Review: F&SF, January/February 2018

 

The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, January/February 2018

placeholder

(On sale January 2, 2018)

“Widdam” by Vandana Singh (novelette)
“Aurelia” by Lisa Mason (short story)
“Neanderthals” by Gardner Dozois (short story)
“Jewel of the Heart” by Matthew Hughes (novella)
“A List of Forty-Nine Lies” by Steven Fisher (short story)
“An Equation of State” by Robert Reed (short story)
“Galatea in Utopia” by Nick Wolven (novelette)
Plumage from Pegasus: “Toy Sorry” by Paul di Filippo (short story)
“The Equationist” by J. D. Moyer (short story)
“A Feather in Her Cap” by Mary Robinette Kowal (short story)
“The Donner Party” by Dale Bailey (novelette)

F&SF begins the year with a generally solid, workmanlike issue in which most people will find something to like (and probably something to dislike). While I found only the Wolven to be particularly striking (with an honorable mention to the Fisher), the Singh, Mason, Moyer, and Bailey have powerful aspects and most of the others also have their points. Seven of the tales are some sort of SF and four are not (with a couple of the latter being horror).

“Widdam” by Vandana Singh (novelette)

In the first, third, and fifth sections of this dense novelette we learn how Dinesh views “the Monster, the World-Destroying World Machine, the WDWM. Widdam,” as he’s named the emergent socio-economic system that rules all. The most notable manifestation of this, besides the absence of winter due to climate change, is the development of “Saurs” and other “sentient megamachines” who are digging up the ocean, changing the Arctic, and even reshaping the Moon in pursuit of resources and profits for their corporate masters. Some people are fighting back and have enabled some of these megamachines to go rogue, with varying results. In contrast to the Indian Dinesh’s extremely negative viewpoint, the story shifts briefly to a second section focusing on another “Indian,” the Native American Val and her interaction with one of these rogues. In the fourth (and oddly melodramatic and implausible) section, we meet Jan, the son of Carl Johansson, who was the Swedish roboticist who made the sentient megamachine breakthrough and then fell off the map, and we learn what happened with him. All this serves to paint a picture of our vast “autofac” and our possibilities of dealing with it.

However accurate Dinesh’s perspective may be, in aesthetic terms I was initially put off by its unrelenting negativity. However, the story grew on me and became quite interesting, especially in Val’s much more varied and less pessimistic section. Ultimately, the story didn’t have enough of a plot or drama (except in its largest “We’re all gonna die!” sense) to work for me, but it definitely had its points of interest.

“Aurelia” by Lisa Mason (short story)

Robert is a lawyer who receives a very strange client one day. They fall in love and get married and life is strange but wonderful until the strangeness grows and bad things happen. But, after Robert gets a divorce, worse is yet to come.

If you read and enjoyed “Riddle” by the same author in the September/October issue, you’ll probably enjoy this similar neo-gothic tale with a very unusually conceived femme monstrueuse; if not, not. This one leaves me with the same slightly nauseous feeling (which some people may go for). I also have a problem with the uneasy, implausible mixture of the mundane and weird worlds and the minimization of the latter by the former: incurious cops and medical examiners, people seeing plainly “impossible” things and writing it off as another person’s insanity, etc.

“Neanderthals” by Gardner Dozois (short story)

Using the avowedly very familiar gimmick of changewars, this short (c.2200 word) story describes a time traveling cyborg assassin landing in a place and time in which neanderthals have either been transported in from the past or recreated by geneticists. Two of these guard the assassin’s target: a drug dealer who works for the Other Side. The job goes oddly and the story tells us a bit about human nature.

If the neanderthal felt as he did, I’m not sure why he didn’t try to recruit his fellow neanderthal rather than biding his time until a human assassin happened to show up, but it does allow the two to have their conversation. And that’s fundamentally all the story is, but it has a somewhat neo-noir tone and style, with SF concepts flying around, and an implicit deep backstory.

