- Review of Recently Read “Year’s Best” Stories
At this point, fourteen stories listed in the collated contents of the big “year’s bests” have annotations saying the evaluation was “late.” This was because the stories were initially unavailable on the web or came from odd venues. I’m reviewing them now, expanding on the brief “read,” “honorable mention,” or “recommended” labels.
- “Don’t Press Charges and I Won’t Sue“, Charlie Jane Anders (Boston Review)
- “Death on Mars”, Madeline Ashby (Visions, Ventures, Escape Velocities) [recommended]
- “Shoggoths in Traffic“, Tobias S. Buckell (Patreon) [honorable mention]
- “Zen and the Art of Starship Maintenance“, Tobias S. Buckell (Cosmic Powers) [honorable mention]
- “The Hunger After You’re Fed“, James S.A. Corey (Wired)
- “The Discrete Charm of the Turing Machine“, Greg Egan (Asimov’s Science Fiction) [recommended]
- “Persephone of the Crows“, Karen Joy Fowler (Asimov’s)
- “The Sacrifice of the Hanged Monkey“, Minsoo Kang (Fantastic) [honorable mention]
- “An Evening with Severyn Grimes“, Rich Larson (Asimov’s Science Fiction) [recommended]
- “Sidewalks“, Maureen McHugh (Omni)
- “Wind Will Rove” by Sarah Pinsker (Asimov’s Science Fiction)
- “Vanguard 2.0”, Carter Scholz (Visions, Ventures, Escape Velocities)
- “Shikasta” by Vandana Singh (Visions, Ventures, Escape Velocities)
- “Confessions of a Con Girl“, Nick Wolven (Asimov’s Science Fiction)
I read “Charges,” “Hunger,” and “Sidewalks” in mid-/late-December without thinking to actually review them, but simply jotted down my usual notes, so what follows on them are just belated restatements of those notes.
I felt that “Charges” (about an attempt to “cure” transgender people in the near future by torturing them and transferring them into non-transgender corpses) was extremely dated (transposing past treatment of homosexuals into an exaggerated future) and plain silly “science” fiction. It had a sort of horror movie intensity but that’s about all that could be said for it. “Hunger” addresses the potential ennui of (relative) wealth which, while not completely invalid in some nuances, is suitable for 1% propaganda generally. More importantly in fictional terms, the protagonist talks about “the romance of death by adventure” and notes that “I faced a less newsworthy ordeal.” Which made for a less interesting story as this was a boring grocery list of “actions” and, as said, largely unconvincing thoughts. In “Sidewalks,” a speech pathologist meets a woman from an alternate reality who speaks a form of Old English and comes from California, though she’s initially taken to be a gibberish-speaking nut. The details of this make little sense and, generally, this sort of story has been done many times before and much better.
Moving on to recent reads, “Persephone” is an initially interesting slipstream/dark fantasy which has quite a few strong images and ideas and an interestingly shifty narrative technique as it describes a pseudo-orphaned lost girl but seems underwhelming given the wind-up. “Confessions” describes the perfect storm of higher education, corporate rule, and social media, through a narrator who’s modded down from a “Pro” member of society to a “Con.” Unfortunately, most of this is already here and isn’t science fictional at all. It’s also unfortunate that it doesn’t make for the perfect story as it’s rather dull and unpleasant but not in a compelling, effective way. Perhaps it’s to the point but the narrator protagonist was hard to engage with and, while it did go for an emotional ending, it didn’t quite work for me. It’s not bad, but not remarkable. “Wind“—in which a fiddle player and history teacher on a generation starship tries to explain to her resistant kids why even broken history (and music and tradition and creation) is necessary—is a story with nice ideas and decent characters and most everything else needed for an excellent story but basically forgot the plot or, more specifically, the drama. It’s a mostly good but dull story and I’m someone who loves starships and history and music so I imagine it’d be worse for those who don’t. The zestier “Monkey” is somewhat clever with its structure of a fragment of history interlarded with scholarly notes which depict some gorilla warfare, so to speak, in which the meek will inherit the earth if they jujitsu for it and the most striking thing was the very isolated elements of humor or discordant notes delivered with a perfectly straight face in the course of a generally serious tale. This story doesn’t do much wrong aside from the contrivance of not having the religious order’s noncombatants expelled along with the royal family and I think it merits an honorable mention (I’ve waffled a bit) but it didn’t overwhelm me.
Buckell has two stories in the annuals, both of which seem more like honorable mentions to me. “Shoggoths” is a reasonably clever science fantasy about GPS and automated vehicles being used to try to summon monster monsters. The vehicle for conveying this concept is a tale of a couple of tow truck operators stealing a drug dealer’s stolen car in order to return it to the original drug dealer for a reward. This is a fun read but doesn’t strike me as especially significant. The more problematic “Zen” has a cardboard villain representing tradition and inflexibility start and lose a starship fight with the modern, flexible good guys. When he survives and sneaks aboard the victorious starship, he and a mind uploaded into the form of a maintenance bot vie for supremacy, with the bot’s programmed lack of freewill complicating the struggle. This has a gosh-wow-sensawunda suitable for both old and new space opera and homages several things from previous SF but its simplistic ethos is discordant in a new space opera. Further, the wondrous setting being mostly a clever plot contrivance is bothersome. Still, the story’s pace and imagery are noteworthy.
“The Discrete Charm of the Turing Machine” is an unusually funny story for Egan (not saying that it’s an outright comedy, but it definitely has its lighter, stranger moments). When the protagonist unceremoniously loses his job and he and both his immediate and extended family go through some financial troubles, some discussion with a tin-hat brother-in-law and an attempt to debunk his theories lead to pondering the nature of economies and emergent systems. This description doesn’t do it justice as it doesn’t convey the calm, confidently unhurried but efficient pacing, the tangibility of the characters and their plight, or Egan’s usual thoughtful angle on things. While I still prefer “Uncanny Valley,” both novelettes are great reads.
And wow: “An Evening with Severyn Grimes” is a date you don’t want to miss. The idea of mind uploads placed in borrowed bodies and the religious/ideological people who oppose this is a bit familiar (and not completely dissimilar from “Zen”) and the hackery of one of the characters is a bit magical, but this tale—of a woman, for reasons of her own, infiltrating a cult which wants to seize a rich guy currently in such a borrowed body so they can kill him painfully and publicly—is sheer brilliance. The old mind in the young body is constantly seeking thrills to make him feel alive again and that’s just what this short story does for the reader. This needs to be the basis for a slightly expanded movie or something. Further, it does something “Zen” does not do in that it has complex characters working at complex cross-purposes who can sometimes align just enough to make things really interesting. Very enthusiastically recommended.
- Review: Visions, Ventures, Escape Velocities
Visions, Ventures, Escape Velocities: A Collection of Space Futures
edited by Ed Finn and Joey Eschrich
Format: PDF, available in other formats including Print-on-Demand
Publisher: Center for Science and the Imagination, Arizona State University
- “Vanguard 2.0” by Carter Scholz
- “Mozart on the Kalahari” by Steven Barnes
- “The Baker of Mars” by Karl Schroeder
- “Death on Mars” by Madeline Ashby
- “The Use of Things ” by Ramez Naam
- “Night Shift” by Eileen Gunn
- “Shikasta” by Vandana Singh
(Apologies for the odd style and lateness of this review—I didn’t originally intend to cover this at all and then the coverage took place in several confused and expanding chunks of reading and writing over a long period of time.)
This book includes seven stories, with pairs set in low earth orbit, Mars, and the asteroids, ending with a single indirectly interstellar story. Each story has a beautifully done illustration and is followed by one or two essays by other authors (nine essays, plus an opening pair and closing trio) which I’m not going to get into much beyond saying that, unlike the art and unusually for me and science non-fiction, I didn’t feel they added much value. None really address the quality of the fiction as fiction, simply taking the stories as given unless some implausibility is pointed out. They aren’t intended to be literary critiques, but it undercuts the connection of the essay to the story and sometimes brings to mind people insisting the emperor, in fact, has clothes, undercutting a sense of credibility. Further, few even address the science (physics, chemistry, etc.) of the stories, which I would think was to the point, but are more interested in the social aspects. Perhaps most strikingly, while not speaking with one voice and being ostensibly created through the efforts of Arizona State University with a grant from NASA (that is, you, the taxpayer), they mostly promulgate a pro-corporate “higher education as vo-tech,” “NASA as free corporate R&D” view to the point that I wondered if this was sponsored by a university or by corporations through a university as a form of “idea-laundering,” though hopefully that’s an unjustified suspicion.
“Vanguard 2.0” by Carter Scholz
The protagonist is sent out by his corporate overlord to steal a small, old satellite, which the plutocrat really does want, but the job is primarily a way to clear witnesses away from his weaponizing of space. How the protagonist reacts is supposed to be the crux of the drama but, as written, there is no drama in this essentially plotless, albeit idea-filled, story. Despite being chosen for a “year’s best,” I wasn’t particularly impressed by this, aside from its researched, thought-out, hard SF nature.
“Mozart on the Kalahari” by Steven Barnes
Michael “Meek” Prouder is a smart kid with an interest in gene modding plants but lacks the resources and social infrastructure to maximize his talents. This has left him with a shady past, a bizarre condition, and difficulty trying to realize his dream of going to space. He hopes things may start going better for him when he learns of a contest with a prize that would get him to space but things become complicated when he actually enters it.
This seems to be partly a homage to Arthur C. Clarke’s Islands in the Sky and is mostly very effective at portraying the main character and addressing his plight in a way that will resonate for some readers (including this one, in ways). My only real problems with the story are that the character seems too smart to be so dense or vice versa and the plot seems a little too coincidental (both issues making the fiction as strange as truth), and that the big reveal may be too telegraphed and involves an element that has been done before, though I can’t recall the story (or stories) that did it. That was mostly outweighed by how engaged I was with the character and the story and how rewarding they were.
“The Baker of Mars” by Karl Schroeder
A woman who is feeding a bunch of time-displaced “Martians” comes up with an idea to transform the human race’s economy, method of governing itself, and its expansion into space, so heads off to the U.N. to explain it to the Powers That Be. The setup for this is that some humans who are among the legions of unemployed have begun “prospecting” on Mars, creating the infrastructure of a colony remotely by VR (we’re assured the time-lag isn’t a problem). But this is only due to the “no claims” space treaty and the corporate sponsors are really just waiting for all this to fail so the treaty can be torn up and the real gold rush can begin.
The colonization-by-VR feels fairly novel but it probably hasn’t been used much because it isn’t very workable. The “Martian Timeslip” or “Sliced-Crosswise Only-On-Tuesday World” isn’t so fresh, nor is the way it makes interplanetary colonization dull and mundane and mires it all in a socio-politico-economic treatise thinly wrapped in fiction. Schroeder’s fiction is generally very wonky but in a very cool way and is much better than this particular example.
“Death on Mars” by Madeline Ashby
Part of the rationale for an all-female crew on a proto-colonization mission to Mars includes a social-bonding experiment and that bonding is stressed when it is revealed that one of the women has known she’s dying and lied about it. It is further tested when a man is shipped in (alone) on an emergency flight to help with some problems.
