy video. Congrats to the amazing performers.

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Review: Compelling #13, Summer 2019

Compelling #13, Summer 2019

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Original Fiction:

  • “Steps in the Other Room” by LA Staley
  • “Sasha Red” by Tyler A. Young
  • “Bodybit” by Mark Parlette-Cariño
  • “What We Remember” by Mark Salzwedel
  • “Love and Brooding” by M. J. Pettit
  • “Steadies” by Robert Dawson

This issue marks the beginning of Compelling‘s incarnation as a purchase-only e-zine after having been a freely available webzine for its first twelve issues.

All six of its offerings are science fiction short stories. Three of them are fairly adventurous. “Sasha Red” is set in a solar system where refugees fleeing Mars are desperate to reach Earth. The title comes from a background element which is paid off later: Sasha Red was a “pirate” who aided refugees by “attacking” their ships, forcing their rescues. In the foreground, we follow a rescue team made up of Tom the Right-Winger, Becca the Left, and Alex the Centrist Narrator. I was initially put off by the idea of another “refugee in space” story but the ideological spread of the characters and the action-plot, involving the effort to rescue forty children before their vessel explodes, engaged me. The only real problems are that some foreshadowing regarding Tom doesn’t seem to pan out and the climax is a little too early with too much “where are they now?” in the ending.

What We Remember” is somewhat reminiscent of Michael Adam Robson’s “The Ambassador” (from Constellary Tales #2, Feb. 2019) and others in that humans make contact with a sentient fungus and some go crazy. I liked the sort of “Darmok at Tanagra” communication by means of triggered or sent memories but the tale doesn’t seem long enough or fleshed out enough and part of the ending comes off like a joke which is out of place.

Finally, “Love and Brooding” describes the life cycle of fish-like creatures who are raised by paternal mouthbrooders from the point of view of one of the fry. Like other tales of this sort, the cognitive dissonance and generalized weirdness are good, while the largely predetermined plot and difficulty of connecting with the characters are less so. I was also confused by the background milieu. It would seem that the land was once, but is no longer, habitable and that these creatures were engineered to survive in the water (perhaps these are ex-humans on a future Earth?) but, if so, I’d have to wonder why they were engineered this way.

While I prefer “far-out” stories in the abstract and that group wasn’t bad, this issue’s most interesting group of stories are the focused, near-future extrapolations which make up the other half of the issue. “Steps in the Other Room” is set in a 2064 of smart houses and more, and involves a woman calling the cops, represented by one man and one Autonomous Car named Ace, to report that her husband’s ghost has gone missing. This is a minor but decent tale in which things aren’t as they seem and ends up touching on family and loss.

Steadies” has a very interesting idea which is insufficiently explored though it has a good framework to do so. A doctor who has some expertise in statistics is shown a paper under a non-disclosure agreement which shows, via deep data-mining, that a cholesterol drug has the bizarre side-effect of reducing divorce, especially if both partners take it. Becoming jealous at a party, she guiltily decides to get her husband on it and starts taking it herself. Some of her internal conflict is shown and these conflicts broaden when the paper is released, the drug becomes very popular, and it produces some social and familial side-effects. My immediate question was the mechanism – is this some slave drug which makes people satisfied with unpleasant conditions or a love drug which heightens interpersonal relations or what? One character eventually asks, “I don’t even know how it’s supposed to work. Have you read the article?” and the narrator replies, “They don’t say. Maybe it causes an irresistible compulsion to put the toilet seat down?” So I would have liked to have seen much more serious development of this intriguing idea.

The story which most impressed me in this issue, despite being as philosophically opposed to it as can be, was “Bodybit,” which also addresses coupling and effectively takes us through a large chunk of the protagonist’s life. It takes the notion of people putting all kinds of private information online (for example, “fitbits” and dating apps) and takes it one small/huge step further: what if a device monitored your sexual performance and statistics and put that online? The story gives us a protagonist who doesn’t do so well the first time and suffers shame but perseveres until things get better for him (and his partners). It takes him through his satiety with this new dating scene before focusing on a lasting relationship he develops. The “add-ons” to the bodybit keep surprising and keep the story moving and the dramatic lines of the tale generally work. The only thing that stops me from giving it a full recommendation (and it may be my own bias against social media) is that I can’t persuade myself that this story seriously addresses the consequences in a complete way, considering the possible negatives anywhere near as thoroughly as the positives. Regardless, it is definitely, at the least, a “compelling” and notable tale.