“Jewel of the Heart” by Matthew Hughes (novella)

In this third installment of Baldemar’s adventures, that wizard’s henchman is sent on a quest for the “Jewel of the Heart” by a magic Helm at about the same time a pair of wizards are attacking his master. He and the Helm come to an agreement about handling the conflict (the Helm likes him) and he heads off into a fantasy metafiction adventure which has scenes reminiscent of Jack and the Beanstalk with a hint of the Wizard of Oz, a Wild West scene, and even a biker scene. All that is prelude to a gray mist scene which resolves into a new world and a new adventure (where “dream” and “story” are contrasted) and around we go before finally reaching a conclusion which partakes of the Ouroboros and the Cheshire Cat.

People who like fantasy stories which are self-consciously, explicitly about Story and who don’t mind picaresque fantasias of plots (driven mostly by the protagonist’s convenient “instinct”) may enjoy this tale which seems stylistically sound and has moments of weirdness and humor. However, at one point the protagonist

…itemized on his gloved fingers: “A giant’s heart, a jewel, a key, and things that come in threes — it’s all mysteries and fables. I’ve had enough.”

and, long before the more than 22,000 words are up, some readers may agree with him.

“A List of Forty-Nine Lies” by Steven Fisher (short story)

When you strip this tiny 525-word story of its telling, it’s “my wife and kid were killed by a dictatorship which has taken over the planet and I’m preparing to detonate a bomb to signal the Revolt.” The telling might even be dismissed as a gimmick. I don’t think it should be, though, as it quickly, effectively, and powerfully evokes pain, paranoia, and desperation. That’s not quite enough to fully recommend it, but it’s certainly noteworthy.

“An Equation of State” by Robert Reed (short story)

An alien diplomat and army arrive in a system significant only as a battlefield but, when the battle doesn’t seem to occur, the diplomat successfully lobbies for a side-mission and travels to a world in the system to investigate the natives. After being a horse in the Civil War and then a rat and other creatures (including hairless apes) in other wars, it’s achieved a strange relationship with those natives. When its superiors decide that, after two centuries, its time is up, it does not act according to plan.

It’s sort of remarkable how much this story feels like a darker, more bilious version of “Jewel of the Heart” in that it has a sort of surreal, meandering progress from one thing to another. It moves with much greater speed and force, however. This meditation on strife may have its fans.

“Galatea in Utopia” by Nick Wolven (novelette)

Rick lives in a world of “chambers” where, given prior implants and mods, almost everyone’s bodies can be reshaped into any gender or race they want. Rick is an inveterate changer and, before a night on the town, decides to go 100% female sex bomb. This has interesting results when s/he meets Alan, who informs Rick he’s a “permanent”: a person who had a condition in childhood which has prevented him from ever changing at all aside from the effects of aging. What follows is a whirlwind tour through their highly charged and difficult sexual relationship, with revelations in store.

This story may have something to offend every one in these days of offensensitivity. On the one hand, people at odds with today’s social preoccupations may take a dislike to this and, on the other, people looking to be outraged might find traces of old stereotypes. But, really, this is a story that shouldn’t be all that shocking, in that it reads a lot like Varley’s sex change future from the 1970s or even some of Heinlein’s experiments. It’s a very active story which, while lacking a crime/spy/etc.-type plot of interlocking logical pieces, does have a tight flow of action based on emotional beats. The protagonist has a clear and funny narrative voice. And the story is thought-provoking. It does have what might be seen as flaws (what would probably be anachronistic references to baseball cards and other pop culture phenomena; a lack of extrapolation – seems like a world where everyone can become everyone else would be ripe for crime/spy/etc. stories even more than relationship stories but there’s no hint of these issues) but none of the problems detract significantly from the story’s main interests. I recommend it.

Plumage from Pegasus: “Toy Sorry” by Paul di Filippo (short story)

In this long flash piece, some kids in 2036 receive interactive books complete with AI author dolls and learn what makes authors tick. Extremely “meta” but readable.

“The Equationist” by J. D. Moyer (short story)

This minimally science fictional story is the biography of a math savant who sees the life patterns of people and societies as being analogous to mathematical functions but has trouble identifying his own and deciding whether and how to change those of others.

