Review: Galaxy’s Edge #31

Galaxy’s Edge #31, March 2018

  • “Death Rides Shotgun” by Michael Haynes (fantasy short story)
  • “The Stars So Black, the Space So White” by Robert Jeschonek (science fantasy short story)
  • “Things Said to Me in the Anxari 12 Station Bar When I Said I Wasn’t a Xenosexual (and the Things I Wish I’d Had the Courage to Say in Reply)” by Matt Dovey (science fictional short story)
  • “You Get Hit and Your Moose Goes Ping” by Brennan Harvey (science fiction short story)
  • “The Gift” by Regina Kanyu Wang (science fantasy short story)
  • “The Electrifying Aftermath of a Demon Thrice Summoned” by Larry Hodges (fantasy short story)
  • “The Sin of Envy” by George Nikolopoulos (science fiction short story)
  • “Perfect Little Boy” by Jon Lasser (science fiction short story)
  • “Doing Business at Hodputt’s Emporium” by Steven H Silver (science fiction short story)

As with the last issue of Galaxy’s Edge, this issue’s original offerings are all short stories or shorter. Unlike the last issue, not everything is fantasy but, like many things lately, most of the things that aren’t straight fantasy only loosely qualify as SF.

(Two odd notes: I  like the cover; three of the authors (Dovey, Harvey, and Lasser) are introduced as various sorts of winners of the “Writers of the Future” contests.)

Perhaps the most interesting and most science fictional of the flash pieces is “The Sin of Envy” which involves a human confronting a robot over its signs of supposed envy but learning that humanity may not be so appealing to a robot. Despite a good thought in here that could have been pushed further, it instead goes for a conventional “twist” ending. The purest fantasy flash is “Death Rides Shotgun,” which is a flip tale of Joseph going to his car to visit his estranged daughter and her new child but finding Death inside. Joseph gets in anyway, because family is important. The other two stories seem to aim for feminist statements which are arrived at awkwardly at best. “The Gift” is a science-free “galactic empire” story about an emperor demanding gifts with which he aims to win back his estranged wife before he Learns Better. “Things Said to Me” is scarcely longer than its title and is a list of nine sexual innuendos from “aliens” followed by repugnantly abrasive insults from our “hero/ine” with a final, variant call and response which makes its mundane point.

The Stars So Black” is a kind of comic book science fantasy about a Georgia bartender having been abducted by aliens and loving it. Initially, rather than describing things which blow our minds, he doesn’t describe things and tells us that, if he did, our minds would be blown. Eventually, he goes on a mission to another universe to try to save ours from  destruction at the hands of its natives. It’s possible some, especially newer or younger readers, would enjoy aspects of this. The space operatic “Emporium” is much like “The Great Culling Emporium” in this Spring’s Cirsova but this deals with a drug dealer trying to sell brussel sprouts to the aliens of the Fifth Zone, who find it a narcotic, when he encounters an old business associate (with ally), gets beat up, and has to deal with their efforts to steal his ship. (And, just as in “Galactic Gamble” from that same issue of Cirsova, he loses the literal “keys” to his spaceship.)

Demon” would be a pure fantasy except that it’s really all in the service of a satire on the American public and our politics—specifically of Donald and Hillary, portraying both as stupid, deceitful, malignant summoners of a demon. The story is narrated by the demon who, when the Senate summons him and botches it, “fixes” things his own way. The humor in this wore thin almost immediately and there’s little depth to the satire, though it is an appealing concept.

Of the more science fictional tales, “Moose” is a time travel story but also gets into a little detail regarding cloning as it tells the tale of an environmentalist from the future getting into a moosemobile while the biological moose is whisked off to the future for a sperm sample. Meanwhile, the protagonist has to deal with an incredibly accurate and persistent hunter and the usual timeline change problems that almost all time travelers have, with an ironic ending. Finally, “Perfect Little Boy” takes the fairly preposterous approach of having a judge’s baby switched with a robot after three days and, every time it goes to the “doctor” (which is apparently very often) it gets sideloaded into a new body and sometimes gets software updates, all in the context of a similarly unconvincing conspiracy of similar child-replacements and surveillance of key people by them. It opens with the naive boy narrator and switches gears into the voice of the sophisticated but conflicted older AI, somewhat in the fashion of Charlie from “Flowers for Algernon” and, had it just been described as a machine brain in an organic humanoid with a convincing conspiracy and similar improvements, might have more successfully targeted similar emotional power and/or phildickian paranoia. This is probably the most substantial story of the issue but fell short for me.