This story is very nearly crippled by a serious early flaw and a milder later flaw, but manages to barely survive both. The first is that almost any human will be sympathetic to almost any depiction of death but the specific agonies of the dying woman and her distraught crew are not things we can actually share because, for example, this paragraph—
Donna was dying. Donna, who had calmly helped her slide the rods into the sleeves as they pitched tents in Alberta one dark night while the wolves howled and the thermometer dropped to 30 below. Donna, who had said, “Of course you can do it. That’s not the question,” when Khalidah reached between the cots during isolation week and asked Donna if the older woman thought she was really tough enough to do the job. Donna, without whom Khalidah might have quit at any time.
—comes in the middle of the story, rather than at the beginning. We don’t know Donna or Khalidah or the others when Donna’s imminent death is revealed and the emoting begins. The second problem is that, once we are up to speed and emotionally involved in the tale, it has many valid insights and feelings (such as how one death seems to raise all previous deaths a person has experienced right back to the present) and seems genuine but then pushes it a hair too far, giving a taste of saccharine sentimentality. (A third minor problem is that I don’t feel the sub-story of Khalidah and dad and the baseball is ever really “finished.”) All that said, this is another researched, hard SF tale whose character interactions eventually ring mostly true and which conveys some truths, such as how badly some things can be wanted and how badly they need to be wanted and what costs this can have. This has also been selected (twice) as a “Year’s Best” and, while I doubt it would have actually made that cut for me, I still recommend it.
“The Use of Things ” by Ramez Naam
A lone man working on an asteroid finds himself in a life and death situation when an inexplicable explosion breaks his tether and hurls him away.
This tries to be a good old-fashioned problem story but its “manned or unmanned” theme is too blatant, the idea that an unmanned mission would be retrofitted as a manned one at the last minute (for “PR”—to have a “face of the mission”) is virtually impossible and this is the second story I’ve read recently of a panicking astronaut, not to mention one who entertains for an instant the idea that a thrown roll of tape could counteract the force of an explosion that ripped a tether and his suit apart. Finally, the astronaut’s fate has nothing to do with his character. I did find this bit funny (in a sense), though:
The data center of the future would have just one man in it, Jimmy said, and one dog.
The man’s job was to feed the dog.
The dog’s job was to make sure the man didn’t touch anything.
“Night Shift” by Eileen Gunn
A woman is working the “Night Shift,” monitoring an AI as it deploys the nanobots that will transform an asteroid into its valuable components. She reminds me of Ghostbusters‘ Egon (who “collects spores, molds, and fungus”) except that her thing is just slime molds which, with her hacking skills, she parlays into nanobots. Things get a little complicated when, due to her anthropomorphizing of “Seth,” she is initially unaware that “he” has disabled the killswitch which prevents uncontrolled replication.
This is a winning first-person narration and touches on “remote colonization” like “The Baker of Mars,” but more convincingly and handles the “is it human or Memorex?” quandary of “Shikasta” in a far superior way… at first. But then the story reaches a very mild and trivially solved crisis point, makes a little speech, and just stops. “That’s it?” is never a good reaction on turning the page and not finding any more story.
“Shikasta” by Vandana Singh
A handful of good people (one of whom has been killed by bad people) did or do work on a crowd-funded starship mission to send an AI to the eponymous system where it interacts with a variation on the Horta of Star Trek‘s “The Devil in the Dark”—this one is a sort of magnetic wind creature.
This radically over-long, dull, and implausible story is inelegantly exposed and is the worst sort of clumsy combo of “the Two Cultures” with a lot of subjective navel-gazing combined with hard SF infodumps. Also, speaking of two cultures, if this were written in the same way by a Westerner about Eastern cultures, it would be roundly condemned. All that said, it’s in a “year’s best” so I may well be in the minority here.
Edit (2018-05-26): rearranged and added to the bibliographical information.
- Annual Summation: 2017
This summation has three parts. The first is a list and slideshow of the magazines Featured Futures covered in 2017, with statistics and lists of the stories read and recommended from them. The second is a list of this blog’s popular posts and most-visited stories, with a pitch for some “underclicked” stories. The third is a note about some non-webzine readings I did for Tangent.
Zines, Readings, and Recs
In 2017, Featured Futures covered these fifteen webzines:
- Apex Magazine
- Beneath Ceaseless Skies
- Clarkesworld Magazine
- Compelling Science Fiction
- Diabolical Plots
- Fantastic Stories of the Imagination (defunct)
- Flash Fiction Online
- Grievous Angel
- Nature (Futures)
- Strange Horizons
I read 509 stories of 2.1 million words from those sources (including a handful of stories from other webzines). Of those 509 stories, 100 received either an honorable mention (50, including two from those others) or a recommendation (50, 26 of which are also noted for having appeared in the “Web’s Best” posts which are linked to in the “Popular Posts” section below). (That there were exactly 100 of 50 and 50 is a bizarre fluke.) The breakdown of total stories, recommendations, and honorable mentions by zines (along with a column of “Web’s Best” selections) was:
Zine TS R HM R+HM R% HM% R+HM% | WB | Apex 36 3 1 4 8.33% 2.78% 11.11% | 3 BCS 53 6 2 8 11.32% 3.77% 15.09% | 2 Clarkesworld 46 5 2 7 10.87% 4.35% 15.22% | 3 Compelling 31 4 7 11 12.90% 22.58% 35.48% | 1 DP 20 0 0 0 0.00% 0.00% 0.00% | 0 Fantastic 2 0 0 0 0.00% 0.00% 0.00% | 0 FFO 32 4 4 8 12.50% 12.50% 25.00% | 2 GA 29 3 1 4 10.34% 3.45% 13.79% | 0 Lightspeed 43 5 9 14 11.63% 20.93% 32.56% | 5 Nature 51 5 7 12 9.80% 13.73% 23.53% | 2 Nightmare 20 1 2 3 5.00% 10.00% 15.00% | 1 SH 35 2 1 3 5.71% 2.86% 8.57% | 1 Terraform 23 1 2 3 4.35% 8.70% 13.04% | 0 Tor.com 47 7 6 13 14.89% 12.77% 27.66% | 4 Uncanny 34 4 4 8 11.76% 11.76% 23.53% | 2 | TOTAL 502 50 48 98 9.96% 9.56% 19.52% | 26 | Other 7 0 2 2 0.00% 28.57% 28.57% | 0
The following is the complete list of those noted stories. The alphabet soup at the end indicates the category in the first chunk (SS=short story, NE=novelette, NA=novella), the genre in the second chunk (SF=science fiction, F=fantasy, H=horror, M=mainstream and the tilde (~) indicates my category differs from the webzine’s) and the third chunk is its status (HM=honorable mention, R=recommendation, WB=”Web’s Best” selection, which is a “recommendation plus”). Stories are supposed to be alphabetized by author and then title.
- “Margot and Rosalind” by Charlie Jane Anders, Tor.com, March 8, 2017, SS/SF/HM
- “What’s a Few Years When You Get Money and Friends in High Places?” by R R Angell, Compelling #7, June/July 2017, NE/SF/HM
- “Probably Still the Chosen One” by Kelly Barnhill, Lightspeed #81, February 2017, SS/F/HM
- “The Martian in the Wood” by Stephen Baxter, Tor.com, August 2, 2017, NE/SF/HM
- “Claire Weinraub’s Top Five Sea Monster Stories (For Allie)” by Evan Berkow, Flash Fiction Online, October 2017, SS/M~/R
- “The Dead Father Cookbook” by Ashley Blooms, Strange Horizons, July 17, 2017, SS/F/WB
- “Fallow” by Ashley Blooms, Shimmer #37, May 2017, SS/F/HM
- “The Şiret Mask” by Marie Brennan, Beneath Ceaseless Skies #238, November 9, 2017, SS/F/WB
- “The Library of Lost Things” by Matthew Bright, Tor.com, August 23, 2017, SS/F/WB
- “Fathom the Ocean, Deep and Still” by David Bruns, Compelling #7, June/July 2017, SS/SF/HM
- “Who Won the Battle of Arsia Mons?” by Sue Burke, Clarkesworld #134, November 2017, NE/SF/HM
- “The Wind’s Departure” by Stephen Case, Beneath Ceaseless Skies #240, December 7, 2017, NE/F/R
- “Paint by Numbers” by Pip Coen, Compelling #8, August/September 2017, SS/SF/HM
- “Though She Be But Little” by C. S. E. Cooney, Uncanny #18, September/October 2017, SS/F/WB
- “The Boy in the Picture” by Morgan Crooks, Grievous Angel, December 16, 2017, SS/F/R
- “Marcel Proust, Incorporated” by Scott Dalrymple, Lightspeed #85, June 2017, SS/SF/HM
- “His Wife and Serpent Mistress” by Gillian Daniels, Beneath Ceaseless Skies #238, November 9, 2017, SS/F/HM
- “Penelope Waits” by Dennis Danvers, Apex #101, October 2017, SS/SF/WB
- “Candont” by Deborah L. Davitt, Grievous Angel, May 29, 2017, SS/SF/HM
- “Demeter’s Regard” Deborah L. Davitt, Compelling #6, April/May 2017, SS/SF/HM
- “Ugo” by Giovanni De Feo, Lightspeed, #88 September 2017, SS/F~/HM
- “When We Go” by Evan Dicken, Beneath Ceaseless Skies #223, April 13, 2017, SS/F/WB
- “An Unexpected Boon” by S. B. Divya, Apex #102, November 2017, SS/F/WB
- “Party Discipline” by Cory Doctorow, Tor.com, August 30, 2017, NE/SF/R
- “Those Who Favour Fire” by CB Droege, Nature, November 15, 2017, SS/SF/HM
- “Fool’s Cap” by Andy Dudak, Clarkesworld #129, June 2017, NE/SF/WB
- “Integration” by John Eckelkamp, Compelling #7, June/July 2017, SS/SF/HM
- “Uncanny Valley” by Greg Egan, Tor.com, August 9, 2017, NE/SF/WB
- “Dark Was the Night, and Cold the Ground” by Miguel Fernandez-Flores, Terraform, August 24, 2017, SS/SF/HM
- “And All Our Bones Were Dust” by Steven Fischer, Flash Fiction Online, September 2017, SS/F~/HM
- “A Siren Song for Two” by Steven Fischer, Flash Fiction Online, October 2017, SS/SF/R
- “The Perfect Porn” by Carl Franzen, Terraform, February 14, 2017, SS/SF/R
- “Samaritan” by Karl K. Gallagher, Compelling #6, April/May 2017, SS/SF/HM
- “Crispin’s Model” by Max Gladstone, Tor.com, October 4, 2017, NE/F/HM
- “Come See the Living Dryad” by Theodora Goss, Tor.com, March 9, 2017, NE/M~/R
- “The Law of Conservation of Data” by John Grant, Lightspeed #86, July 2017, NE/SF/HM
- “Nightshade” by J.W. Halicks, Beneath Ceaseless Skies #222, March 30, 2017, SS/F/HM
- “The Thule Stowaway” by Maria Dahvana Headley, Uncanny #14, January/February 2017, NE/F/HM