Review: BCS #279-280

Beneath Ceaseless Skies, #279-280
Jun. 6, 2019/Jun. 20, 2019

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Original Fiction:

  • “Revival” by Lisa M. Bradley (fantasy short story)
  • “Silver Springs” by T.R. North (fantasy novelette)
  • “A Handful of Sky” by Elly Bangs (fantasy novelette)
  • “Black, Like Earth” by Jordyn Blanson (fantasy short story)

The last two tales of June deal with individual warriors fighting for justice in their evil cities. “Black” has a person gaining warrior superpowers in a city which black people built before “pale” people came along and oppressed them. When “bronze” people come along and start slaughtering black and pale alike, the warrior just sort of wishes real hard and Magic Happens, with mixed results. This is as rigidly plotted as it is subtle. “Handful” is a bit better in having an imaginative milieu in which the oppressed sew things out of immaterial things which the rich wear for their powers. When a particular wealthy man commissions an impossible coat of sky (somewhat like the recent story of the coat of bones), the protagonist must relearn the skills she lost since her exile and deal with reconnecting with the woman she once loved and then come to a decision about the coat. The story has a character lie to another (and to us) in a way that feels unfair to readers and it also shares a feature with a different recent BCS story in calling people things like “old coot” that just don’t ring dramatically true but, as I say, at least the “coat of sky” is interesting.

The month’s first two tales deal with rationalism colliding with fantasy while women search for love. It’s an oddly balanced issue in that I debated recommending both and think they’re both at least notable. A rational young woman is exploring a tent “Revival” when she panics and is rescued by a kind man. They both would seem to have skin conditions or something of the sort but, in the case of the man, that’s not quite what it is. The pair fall in love and matters come to a head when the “devil” or other being that has been chasing the man catches up with him. It’s hard to summarize much beyond this without spoiling but there’s a nice fantastic premise here (or, as the woman would have it, a rational one which is difficult to explain) and the strange style of the tale is mild enough and consistent enough in its strangeness to work, despite some plot-action that strains the mood. “Silver Springs” has the interesting premise of people infusing silver coins with whatever psychological or spiritual issue they want taken away and then giving those coins to mermaids in Florida. Our protagonist is a kleptomaniac (which may be a sublimation of other desires) and has been brought to Florida by her religious mother and skeptical father. Naturally enough, she takes three coins when the parents don’t take any and these create the framework for an odd, ardent relationship with a particular mermaid. The multiple ways in which the protagonist is, um, a fish out of water and crushed by being in a strange land doing strange things with a society and family she can’t quite come to terms with, and the intensity with which the hot, humid setting is evoked all work well. Despite the mermaids, the action is somehow more believable than “Revival” but the character, though vividly portrayed and appealing in her way, isn’t as appealing as the duo of the other tale. Regardless, both will probably find fans.

Review: BCS #277-278

Beneath Ceaseless Skies,#277-278
May 9, 2019/May 23, 2019

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Original Fiction:

  • “The Bone Flute Quartet” by K.J. Kabza (fantasy short story)
  • “The Thirty-Eight-Hundred Bone Coat” by R.K. Duncan (fantasy novelette)
  • “The Two-Bullet War” by Karen Osborne (fantasy short story)
  • “Abacus of Ether” by Stephen Case (fantasy novelette)

The first two tales of May are about 101 uses for human bones. “Bone Coat” is reminiscent of several other “diving” stories, especially the same author’s “The Boy Who Loved Drowning” in the same magazine just a few issues ago (#272, Feb. 28, 2019). It doesn’t seem to be an actual sequel but is too similar if not. In this one, a boy’s family gets greedy and makes a deal with a rich potentate to make him a magical coat out of all the human hands they have lying around in their community’s river. When it turns out to be essentially impossible, the boy resorts to actions which might have been aesthetically appealing (if his dad had been depicted as a jerk or if his gods weren’t depicted as being benign) but actually seemed to merit a different ending than the one we get. “Bone Flute” is reminiscent of innumerable other BCS magic music stories, and especially those that deal with instruments made of bones (such as “The Deepest Notes of the Harp and Drum” by Marissa Lingen, #269, Jan. 17, 2019 and, from that same January in Apex #116, “Bone Song” by Aja McCullou). This one deals with a young girl, Bretchen, trying to become a witch (which she and her grandmother want) rather than a knitter (as her mother wants). The grandmother sends her off with one bone flute and the backstory about the great Myrra Ferrinn, a famed witch who was brutally killed for her own brutal behavior, takes on more significance as the story progresses and more bone flutes are acquired before a climactic showdown and a revelatory denouement. I can’t fully recommend this because the heroine’s progress and the ending are too easy but I did enjoy it, mostly due to the whimsical and sprightly tone of the plucky heroine’s narration.

The next two tales deal with attempting to avert or minimize wars despite the opposite tendencies of the Powers That Be – in this case, royal families. “Two-Bullet” involves a “war” of succession between twin princes and their hired duelists (who have secretly married). It seemed momentarily promising but an elevated fantasy which, among other things, has its heroine accidentally bouncing a gun off a dead queen’s forehead, calling someone “a real dick,” and which pulls one of the funniest scenes from Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid to use in all seriousness just does not work. At the opposite end of the spectrum, the best story in this month of BCS was “Abacus of Ether,” which I recommend despite an ending that felt like deja vu all over again. A king’s war has been running for a long time and a large number of casualties. A blind woman is an actuary, or a seller of insurance to soldiers, who employs a “taster,” or a sort of benign vampire, to determine whether certain special cases should be insured before they go out to battle. When a general of the king shows up in the actuary’s apartment with news of the king’s plan to use his three sons in a new offensive and describes his own plan to end the war with trickery, things get complicated. Hopefully this minimal synopsis indicates some of the creativity and cleverness of this unusual concept but the masterful narration from the actuary’s point-of-sense is particularly good and difficult to demonstrate here. There are minor problems such as why the actuary doesn’t worry that the general may be up to no good or why, in a case I won’t specify, simple suicide’s not an option but, before the overall effect of the tale, these are quibbles.