Weekly Webzine Wrap-Up (2018-03-04)

Weekly Webzine Wrap-Up image

[Edit (2018-03-09): Okay, I’m updating this with the BCS stories (see end of post) Friday instead of “Wednesday or Thursday” but it is before the next Wrap-Up.]

BCS seems to be in a different timezone, producing yet another large “science fantasy” issue for the “science fantasy month” of February even though this came out on March 1st from my perspective [which still doesn’t explain anything as the first issue would have had to have come out on Jan.31, then]. It has three stories, including a short story, a novelette, and a longish novella. I was unable to get to those and need to try to cover some other things but I’ll get back to them and update this review, probably by Wednesday or Thursday and definitely before the next Wrap-Up, so check back soon if you’re interested. In the meantime, I’ll cover the other five stories of this week which, if you count BCS‘ science fantasy as SF, is remarkable for being all SF.

The very short stories include “WATCH: The Shocking Assassination of President Guy Fieri” which is another of Terraform‘s minor topical pieces about a “streaming” executive who deals with mystery algorithms while her fight for streaming ratings leads to rudderless shifting down to the lowest common denominator. “Lava Cake for the Apocalypse” is one of three stories of the five which deal with the humanity of earth being under threat or extinct. For the young year, this is at least the eighth of what I’ve suddenly started calling “listories” (stories written in list form, often proclaiming their listitude in their titles). This is another minor tale which has a New Worlder collecting ingredients for a recipe from Old Earth during a conflict between the two. Finally, “What Monsters Prowl Above the Waves” is one of those non-human first-person tales where strange things are taken for granted and normal things seem weird. In this, humanity is gone and a sea creature has made a gizmo which enables it to explore the surface where it makes an odd friend. I want to like this and it is likeable but the odd friend could only exist like that for a brief time after an apocalypse and this seems to be a long time after. Aside from that, neither critter behaves entirely believably. A nice idea, though.

Breakwater” is the third tale of humanity in peril and the second to deal with sea critters. This is a somewhat science fantasy-ish novelette of humanity polluting the sea until Things rise from the deep to smite us. We don’t know what they are but we fight each other with hydrosonic weapons and follow the protagonist scientist through a battle on a research facility she and her husband (killed in the war) built before the military took it over and weaponized it. The last two thirds are utterly predictable in general and are only surprising in detail because of the implausibility of some things. For instance, while the protagonist is fighting for survival, exhausted, and suffering from pneumonia, the story suddenly turns into a lesbian romance. If this had been a stream of consciousness narration you might have had something reasonable like “oh crap gonna die oh crap gonna die nice ass oh crap gonna die…” but to actually construct a narrative about seeing dead bodies here and there and trying to find an escape pod while a giant structure collapses on you and to spend a large chunk of it thinking about how hot the other woman is, hitting on each other, making dates, and so on, just seems ludicrous. This isn’t “must preserve the species” irrational non-verbal sex drive or fleeting instants of thought but an actual drawn out dating game. All that aside, it’s pretty crisply written and the action moves it along briskly so it’s not a bad read. Too reminiscent of the recent, much better story “Sweetlings” in some ways, though.