- “Playing for Keeps” by Judy Helfrich, Nature, January 11, 2017, SS/SF/HM
- “Redo” by Larry Hodges, Compelling #10, Winter 2017, SS/SF/R
- “Luminaria” by John Hornor Jacobs, Apex #94, March 2017, NE/F/HM
- “Runes Transcribed from Dig Site 401A in Ladysmith, Wisconsin” by Rachael K. Jones, Nature, October 11, 2017, SS/SF/HM
- “Rising Star” by Stephen Graham Jones, Uncanny #15, March/April 2017, SS/SF/WB
- “Gallows Girl” by Mel Kassel, Beneath Ceaseless Skies #223, August 31, 2017, SS/F/R
- “The Faerie Tree” by Kathleen Kayembe, Lightspeed #90, November 2017, SS/F/HM
- “You Will Always Have Family: A Triptych” by Kathleen Kayembe, Nightmare #54, March 2017, NE/F/HM
- “Tav” by Dustin Kennedy, Compelling #5, February/March 2017, NE/SF/WB
- “The Setting of the Sun” by Benjamin C. Kinney Compelling, #8, August/September 2017, SS/SF/HM
- “Last Chance” by Nicole Kornher-Stace, Clarkesworld #130, July 2017, NE/SF/R
- “The Last Novelist (or A Dead Lizard in the Yard)” by Matthew Kressel, Tor.com, March 15, 2017, SS/SF/R
- “The Button Box” by Jamie Lackey, Grievous Angel, December 16, 2017, SS/F/R
- “Thinking Inside the Box” by Michèle Laframboise, Compelling #7, June/July 2017, SS/SF/R
- “The Ghost Ship Anastasia” by Rich Larson, Clarkesworld #124, January 2017, NE/SF/R
- “Ernest” by Geoff Manaugh, Terraform, October 19, 2017, SS/F/HM
- “Ink” by Bruce McAllister, Lightspeed #87, August 2017, SS/F/HM
- “This Is for You” by Bruce McAllister, Lightspeed #84, May 2017, SS/SF/WB
- “Good News” by Jack McDevitt, Nature, July 26, 2017, SS/SF/HM
- “Learning to See Dragons” by Sarah Monette, Uncanny #19, November/December 2017, SS/F/HM
- “Crossing the Threshold” by Pat Murphy, Lightspeed #85, June 2017, SS/F/WB
- “The Stars That Fall” by Samantha Murray, Flash Fiction Online, May 2017, SS/F/HM
- “The Martian Obelisk” by Linda Nagata, Tor.com, July 19, 2017, SS/SF/WB
- “You Will Never Know What Opens” by Mari Ness, Lightspeed #91, December 2017, fantasy SS/F/HM
- “Let Me Sleep When I Die” by Wendy Nikel, Nature, May 24, 2017, SS/SF/R
- “PLAIN JANE LEARNS TO KNIT WORMHOLES” by Wendy Nikel, Flash Fiction Online, August 2017, SS/F/HM
- “Remote Presence” by Susan Palwick, Lightspeed #83, April 2017, NE/F/WB
- “The Daughter You’ve Always Wanted” by Steve Pantazis. Nature, October 4, 2017, SS/SF/HM
- “Owning the Dragon” by Frances Pauli, Flash Fiction Online, June 2017, SS/F/HM
- “Odd Hours” by Tony Pisculli, Grievous Angel, November 14, 2017, SS/F~/R
- “Museum Piece” by J. D. Popham, Compelling #10, Winter 2017, SS/SF/R
- “Fandom for Robots” by Vina Jie-Min Prasad, Uncanny #18, September/October 2017, SS/SF/R
- “A Series of Steaks” by Vina Jie-Min Prasad, Clarkesworld #124, January 2017, NE/SF/WB
- “Last Long Night” by Lina Rather, Daily Science Fiction April 7, 2017, SS/SF/HM
- “Marking the Witch” by Lina Rather, Flash Fiction Online, February 2017, SS/F/WB
- “Seven Permutations of My Daughter” by Lina Rather, Lightspeed #83, April 2017, SS/SF/WB
- “The Significance of Significance” by Robert Reed, Clarkesworld, #130 July 2017, SS/SF/HM
- “Bourbon, Sugar, Grace” by Jessica Reisman, Tor.com, June 7, 2017, NE/SF/HM
- “How to Survive an Epic Journey” by Tansy Rayner Roberts, Uncanny #19, November/December 2017, SS/F/HM
- “Some Cupids Kill With Arrows” by Tansy Rayner Roberts, Uncanny #14, January/February 2017, SS/F/HM
- “A Human Stain” by Kelly Robson, Tor.com, January 4, 2017, NE/H/HM
- “The Garbage Doll” by Jessica Amanda Salmonson, Nightmare #53, February 2017, SS/F/WB
- “Little /^^^\&-” by Eric Schwitzgebel, Clarkesworld #132, September 2017, SS/SF/WB
- “Gravity’s Exile” by Grace Seybold, Beneath Ceaseless Skies #219, February 16, 2017, NE/F/R
- “The Black Clover Equation” by Zach Shephard, Flash Fiction Online, April 2017, SS/F/WB
- “Fifteen Minutes” by Alex Shvartsman, Nature, December 13, 2017, SS/SF/R
- “The Last Garden” by Jack Skillingstead, Lightspeed #81, February 2017, SS/SF/HM
- “Things Crumble, Things Break” by Nate Southard, Nightmare #54, March 2017, SS/SF/HM
- “Mr. Singularity” by Norman Spinrad, Nature, March 22, 2017, SS/SF/HM
- “Three May Keep a Secret” by Carlie St. George, Strange Horizons, November 20, 2017, SS/F/R
- “Sanctuary” by Allen Steele, Tor.com, May 17, 2017, SS/SF/HM
- “The Terminator” by Laurence Suhner, Nature, February 22, 2017, SS/SF/R
- “Sweetlings” by Lucy Taylor, Tor.com, May 3, 2017, NE/SF/WB
- “First Date with the Hive” by Gretchen Tessmer, Nature, August 16, 2017, SS/SF/HM
- “The Dragon of Dread Peak” by Jeremiah Tolbert, Lightspeed #89, October 2017, NA/F/HM
- “The West Topeka Triangle” by Jeremiah Tolbert, Lightspeed #80, January 2017, NE/F/WB
- “I Have Been Drowned in Rain” by Carrie Vaughn, Beneath Ceaseless Skies #223, April 13, 2017, SS/F/R
- “The Dark Birds” by Ursula Vernon, Apex #92, January 2017, NE/F/WB
- “Sun, Moon, Dust” by Ursula Vernon, Uncanny #16, May/June 2017, SS/F/R
- “Legale” by Vernor Vinge, Nature, August 9, 2017, SS/SF/WB
- “Utopia, LOL?” by Jamie Wahls, Strange Horizons, June 5, 2017, SS/SF/HM
- “Cease and Desist” by Tyler Young, Nature, January 18, 2017, SS/SF/WB
Popular (and Less Popular) Posts and Stories
The top five posts (plus one from the few days this blog was live last year) were:
- Web’s Best Science Fiction #1 (2017 Stories)
- Collated Contents of the Big Year’s Bests (2017 Stories, with Links!)
- Web’s Best Fantasy #1 (2017 Stories)
- Summation of Online Fiction: January 2017
- Links to Stories the Big SF/F Editors Picked As Their Favorites of 2016
- Summation of Online Fiction: August 2017
Even more popular than any post is, of course, the very user-friendly home page (which also throws any individual post stats into question) and the second most popular thing is the List of Webzines page. Even folks who have no interest in this site can make use of it, so that’s not surprising. One thing I’d like to point out, though, is that the relatively new page, List of Professional SF/F/H Magazines (which includes the pro webzines), so far has not been visited like the webzine list but is also generally useful and will be more relevant to this site’s coverage in 2018. Aside from that, I don’t feel like trying to drum up traffic for any overlooked posts/pages but the actual point of this site is to promote good short speculative fiction so I thought paying attention to the story hits would be a good thing to do. The top five visited stories (not clicks on my recommendation posts but clicks out to the stories themselves) were:
- “Little /^^^\&-” by Eric Schwitzgebel, Clarkesworld #132, September 2017, SF short story
- “Cease and Desist” by Tyler Young, Nature, 2017-01-18, SF short story
- “Uncanny Valley” by Greg Egan, Tor.com, 2017-08-09, SF novelette
- “A Series of Steaks” by Vina Jie-Min Prasad, Clarkesworld #124, January 2017, SF novelette
- “This Is for You” by Bruce McAllister, Lightspeed #84, May 2017, SF short story/
All of those were in the Web’s Best Science Fiction which received a relatively massive influx of visitors (hi, Facebook!) and a similar flood of clicks. Particularly glad to see the clicks on the Egan and Prasad which I chose as the bookends because they were the longest, strongest stories and both of which need to win some kind of award for novelette.
I do want to draw attention to some selections from the relatively “underclicked” stories. It’s quite possible that vast numbers of people have seen these stories without Featured Futures being a factor and I just don’t see the clicks here but, relatively speaking, I’d have liked to see them get more hits.
- “Sweetlings” by Lucy Taylor, Tor.com, 2017-05-03, SF novelette
- “The Garbage Doll” by Jessica Amanda Salmonson, Nightmare #53, February 2017, horror short story
- “The Dead Father Cookbook” by Ashley Blooms, Strange Horizons, 2017-07-17, fantasy short story
- “Penelope Waits” by Dennis Danvers, Apex #101, October 2017, science fiction short story
- “The Black Clover Equation” by Zach Shephard, Flash Fiction Online, April 2017, fantasy short story
“The Black Clover Equation” is a hilarious apocalypse and takes a comical scientific method into a world of leprechauns and luck, so is fundamentally fantasy. “Sweetlings” takes a horror sensibility into a world of punctuated equilibrium and climate change so, even if compressed and exaggerated to the point of fantasy, is rhetorically science fiction. “The Garbage Doll” is very dark fantasy or actual horror and “The Dead Father Cookbook,” while just plain damn weird, is also kind of a horrific tale if you look at it a certain way. So I’m not generally a fan of genre-fuzz and am not the biggest horror fan and maybe Featured Futures readers aren’t either, but I thought these were all remarkable tales. I have no theory for “Penelope Waits.” It is a fairly conventional SF tale in many ways but is so well done that it seems like it should win some readers. Except for it and “Sweetlings” (which both made the Web’s Best Science Fiction), all of these made Web’s Best Fantasy which was a very popular post but was overwhelmed by the popularity of Web’s Best Science Fiction.
The Other 2017 Recommendations post mostly covers this, but I wanted to update it here because I did a late review of Weirdbook #37. That brings the total up to twenty-two reviews for Tangent, thirteen of which weren’t of webzines. The total non-webzine stories read for Tangent is 95 (bringing the overall total to 604 stories). I don’t know the word count but using the average word count of webzine stories (4,198, which is low because printzines, anthologies, and especially chapbook novellas generally have greater average word counts) it’s at least another 400K (bringing the total to over 2.5 million words).
One thing that can be derived from this is that, if fifteen professional webzines and a few Tangent reviews amount to that, and there are dozens of other webzines and dozens or hundreds of other Tangent reviews (and even all that wouldn’t grab every single story), I think it’s safe to say the speculative short fiction market is very healthy – maybe too healthy. And, as there were a handful of significant zines of broad appeal in the 60s-90s along with a few dominant broadcast channels that reached almost everyone, now there’s a cable-ization of short speculative fiction with dozens of markets being read by perhaps niche readerships. This has its good and bad effects but it certainly makes for interesting times and many millions of words a year to read.
