Summation of Online Fiction: July 2017

Aside from a two-part novella from BCS (which was just a flash away from counting as a novel), July was a relatively light month in the webzine world. The number of noteworthy stories is also light, but Clarkesworld continued its resurgence with a July issue that was probably even better overall than the June (though each had a standout story), Ellen Datlow picked another for Tor.com, and some other zines also contributed particularly good work.

In addition (and not unrelated) to the Clarkesworld streak, June’s preponderance of SF over F continued in July.

The numbers for this month were thirty-five stories from eleven prozines, of which I read thirty-two of 178K words.

Recommended:

Science Fiction

Fantasy

Honorable Mentions:

Science Fiction

Fantasy

  • Fallow” by Ashley Blooms, Shimmer (May 2017), short story

I mentioned the Reed in the recommendation of the Kornher-Stace story. The McDevitt is a flash on environmental messes and overpopulation. The Grant is a kind of Egan-esque (or anti-Egan-esque) second-person tale with data stream people squirting around black holes except that it’s not supposed to be even better than the real thing.

Because Ashley Blooms’ story seemed so weird, I decided to look for anything else out there that would indicate whether this was an exception or a rule. Turns out she has two other stories and I was able to read “Fallow,” which gets a belated honorable mention. It indicates the weirdness could be a rule, though “Fallow” is a little more generically “literary” somehow and less boldly idiosyncratic.

Rec: “The Martian Obelisk” by Linda Nagata

The Martian Obelisk” by Linda Nagata, Tor.com 2017-07-19, SF short story

The world is ending, not with a bang, but a whimper. Or, as Susannah puts it, time is a torturer, drawing out its painful death. She, herself, has lost one child to a nuclear strike and another to a plague, and a husband to perhaps a broken heart. But she does have one project. It’s possibly futile or quixotic but definitely important to her, as well as to her financial backer. The four Martian colonies have failed, but they’ve purchased the last one and are using its AIs, robot, and supplies to construct a giant obelisk as a long-lasting token of humanity’s former existence. Some people on Earth object to this project and, when activity occurs on an ostensibly dead Mars which may interfere with the project, things kick into a higher gear as she fights to save her project from possible hackers. Then, without ever deviating from her core drives, things nevertheless change radically.

While I understand that, in this universe, we may have jumped straight to Mars without ever returning to the moon and thus would have no infrastructure there, I can’t help thinking how a much better and even longer-lasting obelisk could be built on the moon. But that’s not really the point. (And I, unsurprisingly, don’t care for the possible symbolism of the obelisk in this story.) I also can’t help but thinking the ending sequence shows some strains of contrivance. It’s not preposterously rigged but it also doesn’t seem to flow with natural and necessary inevitability. And I certainly had to fight with an antipathy towards apocalyptic stories as a class because this one seemed to give off signals that it would be different from most of them. (It obviously rewarded that feeling.)

Those (partly irrelevant) quibbles aside, this was an excellent story. It was effectively dramatic (using the “lightspeed lag” to good effect, for example) and thematic (getting its point across in a way that, though it was clearly “getting its point across,” was plot- and character-driven, so aesthetically justified). I suspect I didn’t respond to it as emotionally (at least on certain “pressure points”) as some might but I did find it emotionally effective in terms of humanity in general and others might respond to it all. But it’s a tough story with fairly high idea-content at the same time so it’s thought-provoking and philosophical as well as emotional. As I say, to juggle all this with only a necessarily unappealing start and some strain in the end is quite an accomplishment.

Rec: “The Dead Father Cookbook” by Ashley Blooms

The Dead Father Cookbook” by Ashley Blooms, Strange Horizons 2017-07-17, fantasy short story

This is a damn weird story. A lot of people write a lot of normal stories and they’re good or they’re bad. And a lot of people write stories that try to be weird and aren’t very good. And a few people write stories that just are weird and can be very good. I read this story two or three days ago and have waffled about recommending it ever since. I’ve just re-read it and decided to go ahead. This story almost repels me and it will repel some folks but it’s just got something literally remarkable. So I’m remarking.

