Review: Asimov’s, January/February 2019

Asimov’s,
January/February 2019

Asimovs-1901

Original Fiction:

  • “How Sere Looked for a Pair of Boots” by Alexander Jablokov (science fiction novella)
  • “Credit to My Nation” by Sandra McDonald (fantasy short story)
  • “Written in Mud” by William F. Wu (science fictional short story)
  • “All the Difference” by Leah Cypess (science fictional short story)
  • “Ventiforms” by Sean Monaghan (science fiction novelette)
  • “The Gorgon” by Jay O’Connell (science fictional short story)
  • “Salting the Mine” by Peter Wood (science fiction short story)
  • “Taking Icarus Home” by Suzanne Palmer (science fiction novelette)
  • “Neom” by Lavie Tidhar (science fiction short story)
  • “The Esteemed” by Robert Reed (science fiction novella)

Almost half of the titles in this issue of Asimov’s Science Fiction are not, or are only loosely, science fiction. Frankly, this is also the least inspired issue of Asimov’s I can recall having read.

Credit” is set in the Caribbean, deals with a person of indeterminate gender facing discrimination, and ends with a magic wish-fulfillment. “Mud” aims to be a post-apocalyptic cli-fi comedy set on the shores of Kansas with talking fish nearby. “Difference” is yet another story which uses a magic multiverse machine to ask relationship questions, in this case, ostensibly, of whether the protagonist married the right husband. “Gorgon” has a morally problematic HR guy deal with a “uniquely irreplaceable” employee which requires dealing with issues of time and deus ex AI. It was also fairly familiar but more interesting than the others of this group.

Esteemed” is not much different from both “Difference” and “Gorgon” and seems too much like the recent “DENALI” from the same author and the same magazine as well as what I understand Robert Silverberg’s The Masks of Time to be like, though I haven’t read that to know for sure. A time traveler is introduced to the world by President Ford and turns out to be inextricably bound up with a group of “Esteemed,” particularly including one family. Various real-world and science-fictional crises involving nuclear proliferation, global warming, genetic engineering, and AI are confronted but figuring out the temporal messiah may be the biggest issue of all. Considering its length, it read fairly quickly but its narrative approach of looking at people as though they were objects seen from a great distance unsurprisingly created a disengaging effect.

Salting” is not much different from “Mud” in terms of failed humor. In this attempt at an Andy Griffith Show in Space, Otis is played by an alien and Andy is played by a lesbian. Andy’s folks have been abandoned by a corporation which returns to place them and the natives under their thumbs after a long time away but both develop a halfway red herring plan of resistance which ends by fiat.

Noem” is three pages of dull infodump about an artificial city in the Arabian desert followed by two pages about the protagonist’s visit with her senile mother after the senseless destruction of a chatbot “friend.” The depiction of that was effective.

Ventiforms” is one of at least a couple of stories in series, dealing tangentially with another of Shilinka Switalla’s great artworks but really focused on Taile Aronsen, who is looking for her son. He’s become rather… involved… in his work assisting Switalla. This feels like a story that is simultaneously overlong and yet missing its opening, is one of several stories recently which have an insufficiently prepped presentation of characters overloaded with emotion and, like “Salting,” “Credit,” and others, ends too easily.

Boots” is another in series. Sere functions as a sort of private detective trying to figure out the strange behavior and imprisonment of her sister’s boyfriend which leads her to uncover a complicated plot between the complex mix of species living on her world. It mostly deals with many of those aliens doing many disgusting things and with footgear fashion. Some may enjoy this tale’s color and activity.

Finally, “Icarus” has a Good Samaritan find a lost kid who’s nearly burned up in a pod after falling in with some odd folks whose idea of a good time is flying close to the sun. This has two severe problems: it’s inexplicably told in second person and it has the protagonist behaving in ways that seem to lack good sense without sufficient motivation before providing more grounds for this through character backstory after the fact. Still, this was evocative and otherwise effective and, if I were going to make any of these the cover story, I’d agree that this one would be it.