- Summation of Online Fiction: December 2017
Thinking about this month’s noted stories, I’m reminded of the rational Isaac Asimov’s comments on how numerology “works” because you can find patterns in anything. In this 12th month (1+2=3), threes and twos (and thus ones) are a recurring motif. This month, I recommend three SF stories (two of which come from Compelling – though the one from Nature really can’t be missed) and three fantasy stories (two of which come from Grievous Angel) and honorably mention three fantasy stories (two of which come from Uncanny). Which is, again, three sets: two of recommendations and just one of honorable mentions. Meaningless, but I’ll admit it is a weird coincidence. These nine tales were chosen, not from 32 stories of 123K words, but from forty December webzine stories of 162K words.
As this year ends, before getting to the list I’ll mention (as I’ve mentioned earlier) that 2018 will bring changes to Featured Futures, which include broader coverage and a different review method. Change has actually already begun, since I’ve reviewed the January/February F&SF (a print zine) and that and all December reviews were an experiment in full Tangent-style reviews for everything. However, as I suspected I would, I’ve decided to move to a happy medium between the original bare “recs” method and the December method. I’ll feel my way towards the precise details over time.
Continuing the theme, a change to note in the webzine world is that Compelling is unfortunately moving from bi-monthly to semi-annual with this month’s issue (but for good reasons rather than bad: the editor and his wife are having a baby).
Now, on with the list.
- “Fifteen Minutes” by Alex Shvartsman, Nature, December 13, 2017, short story
- “Museum Piece” by J. D. Popham, Compelling #10, Winter 2017, short story
- “Redo” by Larry Hodges, Compelling #10, Winter 2017, short story
- “The Boy in the Picture” by Morgan Crooks, Grievous Angel, December 16, 2017, flash
- “The Button Box” by Jamie Lackey, Grievous Angel, December 16, 2017, flash
- “The Wind’s Departure” by Stephen Case, Beneath Ceaseless Skies #240, December 7, 2017, novelette
Note: “The Wind’s Departure” is a conditional recommendation, as I say in the relevant Wrap-Up, because it’s part of a series and, in my opinion, doesn’t entirely stand on its own. I do recommend this if you’ve already read some of the series but don’t recommend starting here.
Also, both of the Grievous Angel stories’ links go to the same post so just pick’n’click the title you like best or something. 😉
- “How to Survive an Epic Journey” by Tansy Rayner Roberts, Uncanny #19, November/December 2017, short story
- “Learning to See Dragons” by Sarah Monette, Uncanny #19, November/December 2017, short story
- “You Will Never Know What Opens” by Mari Ness, Lightspeed #91, December 2017, fantasy short story
Reviews of the Above:
(Since I’ve done complete reviews this month, there’s no need to discuss honorable mentions here as I’ve done before, or to link to the recommendations individually, so there are just links to the reviews which discuss the good stuff.)
- Compelling #10
- Uncanny #19
- Weekly Webzine Wrap-Up (2017-12-09) (discusses the Beneath Ceaseless Skies story)
- Weekly Webzine Wrap-Up (2017-12-16) (discusses the Nature story)
- Weekly Webzine Wrap-Up (2017-12-23) (discusses the Grievous Angel stories)
- Weekly Webzine Wrap-Up (2017-12-29) (discusses the Lightspeed story)
- Weekly Webzine Wrap-Up (2017-12-23)
All the weekly(ish) zines had stories this week except Diabolical Plots and Tor.com. which makes for a somewhat heavy holiday Wrap-Up (nine stories, 37,000 words). While not everyone participates in Christmas, of course, anyone looking for holiday-themed stories would find only one (a dystopia, of course), though one of the non-holiday stories at least had the Christmas spirit and is coincidentally one of this week’s two recommendations.
There are a couple of accidental commonalities to several of this week’s offerings. One is especially tired themes. There are three apocalypses, a dispute between religion and science and/or colonialism and nativism, and a first contact, none of which do anything better than all their predecessors. Secondly, some of those stories hold back the specific details of a tired generality to presumably create suspense, which does not work. While puzzle stories or those exploring cognitive dissonance can make great use of unfolding mysteries, conventional apocalypse stories and the like only betray their lack of confidence in their milieu and characters or their naivete in thinking readers will be intrigued by their novel “mysteries.”
“Trette’s Bones” by Grace Seybold, Beneath Ceaseless Skies #241, December 21, 2017, fantasy novelette
In a city where the populace ordinarily sacrifices various bones of their bodies, the flute-playing narrator give up a finger joint but her sister sacrifices an ear bone and, ultimately, her entire skull, with epochal effect.
The narrator records this just two or three days after the event and it opens with a tone that, while professing to be angry, sounds almost like humorous snark to me. Even if it is anger, it still seems unlikely that a narrator of these events at this time would narrate in this way. Aside from that, it’s technically adequate but is the sort of “makes no damn sense and seems completely bizarre but it’s all ‘symbolical of something'” story that I don’t generally care for, though some do.
“Forever Night” by Dana Beehr, Beneath Ceaseless Skies #241, December 21, 2017, fantasy short story
In a previous generation, a woman had come to a town and, with the special help of a townsman, saved it from a vague evil incursion, being cursed in the process. Now descendants of each must go fight a recurrence of the incursion. The man incessantly wonders if he can do what it takes (“what” being obvious but unspecified) when the time comes.
I don’t mean to be mean, but have to call it like I see it. The characters aren’t likable (though there is a trace of Cherryh’s Morgaine and Vanye in them – or ought to be), the journey is tiresome, the male lead’s self-doubt is repetitive and overdone, the ending is ludicrous but partially obvious all the same, and the whole seems faintly puerile.
(Both links go to the same post which contains both stories.)
What odds? I didn’t recommend anything from GA‘s first ten months of 2017 and am now recommending three of five stories from the last two months and two from a single post. The first reminds me of an Amal El-Mohtar story (unspecified to avoid spoilers) but this one isn’t even entirely, exactly fantasy. Certainly unusual and unusually touching, though. The second is very much fantasy and even more powerful. And all in less than seven hundred words. Combined.
“A Third of the Stars of Heaven” by Cadwell Turnbull, Lightspeed #91, December 2017, science fiction short story
Henrietta is a devout St. Thomian who doesn’t want to compromise her religion with alien medicine, even to save her life.
The story is very dull with almost no conflict – Henrietta’s just going to do what Henrietta’s going to do. It opens with a boring, uncontextualized visit with a doctor before finally giving it context and a word to show it’s SF. Then it goes back to an unpleasant (understatement) childhood memory. And, eventually, it wanders on to its self-satisfied end.
“The Coupon” by Judy Helfrich, Nature, December 20, 2017, science fiction flash
Along with a problem related to “the coupon,” this is specifically another in a spate of recent stories of a certain kind (unspecified to avoid spoilers) and generally another “make fun of locals while talking to them about their supposed alien contact until it’s proven in a way that surprises someone in the story” story.
“Will You Meet Me There, Out Beyond the Bend?” by Matthew Kressel, Nightmare #63, December 2017, fantasy short story
Kate is standing by the road with several others, desperately wanting a car to stop and take her away. Turns out, she’s died here in a car crash, which she had as a result of mishandling a personal trauma. That backstory is narrated, along with aspects of her afterlife, while we wonder if she’ll ever rest in peace.
This is told with phrasal refrains which may strike you as stylish or annoy you, depending on your taste and temperament, but the foreground story of the ghosts is (quite appropriately) haunting and effective. Unfortunately, the backstory is fine but conventional and doesn’t really compare well. Perhaps most significantly, I wasn’t thrilled by the ending which seemed more interested in conveying implicit advice to the reader than in being internally satisfying. Still, not bad.
“The Birding: A Fairy Tale” by Natalia Theodoridou, Strange Horizons, December 18, 2017, fantasy novelette
This is a largely misanthropic (and partly, um, “eugynic”) tale of the end (or change) of the world. This would be a science fictional apocalypse if most humans were infected by an avian flu which killed us. But this is really an avian flu: it turns us into birds. We explore this milieu through the eyes of a pregnant woman making her way through the changed land.
For what it is, this is competently executed (if long and generally uneventful) and fans of such things will probably like it though it doesn’t stand out from the innumerable other tales basically just like it and is unlikely to appeal to a general audience.
“Last Christmas” by Tim Maughan, Terraform, December 21, 2017, science fiction short story
A girl wakes up her hungover dad on Christmas. The glass walls show snow and she wants to go out and play but dad distracts her with presents. Then the distraught dad goes off to argue with the distraught mother. And eventually the story gets around to telling us specifically what we’ve been impatiently waiting for because we already knew generally.
Given that, these mere two thousand words are too long. Matters aren’t improved by severe pronoun dysfunction: the woman is never called anything but “she/her,” leading to lines like, “He… watches Astrid happy on the floor… Mariah Carey seeps from… speakers.¶She sits opposite him, fresh and showered from the gym…” where the last phrase is our only clue that Mariah Carey hasn’t seeped opposite him or that he doesn’t have a bilocational daughter. But the most important thing is just the tiredness of the concept and vagueness of the milieu and “characters.”
- Weekly Webzine Wrap-Up (2017-12-16)
Beneath Ceaseless Skies and Nightmare were off this week, Grievous Angel didn’t have anything, and Tor.com is still “only sleeping,” so we only get singles from Diabolical Plots, Lightspeed, Nature, Strange Horizons, and Terraform. Those five stories give us two second-person present tense biter-bits and two cli-fi dystopias. Coincidentally (and thankfully) the one which is neither of these things is superb.
“The Leviathans Have Fled the Sea” by Jon Lasser, Diabolical Plots, December 15, 2017, fantasy short story
After a bunch of whaling men got stuck in the sea ice, a bunch of whaling women took to the air and hunted the whales to extinction. The crew of one particular ship turns to hunting sirens and, after a catch, the captain’s life changes and perhaps the world does, too.
This gets points for juxtaposing some tired elements in a fresh way which creates an aura of interest but the moral of the story (one of two “humans suck and are destroying the world” tales in just this week) is too clear and too clearly moralistic and the pacing of the second half (and the whole resolution) falters.
“The House at the End of the Lane Is Dreaming” by A. Merc Rustad, Lightspeed #91, December 2017, fantasy short story
This is partly a Lovecraftian Can’t-Choose-Your-Own-Adventure tale about a mysterious house, a mysterious book, a couple of sisters, and an incursion from Beyond. As such, this is one of this week’s two second-person present tense tales. This one has multiple “Act One”s interspersed with “Prologues” before finally moving on to additional acts but never relinquishes the fitful starts and stops and lather-rinse-repeat structures which it embellishes with collage elements of newspaper clippings and emails.
The artifice of the telling and the vagueness of the milieu and characters is all to the point as the story becomes a “godgame” tale (which makes it even less interesting than it had been) but it precludes any possible engagement (from me) and so (in my opinion) the story fails utterly. (And then the conclusion seems morally bankrupt.) This is another “wouldn’t have finished it except for having to review it” story.
“Fifteen Minutes” by Alex Shvartsman, Nature, December 13, 2017, science fiction flash
In 2117, an AI keeps us monkeys around for sadistic entertainment, making us perform on the web for better food. So one man delivers a brief monologue about all this.