This story, despite what a synopsis might lead one to expect, is initially very quirky and funny and creates a sympathy with the protagonist. Unfortunately, towards the end, it started to lose me, being a little too leisurely and extended when the basic ideas had already been established and the humor had been humored. The declining curve of engagement eventually rose again, but without all the early magic. However, it may constantly ascend for some.

“A Feather in Her Cap” by Mary Robinette Kowal (short story)

Biantera is a down-on-her-luck ex-heiress who’s taken up hat-making for a career, supplementing that income with assassination. When a client learns her identity and refuses to pay, she recruits a thief-friend to help with her revenge. Turns out sneaking into a rich guy’s house and trying to rob and poison him is even more exciting than they’d imagined.

This minimally fantastic story is adequate though underwhelming, given that the protagonist isn’t particularly engaging and it’s pretty pat with a natural, but not rousing, end. I also don’t follow the logic of her plan, which is to only sicken her adversary. If his knowing her identity is a problem in addition to his lack of payment and if he might seek re-revenge for her revenge, wouldn’t it be wiser to plan to kill him after robbing him? Plus there seems to be a contradiction between wanting and not wanting him to know who visited him. Be that as it may, this was entertaining enough.

“The Donner Party” by Dale Bailey (novelette)

Another angle on the widdam. Mrs. Breen is a social climber in an alternate Victorian England where the eating of “ensouled flesh” (cannibalism) is a treasured right and rite of the titled class and their friends. After making friends with the powerful Lady Donner and then rashly making an enemy of her after a perceived slight, we learn just how far Mrs. Breen and her husband are willing to go to advance themselves.

A relatively trivial issue is that a section of the story begins “The Breens began the Season that followed with the highest of hopes.¶They were borne out.” Yet what follows is anything but their hopes being borne out. Far more importantly, this story attempts a Victorian English style which seems awkward and sluggish. In more ambiguous terms, while the outre social habit is handled in a very believable way, generally, I have to wonder if there aren’t at least some laws regarding it (or at least a mention that some are immune to them) and I have to wonder when the practice originated because the religious conversation about “the body of Christ” would seem to give the practice even more social weight than it has (which is a lot). I also have to wonder how the finale was prepared so quickly. Aside from those quibbles, it is remarkable how well the literal and metaphorical parts of this “modest proposal” fit. Compared to so many stories in which the literal foreground of a story is nonsensical or contradictory because it’s driven by thematic concerns, this story’s literal and symbolic elements dovetail nicely. This story isn’t to my taste but some may savor it.

Advertisements

Review: Clarkesworld #135

Clarkesworld #135, December 2017

Cover of Clarkesworld #135

“The Rains on Mars” by Natalia Theodoridou (science fiction short story)
“Crossing LaSalle” by Lettie Prell (science fiction short story)
“Falling in Love with Martians and Machines” by Josh Pearce (science fiction novelette)
“Darkness, Our Mother” by Eleanna Castroianni (science fiction short story)
“Landmark” by Cassandra Khaw (science fiction short story)

I’d had it in my head that Clarkesworld was one of my favorite zines or at least in the upper half but this has been a weird year. A handful of stories have been superb to me and some of those are among the year’s best but the vast majority have been anything but. Alas, this issue is more of the vast majority, though your mileage may vary. In this particular issue, every single story is very dark (and not in the fun way), most are heavily overwritten, and most are fantasy or mainstream in SF’s clothing.

“The Rains on Mars” by Natalia Theodoridou (science fiction short story)

A miner whose brother was killed due to the miner’s debts has become an insane wreck and gotten another mining job far away to try to escape his past. “Far away” is “Mars,” which is all the SF you’re gonna get out of this. Might as well be mining in Arizona. In that “faux SF” regard, it is similar to “The Nightingales in Platres” by the same author in an earlier issue of the same magazine.

This story is so monotonously mawkish and the protagonist is such a passive puddle of nothing and the story is so simple that there’s really nothing to get out of this.