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Weekly Webzine Wrap-Up (2018-12-15)

Weekly Webzine Wrap-Up image

Original Fiction:

  • How Pleasant the Red Bloom” by Lucy Harlow, Strange Horizons, December 10, 2018 (short story)
  • Cold Heart” by Victoria Dixon, Nature, December 12, 2018 (science fiction short story)
  • Warning Signs” by Emily J. Smith, Terraform, December 12, 2018 (science fiction short story)

Bloom” is not science fiction or fantasy but slipstream, with oppressed “Ciphers” and oppressing “Diviners.” An imprisoned Cipher plays cryptic mind and word games in text etched under a bed at the bottom of an oubliette. We receive this through colored fonts and typographical gimmicks which mostly represent struck out passages and ironic insertions. “Signs” lacks any control of its point of view, head hopping between a variety of women and a cardboard date rapist. It seems to advocate corporate demolition of the Constitution. “Heart” has an alien who communicates autonomically by heat and color. After he crash lands on Earth, a mixture of (mostly bad) emotions occur over years of captivity and attempts at communication. While the bare situation merits some emoting, this sentimental tale needs to be stronger to bear the amount it has.

Year’s Best Short Science Fiction and Fantasy #2 (2018 Stories)

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Introduction

This second annual virtual anthology of the year’s best speculative fiction differs in four primary ways from last year’s Web’s Best Science Fiction #1 (2017 Stories) and Web’s Best Fantasy #1 (2017 Stories). Rather than restricting my coverage to web magazines as in 2017, I added coverage of several 2018 print magazines which created a much larger pool of stories to choose from. Thus, the word count for the “best” stories has increased from 140,000 to 250,000 words. Further, those words were evenly divided between two volumes of science fictional and fantastic stories but have now been combined into a single volume with three sections of uneven story and word counts. Finally, because of some of this, I renamed it to Year’s Best Short Science Fiction and Fantasy.

What hasn’t changed is the principle of selecting (to repeat the first introduction’s quote of the late Gardner Dozois) “only those stories that honestly and forcibly struck me as being the best published during that year, with no consideration for log-rolling, friendship, fashion, politics, or any other kind of outside influence.” And there’s still the same qualification to that: for variety’s sake, if multiple stories are by the same author or have strikingly similar elements, I try to select only one. Similarly, I’ve attempted to sequence the stories for a varied reading experience rather than any other principle. (The sequencing may not be ideal, though, as I wasn’t planning to do it this time, because not everyone will be able to read all the stories, but I wasn’t happy with other ordering methods.)

So what are the specifics of these principles and what sort of compilation did they produce? From December 11, 2017 to December 9, 2018 I read nearly 900 stories (872, I think) from 22 magazines (Amazing, Analog, Apex, Ares, Asimov’s, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Clarkesworld, Compelling, Cosmic Roots and Eldritch Shores, Diabolical Plots, F&SF, Flash Fiction Online, Galaxy’s Edge, Grievous Angel, Lightspeed, Nature, Nightmare, Slate, Strange Horizons, Terraform, Tor.com, and Uncanny) plus occasional issues from others. I selected 29 stories from fourteen of those regular, and two irregular, magazines which, despite the increased word count, is only three more stories than last year. The main reason for this is that last year there were several flash or very short pieces and no novellas while this year there are only three flash pieces and four novellas (which ironically include two from the web).

Partly due to the increased coverage and word count and partly due to an intrinsic quality of some of the best fiction, I felt it was better to split the fiction into three sections called “Natural,” “Pseudonatural,” and “Supernatural” fiction. The natural stories are science fiction stories which, while they might push the boundaries or make mistakes, are stories set in this space/time continuum and deal with things intended to represent the physical phenomena of nature while supernatural stories are fantasy stories which slip those mortal coils and deal with ghosts, vampires, spells, or otherwise purely fantastic things. There were a number of stories, though, which didn’t quite fit either category but which might be called alternate history, steampunk, rationalized fantasy, science fantasy, etc. They may insert fantastic elements into a science fictional milieu or apply the scientific method to fantastic things or at least approach them in a particularly reasoning and empirical way. They may be set in different timelines or use imaginary science or otherwise stress the notion of natural plausibility without sacrificing literary quality. Or they may just oscillate back and forth between genres while being experienced, like optical illusions.