It doesn’t sound like much, but this is what I get for posting my “Web’s Best” early. This would likely have been in it (and may be in next year’s), especially at a mere 750 words or so. I can’t review this without spoiling it – even a hint could ruin it. I’ll add some spoiler notes in a comment to this post. All I can say for now is that its dark tone and conventionality are good things. Just please check it out and stick with it.
“Sasabonsam” by Tara Campbell, Strange Horizons, December 11, 2017, fantasy short story
A man-eating tree-thing eats something which disagrees with it and we learn about pain, regret, infidelity, vengeance, and other fun things in less than 1800 second-person present tense words which feel like more.
“An Incomplete Timeline of What We Tried” by Debbie Urbanski, Terraform, December 15, 2017, science fiction flash
This is not a story.
It is a list.
Like many stories this week, it makes reviewing an unpleasant task.
Literally: it’s a long (over one hundred item) list of inconsistently articulated statements in reverse order which decries our current and future actions regarding the environment and, while presumably intending to be cautionary, basically conveys an impression of hopelessness.
(And I assume this is by Debbie Urbanski. At the time of reading, Terraform had it as “Urbansk.” And golfing would be year “round” rather than “around” as an internal example of more errors.)
- Web’s Best Fantasy #1 (2017 Stories)
As with Web’s Best Science Fiction, Web’s Best Fantasy is a 70,000 word “virtual anthology” selected from the fifteen webzines I’ve covered throughout the year, with the contents selected solely for their quality, allowing that some consideration is paid to having variety in the reading experience. The contents were sequenced as best I could with the same concern in mind.
“Remote Presence“ * Susan Palwick
Lightspeed #83, April 2017
“Though She Be But Little“ * C. S. E. Cooney
Uncanny #18, September/October 2017
“When We Go“ * Evan Dicken
Beneath Ceaseless Skies #223, April 13, 2017
“The Black Clover Equation“ * Zach Shephard
Flash Fiction Online, April 2017
“An Unexpected Boon“ * S. B. Divya
Apex #102, November 2017
“Crossing the Threshold“ * Pat Murphy
Lightspeed #85, June 2017
“The Dark Birds“ * Ursula Vernon
Apex #92, January 2017
“The Garbage Doll“ * Jessica Amanda Salmonson
Nightmare #53, February 2017
“The Dead Father Cookbook“ * Ashley Blooms
Strange Horizons, July 17, 2017
“Marking the Witch“ * Lina Rather
Flash Fiction Online, February 2017
“The Şiret Mask“ * Marie Brennan
Beneath Ceaseless Skies #238, November 9, 2017
“The Library of Lost Things“ * Matthew Bright
Tor.com, August 23, 2017
“The West Topeka Triangle“ * Jeremiah Tolbert
Lightspeed #80, January 2017
- Web’s Best Science Fiction #1 (2017 Stories)
Web’s Best Science Fiction #1 (2017 Stories)
Web’s Best Science Fiction #1 is a “virtual anthology” of 70,000 words of the best science fiction the professional webzines published in 2017*. Web’s Best Fantasy will cover the fantasy stories. The stories for both “volumes” were chosen from fifteen markets: Apex Magazine, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Clarkesworld Magazine, Compelling Science Fiction, Diabolical Plots, Fantastic Stories of the Imagination, Flash Fiction Online, Grievous Angel, Lightspeed, Nature, Nightmare, Strange Horizons, Terraform, Tor.com, and Uncanny**.
When Gardner Dozois took over the editorship of Best Science Fiction Stories of the Year from Lester del Rey with the Sixth Annual Collection, he wrote an introduction to that volume which said “Best” volumes “should really be called ‘Gardner Dozois Picks the Stories He Liked Best This Year’ or ‘Terry Carr Really Enjoyed These Stories,’ or some such.” He went on to say that his principles include selecting “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.” Similarly, these are the stories I liked best this year. I liked them for their science fictional qualities and tried to separate those as much as I could from any other consideration beyond that of attempting to create an actual reading experience with this virtual anthology. The main significance of that is that having variety also plays a small role in the selection process. For instance, I would not be likely to include two stories from the same author or too many stories with strikingly similar elements. In addition to the selection, the sequencing of the stories also aims to produce a good and varied reading experience if the reader chooses to read straight through.
While I would have liked to have found more great upbeat, science-focused, and/or space-based stories than I did, I think these stories (even at their darkest and loosest) show that the state of the art in the upper echelon of Sturgeon’s Law is good. I hope folks have enjoyed or will enjoy these as much as I did.
* Most of the title of this “book” is a play on the title of Donald Wollheim and Terry Carr’s World’s Best Science Fiction series of annuals from 1965-71, along with Carr’s numbering practice from his own subsequent The Best Science Fiction of the Year series (though he didn’t number the first volume). The length is a homage to Isaac Asimov’s ideal length for a book, as explained in the introduction to his 70,000 word essay collection, Science, Numbers, and I. Akin to a “fiscal year,” this “fictional year” covers January 1st-December 10th. (The first ten days produced twenty-four stories and the remaining three weeks should produce fifteen at most. Those later stories will be considered for #2.)
** For clarity, while fifteen markets were covered, only eleven are represented in the Web’s Bests. Among the most significant happenings in the 2017 webzine market: Compelling Science Fiction became SFWA-qualified but dropped from bimonthly to semi-annual at the end of this year; Fantastic Stories of the Imagination died at the beginning of the year; Grievous Angel became SFWA-qualified; Terraform disappeared for awhile in the middle of the year but returned as an SFWA-qualified market; Tor.com has been faltering near the end of the year. The rest of the market was relatively stable.
“Uncanny Valley“ * Greg Egan
Tor.com, August 9, 2017
“Little /^^^\&-“ * Eric Schwitzgebel
Clarkesworld #132, September 2017
“Rising Star“ * Stephen Graham Jones
Uncanny #15, March/April 2017
“Tav“ * Dustin Kennedy
Compelling #5, February/March 2017
“Seven Permutations of My Daughter“ * Lina Rather
Lightspeed #83, April 2017
“Cease and Desist“ * Tyler Young
Nature, January 18, 2017
“Sweetlings“ * Lucy Taylor
Tor.com, May 3, 2017
“Legale“ * Vernor Vinge
Nature, August 9, 2017
“Penelope Waits“ * Dennis Danvers
Apex #101, October 2017
“Fool’s Cap“ * Andy Dudak
Clarkesworld #129, June 2017
“This Is for You“ * Bruce McAllister
Lightspeed #84, May 2017
“The Martian Obelisk“ * Linda Nagata
Tor.com, July 19, 2017
“A Series of Steaks“ * Vina Jie-Min Prasad
Clarkesworld #124, January 2017
- Weekly Webzine Wrap-Up (2017-12-09)
(While no acknowledgement was required, thanks to comfreak for the great art.)
So far in December, Grievous Angel, Strange Horizons, and Tor.com have produced no original fiction in English. The rest of the (semi-)weekly venues I cover were active and here are (mostly) brief reviews of their stories.
“Low Bridge! or, The Dark Obstructions” by M. Bennardo, Beneath Ceaseless Skies #240, December 7, 2017 (novelette)
A newly married couple take a boat ride on their honeymoon where they are annoyed by a boorish author of ghost stories. This opens (and, indeed, closes) with nothing necessarily fantastic, is narrated in a mannered, Victorian way, and has unappealing characters, so is hard to get into. There is a dinner scene of somewhat spirited conversation and an exciting moment of a low bridge but a prophecy is given which leads to expectations which are disappointed. The culmination is trivial.
“The Wind’s Departure” by Stephen Case, Beneath Ceaseless Skies #240, December 7, 2017 (fantasy novelette)
Not having read any Patrick Rothfuss, I don’t know if or how this is related but, when the protagonist is reading The Book of the Names of the Winds, even I couldn’t help but think of the title The Name of the Wind.
What this is related to is at least three other stories about a new god in the world and the wizard(s) who resist it. I’ve only read half of them and I recommended an earlier one (“The Wizard’s House“) in 2015. This one seems to suffer more from sequelitis, being more of a middle and relying more on past stories. These references can add to a larger, numinous effect from ominous vagueness or, being robbed of their context, can simply fall flat. I suspect this could be read in isolation but wouldn’t be a good starting place.
In this installment, Diogenes, the new wizard, is trying to honor his promise to restore the persistent wind, Sylva, to her body, which had been unmade by the previous wizard’s brother. He realizes that the only way to do this is to risk re-awakening the quiescent god. Adding to the difficulties is that there’s an Emperor waiting to be served. The ending wraps up only the most interior thread and sets the stage for further adventures.
This is a slow tale, with little happening in the first half, and never really becoming all that thrilling, but certainly becoming interesting in places due to wonderfully imaginative fantastic elements. Early on, there is another nice depiction of “the wizard’s house” and the second half, with encounters with gods, ascents to the top of the house, and various other things (along with references to the amazing flying jellyfish (that you need to have read a previous installment to appreciate)) keeps things spellbinding. The prose is clean and effective and the cross-bindings of the various characters and their promises and the costs of same is well-handled. If you’ve enjoyed any of the other tales in the series, don’t miss this one and, if not, try one of the earlier tales.
“Hakim vs. The Sweater Curse” by Rachael K. Jones, Diabolical Plots #34A, December 1, 2017 (fantasy flash)
A guy cries a lot and vomits Lovecraftian sweaters for his boyfriend. Words fail me.
“The Greatest One-Star Restaurant in the Whole Quadrant” by Rachael K. Jones, Lightspeed #91, December , 2017 (science fiction short story)
This peculiar tale involves escaped cyborgs finding themselves having to run a restaurant in order to hide in plain sight, with little material to work with and less knowledge of what their fully biological human customers like to eat. When one of them becomes fixated on getting more “stars” in reviews, things go off the rails.
The premise doesn’t grab me, much of the story is extremely unpleasant (with traces of bizarre humor to compensate), and the ending would have been much more effective if the main character had actually been appealing.
“Please Consider My Science-Fiction Story” by David G. Blake, Nature, December 6, 2017 (science fiction flash)
This is a meta-story about an author having a meta-conversation with his imaginary/real AI writing assistant. It’s inconsiderable.
“Which Super Little Dead Girl™ Are You? Take Our Quiz and Find Out!” by Nino Cipri, Nightmare #63, December , 2017 (horror short story)
This very short (c.2,000 word) piece is just what it says: a quiz. Given that, it does a remarkable job sketching the lives and deaths of four murdered girls but still doesn’t result in much of a story.
“SWARM” by Sean Patrick Hazlett, Terraform, December 8, 2017 (science fiction flash)
An American/NATO soldier (who’s lost his daughter) is fighting, among others, a mobile minefield in the Russo-Ukrainian war (with children in the area). This is a little too caught up in its acronyms and tech and a little too conventional in its character/emotional efforts to make for successful fiction but it does paint an interesting picture of near-future combat and it’s good to see a story that recognizes the fact of Cold War II (even if it calls it the “Neo-Cold War”).
- Review: 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 semi-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 semi-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.