The Independence Patch” deals with a child who is one of those who are miscalled “Andys” but has actually been a cyborg since birth, with a brain and consciousness as much mechanical as biological. It does a really nice job of two difficult things at once: making this protagonist convincing as a cyborg and convincing as a teenage boy. Given that, it’s easy to be interested in the human angle and the technologically extrapolated angle. Since many people are already lobotomized without their phones, it’s a clearly relevant extrapolation but manages to feel substantial and to avoid any feeling of “trendiness.” There are only really a couple of problems with this: first, it lacks a hipbone-legbone plot that actually moves in a necessary way but is just a few scenes pasted into a scrapbook, though those scenes are important and work to convey the character; second, while the protagonist is nicely drawn, he doesn’t grow up so much as he counts down. Things happen to him and have their effects which change him but the focus is on his internal timer. Otherwise, the scenes which depict him dealing with teachers and their unwanted distaste or pity, finding and losing love, while impatiently awaiting his “independence patch,” which can free him from certain parental controls and privacy invasions (and what that actually means), is all a very enjoyable read with good voice, good phrasing, good insights, and I recommend it.

As an odd aside, since part of this cyborg’s internet connectivity mechanism manifests as silvery tendrils amidst his hair, I can’t help but think of A. E. van Vogt’s Slan, which is also about a young person coming to terms with his world, in which he has certain (in this case, mutant) advantages over “mostpeople” and certain disadvantages from being in a new minority. In those ways, this is an almost identical story. In virtually every other way of melodrama, scope, action, writing style, etc., this is almost completely different, for better and worse.

Edit (2018-03-09): here’s the BCS stuff:

BCS #246’s short story is “Gennesaret,” which is a broken-backed tale whose first part is about a minority figure struggling desperately to preserve her life, child, and culture from those who would assimilate and those forcing them to do so and whose second part shifts abruptly into an apparent satire of patronizing liberals. Both halves are naked and simplistic and add up to less than the sum of the parts. The novella is “The Emotionless, in Love,” which is a sequel to “Blood Grains Speak Through Memories.” I didn’t like the earlier tale of eco-fascist nanotech (“grains”) being used to keep humanity socially and technologically stagnant for, so far, thousands of years. This one deals with the same milieu and an even crazier and deadlier “anchor” (nanotech-driven human enforcer of the status quo), who is also broken to the point of disrupting that status quo, and the son of the previous story’s main character whose capacity for emotion was broken by his mother. Literally. It’s marginally better in ways, though worse in others. This one’s 28,000+ words are way too many and give us the joy of reading the words “grain” or “anchor” once for every forty-eight other words. It is full of simplistic psychology, unconvincing character interactions, and comic-book ultra-violence but at least the latter gives it a little pep. If you liked the last, you may like this; if not, not; if you’re unfamiliar with it, it’s safe to skip.

The most interesting story of the issue was “Do As I Do, Sing As I Sing,” which deals with “cropsingers” who go into months’ long magical trances singing to the crops, without which the plants won’t grow and the people will die. In Guerre’s village, the current cropsinger is ailing and visitors arrive to tell the villagers the replacement they were training hasn’t survived that process. Guerre is chosen as the next cropsinger, much to the outrage of her brother, Acco. Sometime after she goes off for training, he leaves for the big city and, almost immediately after her return as a successful cropsinger, he returns, with an invention to replace cropsingers. The remaining third of the story details this sibling rivalry.

The earlier part of the story which introduces Guerre and her situation is very well-written and interesting. While there is a latent problem or two, the first noticeable one is the lack of any sense of mortality in Guerre’s fairly cursorily covered training. Her predecessor died and one of the fellow trainees dies but there’s never any fear she will. Much more significantly, this is the second story in this issue with two parts strung together: seven-year-old Guerre’s childhood and training, and fourteen-year-old Guerre’s “maturity” and return. In that second half, the convenient plotting/timing rears its head and the story descends to stereotypical gender roles in which Acco is male, urban, scientific, transformative and almost evil while Guerre is female, rural, magical, traditional and supposedly good. This also raises some of the latent problems: while people can certainly behave like Acco, why he does so is under-motivated, reducing him to a prop. Further, it becomes obvious that he is fundamentally sadistic throughout but also that she is masochistic, which the story never addresses. On the plus side, there are some interesting subtleties, especially socially and holistically, in the critique of Acco’s science and Guerre perhaps muddies her virtuous waters in an arrogant and stealthily controlling way but, again, science is more a prop than something treated fairly and Guerre’s actions aren’t addressed as negative. The early strengths of this story are worth a recommendation but the whole is not. That said, many readers will have no problem with the characters and thematic issues (and may not agree with me on even the structural issues) and they will likely enjoy it.