Addie and Ben’s mother died a long time ago. Their drunken dad abandoned them awhile after that and Addie has “tried to be everything to Ben, mother and father and sister” (and more). Then Ben moved away. Now their dad has died, too, and lonely doesn’t even begin to describe Addie’s feelings, so she gets Ben to come back for a visit while she implements a strange plan which gives us our story’s title. She’s had seances before (amongst her general, taken-for-granted witcheries) but now she’s going for a seance/golem combo. She’s got some things to say.

This whole center of the plot is ironically perhaps the weakest part of it. Addie gets Ben there without his knowing of her plans and telling him of them risks running him off. So why the plan? But I think (a) it has to do with the duration of Ben’s stay, making it more than a brief visit and (b) passions are not always logical and she needs to do this. There are a couple of lesser issues involving it not being initially clear to me that the fixation with bellies (aside from symbolism) wasn’t just another bizarre quirk but was related to their diet. And the dialog shift from dad to Ben was confusing but I think intentionally so. But, ultimately, I think the story hangs together and makes sense and is well-told. I especially love the perceptions of this story: Ben’s eye action during Addie’s discussion of the impurities of “cremains”; her talisman story; the whole passage on Monopoly but especially the bit about the racecar; the blackbird simile.

Basically, however strange and uncomfortable and disconcerting this story is, its tale of great loss and vast wanting is quite powerful. It kind of crawls up next to you as in a bed or bathtub and does weird things.

Review: Spacehounds of IPC by E. E. “Doc” Smith

Percival “Steve” Stevens is aboard the Inter-Plantetary Vessel Arcturus, as a “computer” who is checking on some navigational problems. These turn out to be the fault of some lazy “astronomers” who haven’t been correcting the position of their stations in the space lanes. That problem solved, he’s tasked with entertaining the daughter of the head of the Inter-Planetary Corporation. This turns out to be, not a little girl as he originally thought, but the young, intelligent lady golfer, Nadia. She and Steve, who is a burly swimmer/diver in addition to being a great scientist/mathematician, are a perfect match. He’s showing her the ship when, suddenly, he feels something amiss and learns that the Arcturus is being sliced apart by rays emanating from an alien ship. They end up in one of the many airtight sections of the ship which forms a little short-range ship of its own, but all are dragged off to Jupiter in the aliens’ tractor beams. Finally, Steve and Nadia make their break when the time is right and end up on a habitable Ganymede where they play Robinson Crusoe together and Steve must rebuild civilization from scratch in order to produce a communications device with which to contact Earth, turning into a Herculean Hephaestus. Meanwhile, Nadia also develops “amazingly in musculature” and becomes the huntress Artemis, bringing home the bacon (or “boiled warple,” anyway) while her man does his work at the base. With part of the necessary fundamentals complete, they go off to a comet for metals and meet the enemy again, but also a new group of aliens (from Saturn’s moon, Titan) who turn out to be human, like ourselves, but much mutated. Working together, the two strains of humanity manage to fight off the enemy and help each other out in other ways. Finally, Steve sends out the signal and can convey to “Tellus” (Earth) the knowledge of what happened, and what the IPV Sirius will face and how to soup it up so that it can deal with the alien challenge. At this point, the view shifts and the milieu recomplicates as more ships and races and angles of combat are introduced, culminating in the overwhelming appearance of the Vorkuls: generally isolationist flying snake-things of South Jupiter with their omnipresent motif of seven-pointed stars and mega-ships. Their planetary and space combat with the intrinsically violent North Jovian hexans (who have been our enemy all along) forms the climax (which humans helped trigger but don’t really participate in), followed by a more human-centered denouement.

This novel is about 86,000 words and first appeared in three 1931 issues of Amazing before being published in book form by Fantasy Press in 1947. As Smith is mostly known for his Skylark and Lensman series, I was hoping it would be an unjustly neglected gem but its secondary status turns out to be fair. Those who are not fans of Smith or 30s SF or space opera would almost certainly have no interest in this while even those who are might not be fully satisfied with it. I enjoyed it, overall, but it has problems, mostly in the POV-shifts and time overlaps of the second half. Its main points deal with the “complementariness” of genders and multiple races of humanity (Martians, “Venerians,” and the people of the Jovian and Saturnian moons) and the idea of omni-competent people being pro-survival, being able to wage “a war of applied physics” (despite earlier saying that earth had united under one government “so that wars could no longer interfere with progress”). A further element in this war is that friendly interaction or isolationism each have their virtues but intrinsic aggression is unacceptable and must be met with greater, albeit momentary, aggression. For an urban American in 1931, some of the details in attitudes were remarkably “advanced” though they certainly wouldn’t pass muster with today’s ideologists. In this, Smith is much like Heinlein and, indeed, this is probably the book where Smith’s influence on Heinlein comes through most clearly. Much of the Steve-and-Nadia portion reminds me irresistibly of Heinlein.