- “The Şiret Mask” by Marie Brennan, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, short story (rec)
- “Three May Keep a Secret” by Carlie St. George, Strange Horizons short story (rec)
- “An Unexpected Boon” by S. B. Divya, Apex, short story (rec)
- “Candont” by Deborah L. Davitt, Grievous Angel 2017-05-29, short story
- “Last Long Night” by Lina Rather, Daily Science Fiction 2017-04-07, short story
- “Those Who Favour Fire” by CB Droege, Nature, short story
- “Who Won the Battle of Arsia Mons?” by Sue Burke, Clarkesworld, novelette
- “The Faerie Tree” by Kathleen Kayembe, Lightspeed, short story
- “His Wife and Serpent Mistress” by Gillian Daniels, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, short story
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.
- Rec: “Three May Keep a Secret” by Carlie St. George
“Three May Keep a Secret” by Carlie St. George, Strange Horizons 2017-11-20, fantasy (horror) short story
Scarlett had been told a ghost story by her friend, Sammy, and swore never to tell it to anyone else. When Scarlett breaks that promise and drunkenly passes it on to her new friend, Matt, both find themselves haunted in different ways. Ultimately, the story, its hauntings, and its secret become a matter of life and death (again).
There’s something “Afterschool Special” about this in the sense that it’s targeted at kids and they’re supposed to say, “I’ve learned something today,” after reading it. Also, there’s a glitch that bugs me when the protagonist breaks her phone and then, without explanation, is using a phone right after that. That said, this is a remarkably fast-paced and action-plotted story (especially for Strange Horizons) with a weighty theme and is generally effective and powerful.
- Rec: “Odd Hours” by Tony Pisculli
In July, the SFWA added a webzine called Grievous Angel to its list of qualifying markets but I somehow didn’t notice it until a few days ago. Since it’s nearly a microfiction site (700 words or less) and has published only 25 pieces of fiction this year, I was able to catch up in a day or two. It’s mostly not my sort of thing but I did encounter a couple of noteworthy items with the most recent serendipitously being the best. (It’s the second story in a single post.)
“Odd Hours” by Tony Pisculli, Grievous Angel 2017-11-14, SF/F short story
The editor calls this a foray into “cyberpunk,” indicating the whole thing occurs in a VR but, even so, it didn’t strike me as having anything to do with cyberpunk. I started with the January stories and had taken to reading the blurbs last because they were often spoilery or otherwise conditioned the reader’s approach to the stories so I just took this as a modern/urban fantasy with the changes occurring by magic. The issue here is the nature of the imaginative element: a club or bar which metamorphoses from one time period or style to another and stands for chaos. The narrator is waiting for his girlfriend to show up, giving us elegant flashes of character like:
Update from Ani. She’s around the corner. Which means everything, and nothing. The more specific her location, the more uncertain her momentum. Still, the simple fact that she’s nearby thrills me.
So it has a genuinely imaginative element (and perhaps the Heisenberg reference does indicate SF more than F) and it’s “literary” but not preciously, showily so. It’s got a little character and, while it’s, of course, lacking in plot, it does have a plot-like arc. It worked for me.
The other noteworthy story (“Candont” by Deborah L. Davitt, 2017-05-29) is more in honorable mention territory. It uses quantum mechanics to look into whether the characters’ world is the worst of all possible worlds. It appeals to my streak of whimsical pessimism and I like its sly ending, though it’s a fairly simple story and such inversions don’t hold up if read too critically or literally.
- Rec: “The Şiret Mask” by Marie Brennan
“The Şiret Mask” by Marie Brennan, Beneath Ceaseless Skies #238 2017-11-09, fantasy short story
This is a tricky story to discuss without ruining and a tricky recommendation. Viorica is narrating the story of how she came to be dangling from a rope while facing her death which involves telling us of her friendship with Oana and the latter’s relationships with a mysterious nobleman and her childhood friend. Meanwhile, a famous thief is in town and threatening to steal a famous and desired (but not especially beautiful or valuable) mask from Oana’s unpleasant brother. It’s basically a heist story.
Viorica is a brisk, wry, and entertaining narrator/protagonist and the story moves quickly with many reversals, complications, and identity revelations in a brief span. It’s really little like a Lankhmar tale, I suppose, but something about it did make me think of that fantastic city and the thief just seems like someone the Grey Mouser would have known. Over the course of reading it, I was initially involved enough but didn’t have the feeling it would end up as a rec but, by the end, I found I’d enjoyed it immensely.
It does have two (or three) problems, however. The narrative framing device is very effective for an opening hook and serves the purpose of foreshadowing, creating tension, and establishing the tone. However, it really makes little sense – she’s not telling this while hanging from a rope and so it’s clearly artificial. Secondly, there is something that occurs in the closing sequence of the story which would seem to have significant effects outside the frame of the story which no one in it (and perhaps not even the author) seems cognizant of. (A third issue, if not a problem, is that, despite being a secondary world and mentioning wizards, there’s nothing actually magical/supernatural in it.) Still, the blemishes don’t really affect the exciting, twisting tale, itself, and I recommend it.
(The other story in this issue (“His Wife and Serpent Mistress” by Gillian Daniels) has some obvious similarities with this one and is also noteworthy. It lacks the particular problems but also lacks the particular excellences, so I’m just giving it an honorable mention but some may prefer it.)
- Rec: “An Unexpected Boon” by S. B. Divya
“An Unexpected Boon” by S. B. Divya, Apex #102 November 2017, fantasy short story
(Apex is on a roll, with a recommended story in the last issue and another in this.)
The viewpoint of this tale shifts a bit between Aruni and Kalyani (a brother and a sister) the latter of whom seems to have something like a pronounced Asperger’s Syndrome. She’s very smart but can’t read expressions well or stand to be touched by people. When the parents leave Aruni in charge for a time while they’re away and a sage arrives, Aruni is extremely worried because (Indian?) custom dictates that Kalyani must serve as hostess. Much to his surprise, things go well and Kalyani is given a boon – a magic beetle (lightning bug, I think) – because she asked for a friend. When a second sage arrives, however, things do not go well at all and he curses the home. The siblings’ handling of this curse, and its ultimate effects, fill the remainder of the tale.
Aruni is sympathetic as the caring, but exasperated, brother, the milieu and the lightly (and then heavily) fantastic elements are well-handled, and the contrasting sages are intriguing, but Kalyani steals the show. Her disabilities and struggles and compensating extra abilities (even before her beetle kicks in) are well-drawn and induce, but don’t unfairly coerce, the reader’s affection and the working out of the ecumenical parable, while familiar, is satisfying.
- Summation of Online Fiction: October 2017
September was the scary month with few great or even particularly good stories but October rebounded resoundingly with several remarkable tales (out of only thirty-five read of 158K words), and from relatively unusual venues. Flash Fiction Online produced an excellent Valloween issue combining Valentine relationships with Halloween darkness. Uncanny and Apex also had stories above the usual fare. While Nature produced no recs this month, it produced a double-honorable-mention and got into the Halloween spirit with both, one of which would have fit into the FFO issue and one of which was outright horror. Plus there was a trio of quite remarkable near-misses of fantasy from a trio of other sources, at least a couple of which also fit the season and one of which was a rare webzine novella. For those not in the Halloween mood, there were still a few good tales that weren’t so dark. Speaking of scary, though, Tor.com published only one story in September and posted only two original ones in October. Here’s hoping they get back on track.
- “Fandom for Robots” by Vina Jie-Min Prasad, Uncanny, short story (rec)
- “Penelope Waits” by Dennis Danvers, Apex, short story (rec)
- “A Siren Song for Two” by Steven Fischer, Flash Fiction Online, short story (rec)
- “Claire Weinraub’s Top Five Sea Monster Stories (For Allie)” by Evan Berkow, Flash Fiction Online, mainstream-billed-as-fantasy short story (rec)
- “The Daughter You’ve Always Wanted” by Steve Pantazis. Nature, short story
- “Runes Transcribed from Dig Site 401A in Ladysmith, Wisconsin” by Rachael K. Jones, Nature, short story
- “Crispin’s Model” by Max Gladstone, Tor.com, novelette
- “The Dragon of Dread Peak” (and the conclusion) by Jeremiah Tolbert, Lightspeed, novella
- “Ernest” by Geoff Manaugh, Terraform, short story
Much like last month’s “Ugo,” “Crispin’s Model” was a story on the edge of true greatness which just seemed to come apart at the end. One sort of ending could have been great and even the ending it had could have worked if it had been made to seem more earned and fitting and less like a squeamish cop-out. Still, the first part of the tale takes the “weird artist and his weirder relationship with his muse” motif and gives it the nice twist of having the model/muse be the narrator and has her be inspired (and weird) at least as much as he. The initial narration is superb, the atmosphere is creepy, it’s quite suspenseful and thought- and emotion-provoking. For those readers who like the ending, it’ll probably be a masterpiece.
“The Dragon of Dread Peak” is actually a recommendation for those in the market for a D&D-like YA fantasy of a rather conventional, if creatively underpinned, sort but may not appeal all that much to others. Also be warned that this “quest, with dragons” story is a sequel and ends in a way that makes it clear another sequel will be forthcoming.
Terraform presented us with an atypical fantasy story (perhaps taken by the spirit of October) but planted its ghost in the usual Terraformed world of social networking and reality TV. The positive aspect of this one, for me, was the sympathetic ghost (as well as the other swift, deft, characterizations).
As far as the Nature short-shorts, “Daughter” makes me wonder if it cleared legal because it’s basically Alien fanfic (though that’s arguably just van Vogt fanfic in turn), but telling a story from the chestburster’s point of view was disturbing and effective in a heavy-handed way, while “Runes” is an interesting time travel/relationship story that would have fit right into FFO‘s issue (though, aside from the time travel, it’s more interested in scientific facts and details than most FFO stories).
Edit (2017-11-03): Updated numbers to include the belated Apex story.
- Rec: “Fandom for Robots” by Vina Jie-Min Prasad
“Fandom for Robots” by Vina Jie-Min Prasad, Uncanny #18 September/October 2017, science fiction short story
Computron is a sentient robot who was created in 1954 in this alternate history story. Years later, he is part of a museum and sometimes answers questions from the audience to demonstrate his sentience. When one questioner asks him if he’s familiar with an anime called Hyperdimension Warp Record which features a robot similar to him, he admits he is not but, later that night, checks it out. The story discusses his entry into the world of anime and fanfic along with his collaboration with a human fanfic writer.
This is a very different story from “A Series of Steaks” from the same author, which I recommended earlier this year, but shares the same sparkling wit. There seems to be an ambiguity in the title where it’s a primer for robots on how to get into fandom but is also speaking of people’s appreciation of robots. There are in-references such as Computron’s being part of the Simak Museum (and perhaps even the Ellison and Williamson references aren’t coincidental) though, oddly, there’s no Asimov reference. The robot is characterized in an amusing way, describing how he can’t possibly be frustrated by it not being time for the show to air, yet constantly checking the time all the same. The descriptions of the quality of much of the fanfic and the chat between a couple of fans were especially funny.
I’m not sure how to interpret the story’s core, though. It obviously deals with “futures past” and how that which seems futuristic at one time becomes dated at another. It also has a elegiac feel when describing how few people seem to care about the old robots and how low-priority the information on them is. But it seems to be a celebration of those images and concepts and perhaps a call to embrace them and continue to reinvent them. There are a couple of contrary notes in the Hexode destruction incident and maybe a subtheme that humans are best suited to write humans while robots are best suited to write robots. Be that as it may, this story entertained me, evoked sympathy for the character(s), and was engagingly written. My only non-thematic quibble was that “bjornruffian” seemed to accept Computron (with the nick/screen name “RobotFan”) as human too easily and thoroughly (Computron’s not unknown and it and the museum would be easily researched, even aside from RobotFan’s remarkable commitment to its robot “role” as “RobotFan”). All in all, another good tale from a likely rising star.