And, now, because I can’t get it out of my head: a musical moment, because Guerre “never wanted to be no cropsinger; never wanted to write no cropsong.”

Review: Uncanny #21

Uncanny #21, March/April 2018

“I Frequently Hear Music in the Very Heart of Noise” by Sarah Pinsker (5300 words)
“And Yet” by A. T. Greenblatt (science fantasy short story)
“Like a River Loves the Sky” by Emma Törzs (fantasy short story)
“The Testimony of Dragon’s Teeth” by Sarah Monette (fantasy short story)
“Pistol Grip” by Vina Jie-Min Prasad (science fiction short story)
“The Howling Detective” by Brandon O’Brien (fantasy short story)

While a couple of the pieces in this issue of Uncanny could be called SF and two feature sorts of paranormal detectives and almost all feature (usually ill-judged) odd narrative techniques, there’s really no special coherence to this issue and I didn’t particularly enjoy any of them, so I’ll just take them in order and, as Pascal said, I apologize for the length of this review but I lack the time to make it shorter.

A generous interpretation of “Heart of Noise” is that it is an exuberant explosion of name-dropping to celebrate artistry by turning Forster’s timeless room of novelists into a Hilbert hotel of all kinds of artists. However, it seemed to me a boring laundry list with no story or only a tiny bit (a fictional artist) wedged into the cracks of this abridged encyclopedia of New York kulchur. I had to laugh when I read, “We don’t need to list everyone.” No, but we’re damn sure gonna try anyway.

And Yet” isn’t good. It isn’t even bad. A person who is supposed to be a college-educated physicist behaves stupidly for an entire second-person, present tense piece in which a “haunted” house is supposed to be a portal to alternate worlds. This is a house that “[t]ime seems to have ricocheted off” of and yet which has “[e]very dip in the floorboards, every peeling strip of paint… exactly as you remember it” and yet in which “[n]othing… has stayed the same.” It’s a story in which “you aren’t claustrophobic until you are.” Lisa Goldstein’s Jan./Feb. 2017 Asimov’s story, “The Catastrophe of Cities,” uses a network of houses to much greater effect in her tale of two separated friends (this one partly deals with two separated brothers) and, while first-person present tense, also addresses “you” but is much better. Mari Ness just published “You Will Never Know What Opens” in the Dec. 2017 Lightspeed and has a different theme but deploys its second-person narrative of a portal house to much greater and more entertaining effect. And these are just two recent examples of I don’t know how many.

River” has one girl who imagines herself turning into apples and rivers and stones for much of the story and another girl who has turned into a boy and a taxidermist. They’re childhood friends and roommates but he’s moving away. Meanwhile, he’s keeping himself busy collecting dead dogs from the side of the road. It ends abruptly yet predictably. There’s also a bizarre part where the first-person narrator mentions “A faint, plaintive bark sounds from somewhere close, almost as if it’s beneath our feet. Speaking loudly, covering the sound, NPW says, ‘Should we go see your mom today?'” and agrees. A third-person narrator might say this but it’s bizarre for the protagonist to be unaware of the thing she’s narrating and to know what the other character is doing without knowing it.

Though ultimately mildly disappointing, “Dragon’s Teeth” represents a quantum leap in narrative prowess over the preceding stories and is the first of our two detective tales. The narrator was a sort of friend to a recently deceased poet before they had a falling out as kids and is now working in the library which has received the poet’s papers. There he discovers a “poppet” (a sort of voodoo doll) and instantly divines that this does not belong to the poet and that he has been murdered and turns into a sort of private detective, solving the case very quickly and easily. This is less about the case and more about peoples’ interrelations and their envy and misunderstandings but doesn’t really plumb those depths, either.