Review: BCS #275-276

Beneath Ceaseless Skies, #275-276
Apr. 11, 2019/Apr. 25, 2019

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Original Fiction:

  • “Boiled Bones and Black Eggs” by Nghi Vo
  • “The Red Honey Witch” by Jessica Paddock
  • “Fury at the Crossroads” by Troy L. Wiggins
  • “Hangdog” by Dayna K. Smith

All April BCS stories are fantasy shorts. The first two are simplistic vengeance tales. “Boiled Bones” is a vengeance-of-the-dead story which, aside from being contrived and playing to base sensibilities, was adequately written but reminds me strongly of some earlier BCS tale – perhaps “Old No-Eyes” from the August 2, 2018 issue or some other story about sitting around in a sort of Asian restaurant until violence breaks out. “Witch” is about a girl blessed/cursed by magical bees and is worse because the protagonist is a confused girl who, by all rights, should be the villain, but is treated as the heroine. The bees “knew her goodness too, the parts she could not see for herself.” The bees are alone in this, because the reader can’t see them either. Nevertheless, we are supposed to exult in the fate visited on the evil men who are not misunderstood and do not have hidden good parts. The only good parts in this story I could see were the portrayal of the girl’s confusion and the depiction of a catastrophe near the end.

The next two tales are a little better. “Fury” is a colorful tale of a guitar-wielding magician doing (rather unconvincing) battle with a dead wizard a warlord has sicced her on. This at least recognizes that “justice” isn’t always as simple as it might seem, though it doesn’t ultimately depict a very complex notion of it, either. “Hangdog” is the best of the four. It centers on werewolves in the vicinity of the Civil War who must deal with horse thieves and a storm of vengeful ghosts. More of this tale is devoted to chaotic battle than even “Fury.” I usually like action-oriented stories but the segue from the one fight to the next doesn’t connect very clearly. Still, the odd characters, their interrelations, and their sort of “light gray” mix of appealing and unappealing qualities make the tale work adequately.

Review: Tor.com, May/June 2019

Tor.com, May/June 2019

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Original Fiction:

  • “Murder in the Spook House” by Michael Swanwick (fantasy short story)
  • “Any Way the Wind Blows” by Seanan McGuire (fantasy short story)
  • “Skinner Box” by Carole Johnstone (science fiction novelette)
  • “The New Prometheus” by Michael Swanwick (fantasy short story)
  • “A Forest, or A Tree” by Tegan Moore (horror novelette)

Tor.com doesn’t seem to have been able to produce the May/June issue of Tor.com Short Fiction but five stories (plus a shared-world story) appeared on the site in those months. This “issue” is not as good as the last, but does have some interesting stories or elements within them.

Apparently, Tor.com is changing its physical corporate HQ. “Any Way the Wind Blows” is a vanity piece published to mark this event, borrowing aspects of Heinlein’s The Number of the Beast (in the sense of being set in a ship traveling through a metafictional omniverse) but replaces the four bantering geniuses with a cranky timeserving captain.

A Forest, or A Tree” probably has some symbolic sense that I’m missing. As is, half the short novelette involves four women hiking in the woods and talking… a lot… and it’s not exactly Tarantino-esque dialog. Then the horror finally kicks in as one of the hikers gets sick, another starts seeing things, and so on.

Skinner Box” is a tale that purports to be about a spaceship crew made up of an abusive husband, his wife, and the other crewman (who is the wife’s lover) and the plans of the latter two to kill the former. Readers will not be surprised that this isn’t entirely what’s going on. Examples of the several problems are that there are too many infodumps, neither the surface nor deeper premises make much sense, and the protagonist (the woman) is not an appealing lead character. (Reflecting on the many locked doors of the ship, she says, “I’ve never tried them more than once. I’ve never wondered what’s behind them more than once. Which, if I cared, is probably the most palpable metaphor for my entire life. Sad and bad and indifferent.”) There is some effectively portrayed claustrophobia and desperation, though.

Michael Swanwick contributes the best stuff with two tales in his “Mongolian Wizard” series. I’m barely familiar with the series but found a nice write-up to help me find my bearings in a world of combined magic and technology in which a sort of Napoleonic War is on the verge of turning into a sort of WWII via higgledy-piggledy timeline-mingling. “Murder in the Spook House” involves the main character, Ritter, investigating the murder of a major character. It doesn’t seem to be an especially weighty murder mystery, but it moves the war along and was brief, clever, and entertaining. “The New Prometheus,” as the title indicates, is a variation on Frankenstein, involving a superbeing created by the Mongolian Wizard. Ritter is tasked to deal with him and (despite not actually doing much, which is a problem) is treated to a strangely effective autobiography from the creature in which he describes how lonely it is to be a god.