Each section’s story count is not identical but happens to have come out close though the wordage of the “natural” stories (114K) dominated the rest and the “pseudonatural” stories (58K) formed the smallest group. If forced to pigeonhole everything as either SF or F, I’d probably split the “pseudonatural” category titles evenly between them. In terms of quality, I felt the SF in the first volume was generally stronger than the fantasy but this year produced numerous especially powerful fantasies.

As I did last year, I once again wish I could present more than three space-based or extra-terrestrial stories in the “natural” section and almost substituted one cluster of stories for another to achieve that but, strictly on quality, decided not to. I wish there were more combinations of Nina Allen’s “A Gift of Angels” (a beautifully written but almost mainstream story) and G. David Nordley’s “Empress of Starlight” (a huge toybox of Big Dumb Objects and interstellar exploration/adventure without appealing characters) but most excellent stories, if not that lopsided, still excel more in one domain than the other.

One type there was more than enough of, which cuts across subgenres, is the “Young Adult” or “juvenile” tale. More than one good story failed to appear in this group due to an excess of that type and they still make up over a third of the titles. On the one hand, this shows the remarkable quality of such stories and that’s a good thing but, while “YA,” I’m not sure how many young adults they’d actually excite. I can only hope it’s a lot.

A last thing to note about the contents is that 26 authors make their first appearance this year with only Ashley Blooms, Greg Egan, and Susan Palwick repeating.

As a final note on the field generally, the magazine is dead! Long live the magazine! Ares and Grievous Angel no sooner became SFWA-qualifying markets than they died. While Grievous Angel lasted most of the year, Ares died before I ever saw an actual issue and after I’d read only one story which was released on their website. To make up for this, Amazing (the cat of science fiction magazines) was reborn yet again and The Dark raised its pay rate to an SFWA-qualifying level. Here’s hoping they not only survive to qualify but prosper after doing so.

Part One: Natural Fiction (Science Fiction)

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Umbernight” * Carolyn Ives Gilman
Clarkesworld #137, February 2018

The Independence Patch” * Bryan Camp
Lightspeed #94, March 2018

Redaction” * Adam R. Shannon
Compelling #11, Summer 2018

“Galatea in Utopia” * Nick Wolven
F&SF, January/February 2018

Flash: “My Favourite Sentience” * Marissa Lingen
Nature, April 25, 2018

Grace’s Family” * James Patrick Kelly
Tor.com, May 16, 2018

Octo-Heist in Progress” * Rich Larson
Clarkesworld #146, November 2018

The Nearest” * Greg Egan
Tor.com, July 19, 2018

“The Camel’s Tail” * Tom Jolly
Analog, March/April 2018

Sour Milk Girls” * Erin Roberts
Clarkesworld #136, January 2018

“The Last Biker Gang” * Wil McCarthy
Analog, May/June 2018

Part Two: Pseudonatural Fiction

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“Likho” * Andy Stewart
F&SF, March/April 2018

Strange Waters” * Samantha Mills
Strange Horizons, April 2, 2018

“In the Sharing Place” * David Erik Nelson
Asimov’s, September/October 2018

A Song of Home, the Organ Grinds” * James Beamon
Lightspeed #98, July 2018

“Never the Twain” * Michael Reid
Interzone #274, March/April 2018

Leviathan Sings to Me in the Deep” * Nibedita Sen
Nightmare #69, June 2018

Nine Last Days on Planet Earth” * Daryl Gregory
Tor.com, September 19, 2018

Flash: “This Big” * John Cooper Hamilton
Nature, March 21, 2018

Part Three: Supernatural Fiction (Fantasy)

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“The Lady of Butterflies” * Y. M. Pang
F&SF, November/December 2018

The Thing About Ghost Stories” * Naomi Kritzer
Uncanny #25, November/December 2018

A Witch’s Guide to Escape: A Practical Compendium of Portal Fantasies” * Alix E. Harrow
Apex #105, February 2018