While not remarkable in absolute terms, “Pistol Grip” is this issue’s best story. It’s a Mutt and Jeff tale of homosexual cyborg soldiers avoiding “retirement” by retiring their creators. But it’s really just a familiar tale of finding (a sort of) love in the strangest places. The sexual elements of the opening and closing frame are extreme and will be too much for some—in a reversal of at least American standards, the violence in the middle is mostly tastefully pushed off-stage—but the story is done well enough. (I do question why no cops or others seem to be looking for them and they can freely use an “authenticator” for an “account deduction.”) Other than a speck like a robot waiter referring to “%NAMEOFPATRON%” (which is maybe also supposed to answer my previous question) there was little humor and the science fictional elements were more common and less interesting than I’d like and this was yet another second-person narrative (though, in this case, it retreated unobtrusively into the background) but it was concise and effective.

As “Dragon’s Teeth” was a paranormal detective tale featuring not a voodoo doll, but a “poppet,” so “The Howling Detective” is a paranormal detective tale featuring not a werewolf, but a “lagahoo.” In Trinidad and Tobago, a child has gone missing (presumed murdered) and a person who has no connection to the case takes it upon himself to investigate. This is also easily solved and not really about the case but, despite the police officer saying he doesn’t believe in lagahoos and will do his job, it seems to celebrate vigilantism. The main technical problems with this were what seemed like unclear exposition to me along with the minor but odd choice of the third-person omniscient sections being separated by a first-person reporter interviewing the cop.

Review: Clarkesworld #138

Clarkesworld #138, March 2018

“Tool-Using Mimics” by Kij Johnson (2200 words)
“The Persistence of Blood” by Juliette Wade (mundane secondary world novella)
“Unplaces: An Atlas of Non-existence” by Izzy Wasserstein (science fantasy short story)
“The No-One Girl and the Flower of the Farther Shore” by E. Lily Yu (fantasy short story)

Number 138 is a very unusual issue of Clarkesworld, reading almost like there was a black hole of science fantasy athwart February and March which shredded BCS from its fantasy moorings and Clarkesworld from its science fictional foundations. There is also a giant mass within this issue itself, as “The Persistence of Blood” is a 26,000 word novella (much larger than last month’s) orbited by a Phobos and Deimos and “X”os of the other three very short stories.

Taking “Blood” first, until “screens” and a skimmer suddenly appear near the very end, it’s only clear that we are not on Earth and the translated 19th Century English milieu feels more like fantasy despite nothing supernatural occurring. There is something wrong with the upper classes and they must breed their women to death to preserve the Race. Selemei has had five children and nearly died from the last one. Another famous lady has died. Selemei puts it into her husband’s head that they should pass a law allowing women who have nearly died to “retire” from breeding. Events transpire which make the passage of such a scandalous bill even more difficult and require her to take a more active hand despite it not being a woman’s place.

There are some good qualities to this piece and many problems. First, this is a novella by length and can’t be expected to have a novel’s worth of subplots and characters but, at least if it’s not going to have an action-oriented plot and elements of speculative excitement, it must have more than a short story’s worth and doesn’t. There are seemingly hundreds of names and dozens of figures but only at most two characters and really only one. There may be innumerable details to the society and some off-stage subplots but there is only a single “through-line” of a single perspective. That and the essentially familiar background (which is simultaneously cluttered with confusing secondary world details) and the dated theme make the initial stages extremely dull and I expect many readers will not persevere. If they do, they may find that there’s a vague taste of Cherryh, that Selemei is a fairly good character and her family is sympathetic, that the society does have some interesting details, that the “events” I mentioned above are effectively emotionally handled, and that the story does effectively convey how taboos and conventions can shackle minds and lives. Even then, I doubt many will be satisfied with a story which rightly decries a lack of sexual freedom but seems bizarrely content with its milieu’s extreme classism and which painstakingly details every step of its way, down to the undressing and examination and redressing of a doctor’s visit, only to have an “it’s the middle of the tale, but we may now envision the end” sort of ending. Some will love this, I don’t doubt but, if it doesn’t sound thrilling to you, you can safely steer clear. (If you want a much shorter and more entertaining version of the “cutting edge” core of this story, I recommend a 1972 Loretta Lynn composition which was released in 1975.)