I’m to be sent back to Earth. On my own dime, too. Only fair. To do what? Ray can’t answer that, and neither can I, because who knows, and who cares.

Indeed.

“Crossing LaSalle” by Lettie Prell (science fiction short story)

This is a border crossing story (equal parts Chicago, Korea, and Styx) where the protagonist makes her way through the “Love Life”rs (who hate those they see as anti-life) to the “Newbody” folks (who seem to be personalities uploaded into robots). She delivers a big revelation at the end.

This is an oddly confusing story considering that the gist is easy to get because it’s so conventional. The twist at the end actually makes the story worse, leading to a kind of emotionally and practically vacuous conclusion. This tale is also a lot like the author’s earlier “The Three Lives of Sonata James” in a different magazine, except not as good.

“Falling in Love with Martians and Machines” by Josh Pearce (science fiction novelette)

The protagonist of this story reminds me of Sondra Locke’s Lynn Halsey-Taylor from Every Which Way but Loose. And instead of good-hearted brawler Philo Beddoe, you get a version of her “pimp”ly guy who is a cyborg racer as the male lead. And instead of any efforts at humor, you get more malaise. But the pointlessness of the plot remains. Basically, there’s a war of some kind on and the world is made up of military cyborgs and racer cyborgs who, for whatever reason, couldn’t cut it as military. So this pseudo-hooker with a heart of stone and her guy du jour are cruising around making money from races so they can go to more races and make more money, with loftier goals someday. And then the Martian ladies arrive and things take a right turn, Clyde.

There’s no one to like here and no plot to get involved in and the milieu and tech are so obliquely revealed and inexplicably motivated as to be meaningless in any literal sense. At least the word-by-word prose is fairly direct (which is true of only this and “Crossing LaSalle” in this issue).

(I can’t find the original Neo Tokyo/“Running Man” anime of a futuristic, nihilistic car race but it would be better to watch it (adapted here into the video to a song) than to read this. To be fair, only a key scene and some of the theme in this story seem almost identical to the animation but the anime is much better done and more interesting. And shorter.)

“Darkness, Our Mother” by Eleanna Castroianni (science fiction short story)

A woman lays a trap for a man in a labyrinth but things don’t go as planned.

I don’t know which is less likely: that Minoans had starflight or that Minoan society was accidentally recreated on an alien world, but those seem to be the options. The landscape (“planet”) of this tale is called “Cemar,” the Labyrinth is called the “Womb” and is a relic of a spaceship, and the casting of magic spells is described as “I have woven a thread of hypercomplex numbers that can copy the prince’s likeness…”) which are the only reasons I can see for this being in Clarkesworld rather than BCS. It’s ultimately a rhapsody on vengeance and is about as appealing as that sounds. No Aeschylean ascension to a concept of the Eumenides here.

“Landmark” by Cassandra Khaw (science fiction short story)

This uses some confusingly presented form of proxy bodies and space travel as metaphors for depressing romantic relationships in a painfully overwritten 1600 words which feel like 16,000 but would only require 160 if not for the logorrhea.

“But—”

The word hangs between us, a dead satellite in the nothing, its belly gravid with stillborn dialogue. I want to ask you what I’d missed, the minutiae of simply existing, each day in sequence, no variegation in their consumption. Already, I’ve forgotten if it’s been a week, a day, a year since we’ve spoken, if this conversation is prior to the last, if it is years after. The cartography of your features remain unchanged. It cannot have been that long.

Review: Flash Fiction Online, December 2017

 

Flash Fiction Online, December 2017

Cover of Flash Fiction Online, December 2017

This is a quickie. For whatever reason, two stories in this issue are billed as “literary” while one is the usual reprint, leaving only one to review. That is

“The First Stop Is Always the Last” by John Wiswell (fantasy short story)

This is a Groundhog’s Day with a woman who drives a bus and a woman coming from a very important funeral. The movie is, among other things, about a guy pursuing a girl and becoming a better person in the process while this is about a girl dealing with loss, worrying about her new job, and pursuing a girl almost incidentally. Adequately executed but the movie’s much better.