In “Larger Than Life,” a 1979 essay on Smith, written at the request of Smith’s daughter (and the dedicatee of Spacehounds of IPC), Verna, on the occasion of MosCon I which was dedicated to him, Heinlein made the point that Smith was, himself, omni-competent, honest, hospitable, and “the perfect gallant knight” and that all this was “reflected in his stories.” He goes on to mention various attacks on Smith by the critics of that time and proceeds to defend his style (even dialog), love scenes, plots, and social values (Good and Evil, inequality of men (and women)). While the love scenes of IPC are certainly chaste and in keeping with the slang-filled general dialog, they’re actually not all that painful. The rest would certainly give some of today’s audience problems but Heinlein’s defenses are mostly reasonable. Smith actually does write proper English in a consistent and oddly effective way in narrative voice and his dialog may be “all x, no fooling!” but it contributes to a gee-whiz-bang feel blended with the, “Say, Bob…” old-style movie feel in everything from The Thing to even 2001. Heinlein gives Smith too much credit for plotting originality in terms of dynamics (and, in a different sense, the uneven plotting is my major problem with this particular book), but it is true that Smith basically invented the space opera and any critique of what came to be its cliches is, in Smith’s case, historically naive and backwards. As I touched on before, the social values are a curious mix. In 1931, they might have been seen as liberal and/or radical while, today, they would be seen as hopelessly incorrect. The hexans are not so much evil as just bad, like a plague of locusts, and the humans in all their strains are good as groups. Between those good groups, however, the question of whether they’ve diverged so much that they are no longer interfertile isn’t clear but interplanetary romance isn’t seen as acceptable by the hero. (The question as to whether this should be taken literally in science fictional terms or symbolically is also open.) Within these groups, men (and women) are not treated equally. The hero is better than the lazy navigational bums and certainly better than his enemies. While Nadia is smart, athletic, muscled, and hunts for their food and the two form a pair from the start, the hero is more mathematically and scientifically skilled than the heroine and the heroes certainly outnumber the heroines. There is also a question about whether Nadia will turn out to be a “spacehound” (able to handle zero-G and the general environment of space) or a “weight-fiend” (a landlubber), but she does turn out to be as spaceworthy as Steve or anyone else. These things will strongly affect those of any stripe who read SF primarily as social symbolism, although in different ways.

What most affected me were the “complementary intelligences” and “war of applied physics” concepts. For the first, the Tellurians (as Smith calls us), Venerians, and Martians work together to make a whole greater than the sum of the parts (as do men and women) and this motif is played out again when we meet the people of both the Jovian and Saturnian satellites. For the second, curiosity, intelligence, and an engagement with the actual physical world is seen as providing the keys to the kingdom. There is a remarkable blend of far-out super-science and nitty-gritty plausible engineering. There are wonderful perspective shifts such as a reference to the natives of Titan and their relation to Saturn’s rings and, of course, to Tellurians in relation to the various moonfolk. There are amazing set pieces such as the descriptions of the city and race of the Vorkuls and their war with the hexans. For people who respond primarily to such things and fun, super-science epics, Spacehounds of IPC may appeal.

Linky Tunes (2017-07-11)

The big news is that Ellen Datlow and Omni will apparently be back in action soon. Since her choices are by far my favorite part of Tor.com‘s fiction offerings, I hope this doesn’t negatively impact that but only increases her editorial footprint (so to speak – kinda hard to edit with your feet).

Here’s another featured past: New cache of Roman writing tablets found at Vindolanda (from The History Blog). Unless one of the soldiers happened to jot down a favorite line of poetry or something, this won’t produce any great literature but I still get extra-excited whenever any ancient writings are uncovered. One of these days we’ll find another play of Aeschylus’ or another book of Livy or some completely lost author. (Please.)

The second item in this list from The Art of Darkness made me literally laugh out loud.

And now for the tunes… Continue reading