The rest of the tales were less significant. “Tool-Using Mimics” is neither a story nor speculative but is a pile of “maybe, perhaps” sections of feminist-sea-creature metaphors. “Unplaces” is an SF/F mix which has an Anne Frank-figure hiding from the fascists in Kansas while its “Imaginary Anthropology” sometimes makes imaginary places real though it doesn’t always keep real places from becoming imaginary. “The No-One Girl” is a fantasy which decries the veil of Maya/vanity of Ecclesiastes and takes a larger perspective after a boy steals the flower the title character was going to use to win a prize.

Review: Flash Fiction Online, March 2018

Flash Fiction Online, March 2018

“Eyes of Wood, Heart of Stone” by Rebecca Birch (fantasy short story)
“Duck, Duck, Duck” by Samantha Murray (science fiction short story)
“Dragon Meat” by Helen French (fantasy short story)
“The Ghost In Angelica’s Room” by Maria Haskins (fantasy short story)

Beelzebub 7:7: bitch and ye shall receive. Last month I complained about a lack of speculative stories to review from FFO lately so this issue produces four of four to review, though none are pure-quill, center-core SF or F and some barely touch the edges.

A boy appears before the Faerie Queen and asks to receive “Eyes of Wood, Heart of Stone” so that the abuse his mother receives won’t bother him. Then his mother arrives and the two women come to an understanding.

This isn’t mainstream because of its blatant fantasy elements but can’t be enjoyed as fantasy because those elements are a thin and obvious veneer on a mainstream situation. It seems inauthentic in another way in that I have to wonder what kind of kid goes to the Faerie Queen and doesn’t say “Keep my mom from being hurt!” There’s also an asymmetry between the cost of what the Queen had to do and the apparent lack of cost for the mother. Finally, while there’s a question of “What’s gonna happen?” there’s no real drama about it and the end is underwhelming. I did like the line that followed the Queen asking if the mother would challenge her for the boy: “[The mother] looks down at the boy, and determination slides over her face like a knight’s visor.”

In “Duck, Duck, Duck,” some kids are turning into contagious aliens, so kids are playing “Duck, Duck, Alien.” This has the same “clearly (not) genre” problem and even more of the “lack of drama/underwhelming end” problems as “Wood.”

A girl’s dragon has died and, since “Dragon Meat” is valuable, the butcher shows up and makes a deal for the remains. The girl didn’t really get along with her dragon and has some conflicts. One could argue this suffers from the same problems as the others but this has a more vigorous tone, feels stranger, and is more interesting.

The Ghost In Angelica’s Room” is one where I hate to summarize it because it would trample on the unfolding of the story. Briefly: a girl is dealing with the death of her father and her relation with her problematic mother.

This is one that sort of inverts the other stories of this issue. The only fantastic element is her father’s ghost. This can be taken seriously as mainstream fiction if the ghost is rationalized as psychological, with the ghost serving as an emotionally enhancing element, or as fantasy if you choose not to rationalize it, with the ghost serving as a fantastic complement rather than a veneer. Also, this isn’t plot-driven but the emotions in this one are convincing, so take one mental places even if the succession of actual events in the story doesn’t drive the story in an action-oriented way. There’s something about the ending that doesn’t thrill me—maybe it’s too talky or becomes too intellectualized at the end of such a felt tale—but the main thrust is good. Overall, I don’t know that it’ll suit everybody, but I recommend giving it a try.

Summation: February 2018

Demonstrating my usual quick wit, some time after posting the last “Summation of Online Fiction” which happily proclaimed my new coverage of print zines, I realized the title no longer applied. I could change it to “Summation of Short Fiction” but shorter’s better and I hopefully won’t ever have to change the one-word title again.