On the Future Features of Featured Futures

Twenty days from now this blog turns a year old and, thirty-one from now, 2017 will be over. I want to thank everyone who’s visited, liked, commented on, and followed the blog here so far and especially those who are reading speculative short fiction.

Looking ahead, the one big change is that I should be adding coverage of the professional print zines beginning with their 2018 issues. (I’m adding a new page categorically listing all the professional periodicals and what this blog covers: List of Professional SF/F/H Magazines.) I haven’t quite decided how I’ll cover them or the webzines. I like the “rec” approach and keeping things focused and positive but, especially for print zines, I feel like I should give folks a survey of the whole thing so I’m considering reviews similar in style to my Tangent reviews (as with yesterday’s review of the Compelling webzine and with some forthcoming reviews, including the January/February 2018 F&SF). I may end up doing a happy medium/combo of the two but we’ll see. I am going to try covering the weekly(ish) webzines differently. Generally, I have been reading and reviewing them as soon as possible but I’m going to at least try weekly installments (perhaps on Mondays) instead.

The other content (links to Tangent reviews, general link posts, occasional book reviews, TV/movie comments, other random things) should stay about the same. The monthly summations should also be the same, allowing that the coverage of the weekly zines may have a few days’ material ending up in a summation before or after that summation’s proper month.

As far as the more static content, I’ll also be cleaning up the sidebar links a bit to remove the redundancies with the new page and to try to make sure the remainder are fresh and relevant. This is no judgment on quality or appreciation but some just aren’t all that “live.” I may also try to improve the “about” page and the menus.

I think that about covers it. I hope these additions and changes will make Featured Futures more interesting and useful.

Review: Compelling #10

Compelling #10 (Winter 2017)

Cover of Compelling #10
“Inside-of-Body Experience” by Pip Coen (short story)
“The Virgin of Santos de la Tierra” by E E King (short story)
“Hostile Intent” by Mike Adamson (novelette)
“Museum Piece” by J. D. Popham (short story)
“Redo” by Larry Hodges (short story)

The tenth issue of Compelling (which ends the bi-monthly era and begins the bi-annual one) brings us five tales which include a couple of aliens, a robot, a future corporation, and a variety of religious experience. None are bad, and the last couple are the best.

“Inside-of-Body Experience” by Pip Coen (science fiction short story)

A woman and her crewmates must deal with her discovery that an alien (she says “parasite,” it says “symbiont”) has infiltrated her body and wishes to “share” the “vessel.” The opening first person narration of the paralyzed protagonist is initially confusing. The repeated “I did [something]… except I didn’t” which is meant to express her wish to talk, laugh, scream, whatever, and her inability to do so, gets tiresome. Finally, while the theme appears to be addressed by the end of the story, it feels like the plot is cut off abruptly. All that said, it’s readable and provides some things to think about.

“The Virgin of Santos de la Tierra” by E E King (science fiction short story)

This tale of a woman seeing the Virgin in the water stains on her building (and what happens to her city and beyond) initially had me wondering where the SF was but it finally appeared. This long flash/very short story is not especially related to Arthur C. Clarke’s “The Star” and not on par with it, of course, but it made me think of it in a way.

“Hostile Intent” by Mike Adamson (science fiction novelette)

Ruinous climate change is pushing corporations out into space while leaving the poor folks behind. A woman who lost her parents to a space mining accident has risen to a high position in one of those corporations when an attack is made on one of their space resources. Dealing with this attack is just the tip of the iceberg.

Despite the off-screen space action and the futuristic setting, this story doesn’t focus on its science fictional aspects and, partly because of something the author’s doing with the main character for plot purposes, she isn’t fully engaging, so the story’s basically about corporate shenanigans that have an interlocking puzzle-piece interest but not a lot beyond that. And ultimately, the theme, however worthy, seems kind of simple and labored. It’s not a bad story insofar as there are several points of interest to keep the reader going but it’s just not fully rewarding.