- Rec: “Penelope Waits” by Dennis Danvers
“Penelope Waits” by Dennis Danvers, Apex #101 October 2017, science fiction short story
The first-person narrator is a twenty-six-year-old student who’s taking her classes just to get a better job, though she likes the dogs she washes now. She’s obviously someone whose potential exceeds her environment and experiences. When her insufficient boyfriend claims he’s been abducted by aliens, she doesn’t buy it but then she meets them herself and the grass suddenly looks a lot greener.
In a sense, this is all character and voice, as the narrator is almost the whole of the story and its greatest success. Aside from her, the story’s room is almost bare, having only the science fictional furniture of alien contact, like a fairly worn easy chair. However, the aliens do manage a bit of distinction and the Greek lit references are fun. I think the narrator will entertain many and her plight will speak directly to some.
- Rec: “Claire Weinraub’s Top Five Sea Monster Stories (For Allie)” by Evan Berkow
“Claire Weinraub’s Top Five Sea Monster Stories (For Allie)” by Evan Berkow, Flash Fiction Online, October 2017, short story
This story comes with the caveat that, despite its “fantasy” billing and the fact that it is steeped in speculative sensibility and wishful thinking, it is not fantasy. Further, it is one of many examples of the “beloved dies wrapped in metaphor” microgenre of which there are two examples in this single issue. But this is very much the better one (though the other wasn’t bad) and was emotionally effective. The narrator describes the beloved’s favorite stories of sea “monsters” and these are connected to a declining arc in the beloved’s condition, before coming together in a beautiful and fitting image in the final section. I almost wish the image had been the final element of the story without the verbal articulation that actually does close the story. Leaving that possible blemish and its genre aside, this is an excellent short-short.
- Rec: “A Siren Song for Two” by Steven Fischer
“A Siren Song for Two” by Steven Fischer, Flash Fiction Online, October 2017, science fiction short story
This is the first of two recommendations from the odd (and oddly effective) Valloween issue of Flash Fiction Online in which darkness and relationships are combined.
Some workers are off on a planet of ice where the melting and refreezing of the ice causes a vibratory effect like a siren song which causes people to wander off and die in the unforgiving climate. When a woman succumbs to the lure, her beloved goes out after her.
This works on a metaphorical level more than a literal one but it evokes a vivid environment with effective emotional desires – the sonic singing iceworld is striking and the feelings that the woman has for the sounds, and that the protagonist has for the woman, are plausible enough and powerful. I honestly can’t decide whether to recommend this or just give it an honorable mention and I usually err on the side of strictness but I just feel like pointing this one out.
- Summation of Online Fiction: September 2017
With Compelling off, Apex doing a lot of reprints, and Tor.com worryingly publishing a single story, September would have been an extremely light month, but a double issue of Beneath Ceaseless Skies and the return of a lost zine helped compensate, resulting in thirty-seven stories of 149K words (plus one I skipped). Regardless, it was a very light month in terms of the proportion of the good stuff (though there was plenty of readable stuff). I’m not sure what happened beyond it being one of those freaky streaky webzine things. Speaking of, the returning lost zine is Terraform. Ralan.com declared it defunct a few months ago and, after waiting awhile to “make sure,” I declared it dead on April 27th and stopped looking at it. Recently, I happened to take another look and, naturally, they’d published another story on April 29th. But, other than excerpts, interviews, graphic stuff, etc., they did quit producing anything after that until August 24th. Since then, they have managed to publish a story coupled with an article every seven or eight days (two in August and three in September though, to keep the irony ironing, they don’t seem to be doing anything but another excerpt this week). So perhaps they’re back. Only one story was at all noteworthy but, since I gave Terraform‘s death an explicit notice, I feel like I ought to do the same for its rebirth. Now, on with the very short (or “little”) list…
- “Dark Was the Night, and Cold the Ground” by Miguel Fernandez-Flores, Terraform (August 24, 2017), short story
Fantasy (both billed as SF)
- “And All Our Bones Were Dust” by Steven Fischer, Flash Fiction Online, short story
- “Ugo” by Giovanni De Feo, Lightspeed, short story
The Fischer involves a precog who knows a nuclear war is coming, which can be seen as SF but the precog motif and style seem like fantasy to me. Not that we won’t have a nuclear war any minute but something about the specifics of this felt like an 80s story (aside from the 50s/60s psi thing). That said, it was well-executed and effective. The De Feo is this close to being a truly amazing story but its second half, despite dovetailing almost perfectly with its first half, is a completely different and much less interesting story. The first half is about a magical time traveler, with that and its style making it fantasy, while the second half is a species of mainstream or an obfuscation of the fantasy. Basically, it’s squeamish about embracing its true, tawdry genre. The thematic motifs of Ugo’s story should have been developed further and the final theme of the second half (and thus the whole) could have been embedded in that first half as a lesser motif or discarded. That would have the side effect of making the too-long c.7,200 word story a just-right c.5,000. Or perhaps I’m blathering nonsense. Point is that, for me, it was an initially captivating and ultimately unsatisfactory story.
The belated Terraform story is about a future in which dolphins are mayors of underwater big cities while a starship, crewed by humans and other animals, is catching up with Voyager to change its golden record. This can be interpreted a few ways but one which entertains me is the idea that the most enlightened, beneficial, and correct members of today’s society (who are vilifying people of the past) will one day find themselves vilified for their immoral anthropocentrism or whatever other failing the future may find in them. Either way, it’s a weird story.
- Rec: “Though She Be But Little” by C. S. E. Cooney
“Though She Be But Little” by C. S. E. Cooney, Uncanny #18 September/October 2017, fantasy short story
One day the sky turns silver and the Earth is magically transformed. For instance, sixty-five-year-old Mrs. Santiago becomes fierce eight-year-old Emma Anne. In this story, we follow Emma Anne and her sentient stuffed animals, her pirate frenemy, and her efforts to deal with the scary, deadly, mantis-like Loping Man.
Oh, he was enormous, colossal, an armored giant, but so very terribly compactable. Yes, and maybe that was where he went all day. Not away, but down, folded into leaf and twig and compound eyes, origamied into torpor.
Yes, verbing weirds language—sometimes to great effect.
This is very much like “Gallows Girl,” which I recently recommended, in that it may reduce to a “stick it to the man/grrrl power” theme (with an ambivalent connection between two female figures) but is also wrapped in a wonderfully inventive confection of imagination climaxing in a violent confrontation. However, it is nothing like it insofar as the imaginative details are different and this story has a great deal more whimsy, exhilaration, and lightness of touch. I enjoyed both in their ways.
- Rec: “Little /^^^\&-” by Eric Schwitzgebel
“Little /^^^\&-” by Eric Schwitzgebel, Clarkesworld #132 September 2017, SF short story
The title refers to the perhaps central protagonist of this tale. That protagonist has been exiled from her community of galactic sentiences because, being young and headstrong, she disagrees with the plan to turn the galaxy into a black hole. (Arthur Dent had similar, if smaller, problems.) So she’s herded out to the ass end of the galaxy and chained to an insignificant star where she notices some monkeys on the third rocky thing orbiting it and, after amusing herself by pocketing the rock’s moon, there follows a very strange tale, from dizzying heights, of her monkey contact and its galactic and greater-than-galactic consequences.
This is a story where the heresy of paraphrase really applies. Everything about the synopsis is true enough in its way but really does nothing to convey the casual scale and calm frenzy of this tale or the way it dives into part of the core of SF and makes it new. (This includes the idea that the vast universe contains a tiny lump of gray matter which contains that universe, as well as the one expressed by this great line (don’t click it until you’ve read the story).) Granted, the names of the characters may seem off-putting and/or gimmicky but they do at least serve to emphasize the remoteness of the beings. Basically, this story makes your head bigger and your mood lighter and the author entertains like a magician with something of substance up his sleeve.
- Summation of Online Fiction: August 2017
The last of the dog days caused Clarkesworld‘s recent hot streak of good issues in June and July (rivaling the January issue) to come to an end (apparently because August doesn’t begin with a “J”). Tor.com compensated by going on a torrid streak of their own. Nature was also perhaps above average and, while Apex didn’t produce anything particularly noteworthy, the whole issue, guest edited by Amy H. Sturgis, was better than usual. All in all, this month’s forty-six stories (of which I read 44 of 218K words) produced plenty of decent reading. What follows are links to the stories I thought were the best and to the notes posted throughout the month which explain why I thought that.
(As usual, links are split into Recs and HMs, then into SF and F, and then alphabetized by title. Honorable mentions, not having full recs, are summarized briefly at the end of this post.)
- “Legale” by Vernor Vinge, Nature, short story (rec)
- “Party Discipline” by Cory Doctorow, Tor.com, novelette (rec)
- “Uncanny Valley” by Greg Egan, Tor.com, novelette (rec)
- “Gallows Girl” by Mel Kassel, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, short story (Tangent rec)
- “The Library of Lost Things” by Matthew Bright, Tor.com, short story (rec)
- “First Date with the Hive” by Gretchen Tessmer, Nature, short story
- “The Martian in the Wood” by Stephen Baxter, Tor.com, novelette
- “Paint by Numbers” by Pip Coen, Compelling, short story
- “The Setting of the Sun” by Benjamin C. Kinney, Compelling, short story
- “Ink” by Bruce McAllister, Lightspeed, short story
- “PLAIN JANE LEARNS TO KNIT WORMHOLES” by Wendy Nikel, Flash Fiction Online, short story
“First Date” is a tough sell to me, being a post-modern first-contact short-short. It has a conceptual problem (telepathic linguists?), and is otherwise almost completely dependent on its tone for success or failure but the tone worked for me. “Martian” is basically a well-written fantasy which I called “retro-pseudo-AltHist ‘SF'” (and Greg Hullender concisely and charitably called a “pastiche”) in a fuller description at the end of the Egan recommendation. The first of the Compelling stories is a sort of “Ender’s Game meets Total Recall” and the second is not exactly Asimov’s “The Last Question” but is a quick tour through deep time and immense space. “Ink” uses an American hemophiliac philatelist in Italy to perhaps tell us about history and self. And “Plain Jane” took me to an apocalyptic church knitting circle and made me laugh.
 Edit (2017-09-04): I discovered Strange Horizons had posted a story out of their usual weekly sequence, so read it and also read one of the previously unread stories for Tangent, so the monthly totals were forty-seven stories, of which I read forty-six of 227K words.
- Review of BCS #233 for Tangent
BCS saved the best for last this month (coincidentally, as they’re biweekly and not monthly).
- “Gallows Girl” by Mel Kassel (fantasy short story)
- Rec: “Party Discipline” by Cory Doctorow
“Party Discipline” by Cory Doctorow, Tor.com 2017-08-30, SF novelette
Lenae and Shirelle are a couple of students who are about to graduate into a world of haves and have-nots where their odds of ending up “not” are very, very high. With a positively rebellious attitude, some technical know-how, and a lot of unusual friends, both old and new, they try to strike a blow against the empire.