With that fixed, it’s the “February” subtitle that’s the problem this time. I’ve ironically read more March stories than February in February (47 vs. 38/171Kwds, not to mention the four late-January stories that were covered in the first “Weekly Webzine Wrap-Up” of February). I’ll hang on to the March stories until that “Summation,” so this post covers everything from January 27-February 25. This was a below-average month in the quantity of noted stories but they’re of especially high quality.

Risking a bit of lese majeste, I’ve also read and reviewed some of the stories selected for the various “year’s bests” that I’d missed or which weren’t previously available on the web and have listed the ones I liked below the usual lists.


Science Fiction

  • Umbernight” by Carolyn Ives Gilman, Clarkesworld #137, February 2018, novella


Honorable Mentions:

Science Fiction

  • Penitents” by Rich Larson, Beneath Ceaseless Skies #245, February 15, 2018, science fantasy short story
  • The Starship and the Temple Cat” by Yoon Ha Lee, Beneath Ceaseless Skies #244, February 1, 2018, science fantasy short story


  • I Don’t Bite” by Nicole Tanquary, Grievous Angel, February 6, 2018, short story

Reviews of the Above:

Belated 2017 Recommendations:

Belated 2017 Honorable Mentions:

Reviews of the Above:

Review: F&SF, March/April 2018

The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction,
March/April 2018

“The Satyr of Brandenburg” by Charlotte Ashley (fantasy novelette)
“The Next to the Last of the Mohegans” by Joseph Bruchac (science fantasy short story)
“Likho” by Andy Stewart (science fantasy novella)
“The Beast from Below” by William Ledbetter (science fantasy short story)
“Hideous Flowerpots” by Susan Palwick (fantasy novelette)
“A Swim and a Crawl” by Marc Laidlaw (short story)
Plumage from Pegasus: “The Varley Corps Wants You” by Paul Di Filippo (time travel short story)
“A Dog of Wu” by Ted Rabinowitz (science fiction novelette)
“The Harmonic Resonance of Ejiro Anaborhi” by Wole Talabi (science fantasy short story)
“Down Where Sound Comes Blunt” by G. V. Anderson (“science fantasy” short story)

This issue of F&SF takes special delight in genre-bending. I don’t care for that in the abstract, but many do and, either way, it has some good stories.

First, there are several mostly short, mostly light, mostly minor stories. “The Varley Corps Wants You” takes as its point of departure the appalling toll 2017 took on our creative talents (and it’s disheartening to realize how many more he could have added in late 2017 and even this year). In the story, the reason for this is that people from the future have applied eugenics incautiously and bred creativity out of their gene pool, leaving their utopia rather lacking. So, akin to Varley’s Millennium (in this story, though I think the original “Air Raid” version was so much better), they’ve gone back in time to nab our artists. What the artists do when they get there concludes the story. This has a couple of practical implausibilities (even granting the time travel) but is a reasonably interesting short, light bit. “The Beast from Below” might have been science fiction had it been a 1950s movie but is some kind of fantasy about a giant irradiated mutated armadillo with a very weak “romance” between Mayor Mable and Sheriff Harry. I find the casual comment about Japan in the context of a radiation “comedy” to be odd, at best. Comic storyteller Billy tells us about another of the fixes his eccentric inventor friend Arlin Sweetwater got himself into in “The Next to the Last of the Mohegans.” It doesn’t pay to mess with the Little People, even with SF tech, as Arlin will attest after calling Billy to help get him out from the inside of a tree (which is the least of Arlin’s troubles). Feels like a part of a series but apparently isn’t. “The Satyr of Brandenburg” is the second of a series (following “La Héron”) and somewhat suffers from it. It’s longer than the others of this group, and perhaps darker, but still feels fundamentally light. This is set in a sort of Sardinia in 1700 but one in which the “Otherworld” is a known thing and from which Heron comes. The story mostly addresses her relationship with ex-nun Alex while she competes in a dueling tournament under the auspices of the Marquess of Soleminis. Its ending is too quick and easy and the premise doesn’t appeal to me but some may enjoy this.