“Museum Piece” by J. D. Popham (science fiction short story)

After all its siblings have been destroyed as a threat to the human workforce (a second story partly concerned with future economics), an old robot makes its break for freedom against many obstacles. This action-adventure tale may not suit everyone but I liked it a lot. It was very exciting and the multiple stages of the robot’s efforts were very well conceived and described.

“Redo” by Larry Hodges (science fiction short story)

Mesen, the giant alien caterpillar, has been taking a census of the Earth as it was when he arrived through the magic of his redo device. With certain provisos, it resets the Earth back to how it was. Thus people on Earth have passed over 80,000 years into the galactic future in ten minute increments without ever knowing it. So it happens that he meets a woman who seems to be his best interview until the interview quickly turns into his worst. An alien invasion fleet is just one of the many issues. But with the magic of the redo device and a lot of ingenuity, he and his new human friend can try to save the day.

There is a loopy part in the late-middle of the story which isn’t a lot of fun to read and something I can’t put my finger on isn’t entirely satisfactory but this is a heck of an idea which is generally executed well and the story is pretty amusing, not least due to a very charmingly conceived alien. I kept having the feeling that there was an internal logic failure or other flaw and then kept rethinking it and realizing the story had it right, as far as I could tell. So, again, not actual hard SF (or “plausible”) but with a lot of the mental fun of it. Good stuff.

Edit (2017-12-01): add bi-annual note, modify markup.

Summation of Online Fiction: November 2017

As I mention in the relevant recommendation, I belatedly discovered that the SFWA had added the flash zine Grievous Angel to its list of pro markets, so I caught up on it. Even with its intermittent microfiction help, this was a light month in which I read about 135K words from thirty-five of thirty-seven November stories. This month’s recommendations and honorable mentions, especially for science fiction, are also fairly light. There were still several good stories, though, and the 238th number of Beneath Ceaseless Skies was especially noteworthy.

Recommended:

Science Fiction

  • Odd Hours” by Tony Pisculli, Grievous Angel, SF/F short story (rec)

Fantasy

Honorable Mentions:

Science Fiction

Fantasy

From the backlog of Grievous Angel stories, “Candont” stuck out, which I discussed in the “Odd Hours” rec. I don’t ordinarily read reprints but Flash Fiction Online had the Lina Rather, who’s impressed me before and it was a quick flash from 2017, so I gave it a try and it’s worth a mention. (She also had a story published in The Arcanist which was fine, too, but a shade below “Night.”) “Night” is about a starship survey mission becoming a colonization mission when Earth wipes itself out but they don’t have much of a chance until an astronomical coincidence occurs. This story works on a symbolic level much more than a literal one but is evocative. “Fire” is an “if this goes on” which takes us to the ultimate conclusion of asteroid mining and is nicely bittersweet. “Arsia Mons” starts with the spectacularly unpromising premise of battlebots on Mars and makes a story of it which reads very quickly despite its length.

“Faerie” is the second Kayembe story I’ve read this year which is very good in many ways yet has a very damaging hole in it. The protagonist calls on supernatural aid but what ultimately occurs could have been done more cheaply without it. As a horror story, it’s also better suited for Nightmare than Lightspeed. All that said, it has compelling characters and situations and is well-written, much like her earlier “idiot-plot” “You Will Always Have Family: A Triptych” (which was published in Nightmare). This one also deals with a family: a little girl, her parents, her sister, and the sister’s very disturbing new husband. As “The Siret Mask,” recommended from the same BCS issue, had thievery and identity revelations, so “Serpent” has scam artists and revelations of motivation. The characters aren’t as appealing, the plot is somewhat simpler, and the style is a bit more Victorian but it’s a solid read.

(Postscript: Tor.com would have ordinarily released a story today but apparently ended its year, if not its life, about three weeks ago. Terraform may release a story tomorrow but hasn’t for a couple of weeks, so I’m not holding my breath, or this post.)

Edit (2017-12-01): update number/word count of stories read to reflect that Terraform did release that story.

Links (2017-11-27)

History

Humor

Science

Science Fiction

And now for the tunes… 2017 has really had it in for musicians.

Continue reading