The Thought That Counts” * K. J. Parker
Beneath Ceaseless Skies #250, April 26, 2018

“Hainted” * Ashley Blooms
F&SF, July/August 2018

The War of Light and Shadow, in Five Dishes” * Siobhan Carroll
Beneath Ceaseless Skies #247, March 15, 2018

“Hideous Flowerpots” * Susan Palwick
F&SF, March/April 2018

“The Monstrosity in Love * Sam Thompson
Black Static #64, July/August 2018

Flash: “The Ghost In Angelica’s Room” * Maria Haskins
Flash Fiction Online, March 2018

Shadowdrop” * Chris Willrich
Beneath Ceaseless Skies #261, September 27, 2018

Weekly Webzine Wrap-Up (2018-12-08)

Weekly Webzine Wrap-Up image

Original Fiction:

In this sub-par week, the three single-story zines brought us two science fiction stories of under two thousand words and one fantasy of just over three. “Beginner’s Guide” takes the familiar idea of colony ships being leapfrogged by later, faster colony ships and puts it into a familiar cyclical/ironic monologue structure. The only unfamiliar thing is a reference to us as “carbon breathers.” “Mammoth Steps” is a sort of sentimental and undramatic cli-fi tale of an engineered mammoth and his human friend trekking south to meet up with some elephants. It’s nice enough in its way, but makes me think of a significantly lesser “Jackie’s-Boy” (Steven Popkes, April/May 2010 Asimov’s). Like several Diabolical Plots stories recently, “Prayer” is a religious story, this time involving a golem and a woman the golem describes as “wearing a black suit so rumpled and careworn it wanted to slide off on its own in search of a sewing machine” whose “bittersweet smile gripped [him] with the certainty of prayer” and whose “eyes resisted, as sharp as a dream’s leading edge.” She represents “some scientist’s career” and his boss represents those who want others “to serve our country” and they fight over him before he decides to trump them both.

BCS #266 is the “animal women in the woods” issue (with fawns and foxes), the “familiar BCS motifs” issue (with artistic revolutions and kitsune (Ainu/Japanese shapeshifting fox-people)) and the “‘creative’ English” issue (with phrases like, “[o]ne Forester must have stayed on the ridge to fool Cole that his ruse had worked” in one and “she laughed the once I asked” and “[t]he full of the storm is upon us” in the other).

After supposedly interesting things have happened and before more supposedly interesting things will happen, we have the actual content of “Forest Spirits,” in which nothing happens. Our two artistic revolutionaries are in a forest and we’re told that technology (here called “magic” and, like the action, little in evidence in this generally mundane, medieval forest) is bad, has ruined nature, and must be done away with. Two defenders of the status quo and their boars chase them in a remarkably lackadaisical way as they have time to wring out wet clothes, sleep, hug (making me think of “Escape now, hug later!”), and so on. Finally, when they are about to be caught, we see that the climactic moment will be the girl dancing, dancing with Mr. Deer, but that doesn’t actually occur in this story’s frame. Like many “art is revolution” pieces, this isn’t convincing.

Frozen” deals with a sister who’s gone away and a fox who’s arrived in a storm. The girl learns something about her mother and sibling and follows the fox into the woods where she learns more about her sister and makes a decision about her own life. The conflict here is between the cost of secrecy, the reaction of society (the village) if some of them come out of the closet, and familial desires to stay bonded. When in English, this is the stylistically superior of the two tales, though it seems too familiar and the ending is somewhat implausible (which is minimized by suspending the story before too many difficulties can be played out).

Review: Apex #115

Apex #115, December 2018

Original Fiction:

  • “On the Day You Spend Forever with Your Dog” by Adam R. Shannon
  • “Girls Who Do Not Drown” by A.C. Buchanan
  • “Captain Midrise” by Jim Marino

All three stories in this issue of Apex are short (4/3/5K) and might as well be called fantasy. The metaphorical intent of the time travel motif in “Dog” overwhelms any scientific or even fantastic effect it might have. A man adopts a dog who’s been hit by a car but, three years later, has to put it to sleep, so keeps cycling through those years until something is revealed to us and something else comes clear to him. As with many cyclical stories, too little is done with too many cycles, straining the reader’s patience. (In other words, this did not hit me like Where the Red Fern Grows or J. T.) “Girls” uses a faintly pompous tone to tell us about Alice, who “looks every bit the boy she isn’t” and her inversion of a fairy tale (ironically, from the Isle of Man) involving a glashtyn (sea-creature which drowns girls). This wish-fulfillment lacks grit and drama.