There are also a few mostly short, mostly dark, not entirely successful stories. “A Swim and a Crawl” is a surreal, rather than fantastic, tale and seems to be making a statement on the human condition with its protagonist trying to transit from the sea to the peaks, though the apparent suicidal beginning is at odds with that idea. It’s basically a writing exercise conveying the sea and a cliff, otherwise. “Down Where Sound Comes Blunt” is impossible to review (or even categorize properly) without spoiling it. It’s bizarrely similar to “Ice,” which I read last month in Cosmic Roots and Eldritch Shores, in that both deal with the child of an explorer heading off to frozen lands to search for their missing father and encountering strange critters there. In this case, it’s a science fictional take on fantasy “selkies” and I can’t say much more. Suffice to say, it is also like “Ice” in that the setting is effectively evoked but I wasn’t as impressed by the rest of the tale and had logical and aesthetic issues with the ending but some may enjoy it. “A Dog of Wu” ultimately does some things pretty well but is fatally undone by initially talking about a “Way” developing as a result of a “Drift” and focuses on “Milano” who is a follower of “Wu” without defining or giving meaning to any of these people or things for at least half the story, so we have nothing to root for or against, no parameters of success or failure, nothing to connect with. Eventually, it seems we’ve had a bit of a radiation accident and a shadow government of biochemically/genetically controlled people have been produced to follow the ideology of the Way and partially control things in a dystopian fashion. It conveys the idea that the only walls you need are those in your mind (which is to say it’s all fine, if conventional, SF stuff) but it’s too little, too late.

Of the better stories, two are quite similar in a way. “The Harmonic Resonance of Ejiro Anaborhi” and “Hideous Flowerpots” both deal with humans in pain and the outpouring of love and/or understanding of the “other” that can heal this. “Resonance” takes a young girl as the focal point but applies her, and her find of a magic alien gizmo in Nigeria, to a social story of her father and others protesting at an oil company that is damaging their environment. Through experimenting with the gizmo with her friend, she has learned that their consciousnesses can fuse while in contact with the device and each other. The climax comes when government troops at the protest turn violent. “Flowerpots” takes a middle-aged art gallery owner as its focal point and delves into her self-loathing, despite all her measures of success, which causes her to lash out at others. She meets a woman who leads a sort of support group which possesses a similar, unrationalized device, to the one in “Resonance.” The crisis here is more personal, dealing with the pains of love and hate and, while not expressed this way, of being born again. Similar to Palwick’s recent “Remote Presence,” this is an ecumenical tale which doesn’t address any particular religious or spiritual label and doesn’t use words like “charity” but conveys a general power of love and understanding. The primary running symbol of the “hideous flowerpots” is good and plays into the story’s substantial humor which never undercuts its serious intent and I much prefer its ending which is physically as easy but psychically more ambiguous, harder earned, and indicative of hard things to come compared to the easier one of “Resonance” (though “Resonance” has elements (opening segment, temporal setting) which may show that it knows it’s an idealistic tale). So I honorably mention “Resonance” and highly recommend “Flowerpots” but both are good and some might reverse the two.

Finally, perhaps an even stronger story is “Likho” (sequel to, or at least kindred story of, “Wormwood Is Also a Star”) which is another story that is very hard to pin down. It’s basically a very tense and compelling tale of Sonya and her guide sneaking into the sealed off regions around Chernobyl so that she can investigate a mural that has generated urban myths of its magical properties, related to the tale of some children who were left behind in the disaster and magically protected, only to meet tragic fates anyway. So it opens with a pretty thorough blend of SF & F and things only get fuzzier as Sonya follows her guide in taking “Yaga” and tripping though some of the rest of the story which particularly features the troubling apparition of the title figure (who runs ambiguously throughout the story). In more literal terms, it involves getting caught up in a tiny subset of the Russian-Ukrainian conflict and encountering the scientific labs where the children did much of their suffering. “Likho” basically does everything right that “Wu” did wrong and was absolutely captivating and intense. I had my arms clenched together, with the “real world” falling away as the story took over, especially when the protagonist was with the Ukrainian freedom fighters and the Russian-sympathizing captive. It has a conventional plot element or two and an odd word choice or two but was very good and is also strongly recommended.