A New York City reporter introduces us to “Captain Midrise.” Part of what the tale illustrates is how the miraculous becomes commonplace and how some people really do ask, “What have you done for me lately?” Whether due to age or some psychological blockage or some other problem, The Golden Crusader can only sort of slowly tack along at a sixth-floor level these days, though he still does his best to rescue people from burning 22nd floors and so on. A problem with this tale is that it doesn’t have much plot for its 5K length or has too much wordage for its plot. With a story like this, it’s more the latter, though all the incidents are interesting. The mixed reactions of people (from continued love to contempt) are portrayed well, the semi-superhero is striking, and the skewed view and tone make it notable.

Review of Compelling #12 for Tangent

Compelling‘s second issue from its current semi-annual schedule brings us five more science fiction short stories, most of which deal with varieties of economics and/or forms of biotech and most of which have some interest, including one recommended story.

Full review at Tangent: Compelling #12, Winter 2018.

Recommended:

  • “The Forest Eats” by Santiago Belluco (science fiction short story)

Review: Clarkesworld #147

Clarkesworld #147, December 2018

Original Fiction:

  • “Marshmallows” by D.A. Xiaolin Spires (science fiction short story)
  • “Bringing Down the Sky” by Alan Bao (science fiction novelette)
  • “When We Find Our Voices” by Eleanna Castroianni (science fictional novelette)
  • “The Names and Motions” by Sheldon J. Pacotti (science fiction short story)

Things do have a way of evening out. Last month’s Clarkesworld was remarkably good with two recommended tales. This month—not so much.

Marshmallows” is a Yuletide edition of “Land of the (Virtual) Lotus Eaters” in which the advertising of the military-industrial complex has run amok. Chunfei walks through virtually-candy-coated filth and almost breaks through into reality when she runs out of credits. People unfamiliar with the motifs will likely find it readable.

In “Motions,” a brain-damaged girl born of a drug-addled mother has part of her brain replaced with tech which initially turns her into a seeker of social (media) validation but, when her mockery of her rural roots backfires and her friend is beaten unto death, she gets some more magic tech so she can fuse with teh intarwebz and become a supermind and then attempts to exact her form of justice which triggers a reaction. This occasionally threatened to break into something interesting but was largely held back by the ironic narrative choice of trying to convey the impression of a supermind by using an odd style when you’d think a supermind would know how to communicate effectively and would use a normal style. Also, if this tech has just been lying around, it’s odd that she would be the one to discover all this. Finally, the ending could be seen as raising the stakes or just as inflating implausibly.

While “Motions” is odd, “Voices” is odder. I can’t help but think this 10,000 word tale of non-binary hybrid radioactive exploding birdpeople having a revolution against their all-male all-human overlords must be some sort of parody but the delivery is completely serious, even morose. Perhaps I should elaborate but I feel like I’d be giving it undeserved attention. It may be enough to say that, other than being three times as long, this is very similar to the same author’s “The Athuran Interpreter’s Flight” (reviewed from the July 2, 2018 Strange Horizons).

Sky” is not especially notable but is the best story in the issue by far. A group of people, including a “Boy,” are trying to fetch “a pail of air” but, unlike the Leiber story, this air is relatively clean mountain air vs. the filthy mess of most of late 21st century China. In multiple first-person narrations, we follow them, a couple of American businessmen, a Chinese medical doctor, and an American spin doctor through their connections of money and self-interest. It’s a deeply cynical and hopeless tale without many characters to like and with little action until the very end but, allowing for a wrong word or two, it captures a variety of narrative voices well and makes some interesting, if all-too familiar, observations.

Edit (2018-12-04): Fixed URLs. Sorry about that.