This is similar to, and not as good as, the author’s earlier “The Man Who Sold the Moon” and probably to much more of his work (this may be related to other stories, for all I know) but it’s still such a complexly imagined milieu with such appealing characters and engages in the concrete near future (present, really) with such “hopeful dystopianism,” so to speak, that I just feel it merits wide reading. It is too long and the ending, while correctly trying to avoid extremes, isn’t entirely satisfying, but its virtues more than outweigh those quibbles.
- Rec: “The Library of Lost Things” by Matthew Bright
“The Library of Lost Things” by Matthew Bright, Tor.com 2017-08-23, fantasy short story
Thomas Hardy (no relation) applies for a job at the Library of Lost Things under false pretenses. The Library is a special structure which contains a ring of portals through which Collectors bring things from various times and places to be stored by Indexers in the rest of the Library. He pretends to be a drab philistine in order to become an Indexer and gain access to a volume his father (who committed suicide when Tom was a boy) had written. Along the way, he tries to handle the Librarian, deal with Gadzooks the Collector, and navigate a relationship with Jean Genet. Not to mention bandying arcane sesquipedalian words with the rats.
With an ostentatiously literary work like this, I feel like I have to quibble about something being “poured” over when it should be “pored” and about “boyborygmus” being used when it should be “borborygmus” (though that may just have been a typo). And a work which makes fun of people who dislike present tense and second person and uses the Librarian as a symbol of the soulless gatekeeper of objectified things whose spirits are ignored and as a superego (when the Librarian might be more justly idealized as a conservator of and guide to knowledge) is not really my kind of thing, generally. That said, this work is not written in second person present tense (and perhaps comments on Forster with its “And then”s) and does bring its surreal milieu to a tangible life. It’s also full of nice touches like throwing in a dozen obscure words in seemingly idle rat chatter, some of which are indeed fairly random, but a couple of which have significance and one of which is key. The core seems to be about expressions of love which most or all good stories are in one way or another. (And, while not especially connected, I can’t believe Borges’ “The Library of Babel” isn’t at least hovering around the edges of this.) “The Library of Lost Things” certainly wouldn’t appeal to everyone but I think it would to many, some of whom might be surprised by it.
- Rec: “Uncanny Valley” by Greg Egan
“Uncanny Valley” by Greg Egan, Tor.com 2017-08-09, SF novelette
Adam Morris struggled up from nothing to become a big-time writer/creator in Hollywood before dying. This story’s protagonist is the new Adam: about 70% of the original’s consciousness sideloaded into a humanoid robot. The missing material is partly due to technological limitations and partly due to what the new Adam discovers were intentional “targeted occlusions.” Between a legal system that doesn’t recognize the new Adam as a person, angry descendants of the original Adam contesting the will, difficulty making a life on his own, and a sense that the original may have created a “director’s cut” of his life because of a very nasty skeleton in his closet, the new Adam is having a hard time. Full of questions, he becomes a sort of detective, investigating himself to find out what’s missing and why.
This novelette’s eleven sections, which are full of fresh, clever metaphors and expressions, keep the tale moving, seamlessly weaving in new information and complications and backstory. The main character is very well drawn, as are his loved ones and even the minor characters such as Sandra, the tech/handler. The only thing I could think to say against it, without risking spoilers, are that sideloads and edits have been covered frequently (though rarely as well). It’s a very skillful exploration of people through technology and possibly the best story so far this year.
(Digression: what odds? The flux of the web and my game of catch-up has resulted in reading consecutive stories by Vernor Vinge (from Nature), Stephen Baxter, and Greg Egan (both from Tor.com). All are pretty big guns in my book and most live up to that here. I’ve already recommended the Vinge and now the Egan. This particular Baxter is more in the ballpark of an Honorable Mention, though. He might be given points for cleverly weaving together Mythago Wood (by Robert Holdstock, to whom the story is dedicated) and Wells’ The Time Machine and “The Crystal Egg” but it’s hard to find much in there that doesn’t seem to derive from the unlikely pair of Holdstock or Wells. And he might be given points for making such an interesting middle of a story but the opening runs in place for too long and the close is pretty predictable. Still, people who, unlike me, are fans of retro-pseudo-AltHist “SF” may like it a lot. And given all that, for me to like it as much as I did means the story’s strengths are very strong.)
- Rec: “Legale” by Vernor Vinge
“Legale” by Vernor Vinge, Nature 2017-08-09, SF short story
Here’s another short-short from Nature. This is a sequel to “BFF’s First Adventure” (which I also recommended at the old site, though reading it isn’t necessary to enjoy this one). In this, Bonnie Colbert is en route from Paris to New York and occupying herself with her very smart phone which she’s trying to turn into her personal lawyer when the plane starts to crash. Fascinating things are done with time and anthropic assumptions and then the vista widens still further, all in 920 words.
(Speaking of time, I believe there is one flaw in this story. One of the entities in it says something catastrophic will happen if they don’t adjourn in “50 milliseconds” but later says, “I just queried your Paris office” and the meeting seems to wrap up in time. But I think Paris and New York are almost two-hundredths of a light-second apart. (Later in the meeting, the same entity says “we don’t have time to wait for Paris” but they didn’t the first time.) But maybe if they just adjourn in five-hundredths of a second the numbers work out and they might still have enough time to do the real-world physics they need to do. But perhaps I’m wrong – either way, I’m not going to let it mess up a good story.)
- 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.
- “Last Chance” by Nicole Kornher-Stace, Clarkesworld, novelette (rec)
- “The Martian Obelisk” by Linda Nagata, Tor.com, short story (rec)
- “Good News” by Jack McDevitt, Nature, short story
- “The Law of Conservation of Data” by John Grant, Lightspeed, novelette
- “The Significance of Significance” by Robert Reed, Clarkesworld, short story
- “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.
- Review of July 2017 Cosmic Roots and Eldritch Shores for Tangent
- “Tree With Chalicotheres” by Vicki Saunders (fantasy short story)
- 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.
- Rec: “Last Chance” by Nicole Kornher-Stace
“Last Chance” by Nicole Kornher-Stace, Clarkesworld July 2017, SF novelette
The cons of this story are that it’s a tired post-apocalyptic tale; that it’s an unsurprisingly unrelievedly bleak story for the bulk of it; and that, while there’s something to be said for concise endings, this was a bit too compressed. The pros are that it’s a near-perfect exercise in narrative voice and the naive narrator, using an apparently “slow” child as the window into this world; that it tackles its triteness with gusto, as though such post-apocalyptic stories weren’t trite; and that, even as a longer story, it reads quickly (allowing for a slight drag in the middle when the bleakness needs some variation).
So, yes, it’s a story in which the girl and her mother are off to visit the king of a nearby place so that mom can torture people for that king. On the way back, they are seized by the scavengers of the wasteland and it gradually becomes clear that this is a post-apocalyptic earth (or post-apocalyptic, anyway) and that the girl has slight mental challenges and is quite a charming person despite being the child of a torturer (who, herself, seems to be a fairly good mother, all things considered). Once put on the chain gang to scavenge for pre-apocalypse treasure/junk in collapsed buildings, we get to the pivot of the story which isn’t entirely surprising but is appealing.
If I read such a synopsis, I wouldn’t be interested, myself, but it’s all in the telling and in the characterization and I recommend it for that.
(I usually save such things for the monthly summations but I’ll go ahead and mention that Robert Reed’s “The Significance of Significance” gets an honorable mention though its ontological relativism (a facet of which has long interested me) makes me queasy and its “we all live in a yellow VR machine” is tired. Further, if Larson didn’t seem to be stuck writing the same SF/horror story over and over, “Travelers” would probably have gotten that, too. Finally, Balder’s “The Bridgegroom” was another familiar post-apocalyptic tale but was readable even so. Overall, this issue of Clarkesworld was pretty good.)
- Summation of Online Fiction: June 2017
The twelve prozines of June produced thirty-eight stories and I read thirty-five of them at about 165K words. (Tor.com should have posted a fourth story on the 28th but didn’t. If it comes out today or tomorrow, I’ll update this post accordingly.) The random flukes of this month were a large number of honorable mentions (with not so many recommendations) which were mostly SF, half of which came from almost the entire issue of Compelling Science Fiction. Given that, I’ll basically do a mini-review of the whole issue after the lists.
- “Fool’s Cap” by Andy Dudak, Clarkesworld, novelette (rec)
- “Thinking Inside the Box” by Michèle Laframboise, Compelling, short story (rec)
Fantasy (billed as):
- “Bourbon, Sugar, Grace” by Jessica Reisman, Tor.com, novelette
- “Fathom the Ocean, Deep and Still” by David Bruns, Compelling, short story
- “Integration” by John Eckelkamp, Compelling, short story
- “Marcel Proust, Incorporated” by Scott Dalrymple, Lightspeed, short story
- “Utopia, LOL?” by Jamie Wahls, Strange Horizons, short story
- “What’s a Few Years When You Get Money and Friends in High Places?” by R R Angell, Compelling, novelette
- “Owning the Dragon” by Frances Pauli, Flash Fiction Online, short story
In “What’s a Few Years When You Get Money and Friends in High Places?” I couldn’t buy the “Head/Off” premise (a body builder and a rich guy whack their bodies and heads apart and trade pieces) and the ending was pretty trite but, in between, it was well done, interesting, entertaining, and didn’t always do the expected. “Integration” features a constituent of an AI collective loading itself into a robot body to learn how the other half lives and seemed quite fresh though a little too cute and slightly constructed, especially for its heavily theme-centered thrust. “Fathom the Ocean, Deep and Still” gets major points for taking a can-do approach to climate change where we don’t solve the climate change problem but do work around it in an amazing way. As someone who takes climate change extremely seriously, I don’t think this “when life hands you lemons” approach is ideal, obviously, but have to admire its boldness. On the other hand, the plot is extremely predictable, though executed well enough, given that.
The one story I didn’t single out as noteworthy was “Cogito Ergo Sum” which takes the very tired approach of using a robot (here questionably called an android because of a flesh surface) to question “what makes us human?” and is one giant “as you know, Bob” with some unconvincing emotions tossed in, but even it is readable.
In sum, I thought this was a good issue of Compelling and I’m rapidly becoming a fan of the zine. I love that I can’t detect any right-wing or left-wing agenda but only an agenda of idea-centered sci/tech-centered fiction which, to me, is what science fiction is really about. Incidentally, the recommended story, “Thinking Inside the Box,” while not being explicitly “retro” or derivative, does remind me of science fiction of the sort which played a part in first making me a fan, in which humans and aliens and their psychological issues weren’t taken directly from current, transitory socio-political issues or made to be thinly veiled symbols but seemed like fresh, individual constructs rooted in genuine thought experiments and which, nevertheless, did make you walk a mile in some alien shoes and question your own preconceptions and which did have a genuine positive mental and social effect without being plain propaganda. (If there was any propagandizing, this sort of classic SF was preaching just the virtues of open and rational thought and scientific accomplishment.)
Of the other honorable mentions aside from Compelling‘s, “Bourbon, Sugar, Grace” has thirty-four confusing uses of “moms” and a somewhat implausible premise (likely cost-ineffective, among other things) and deus ex ending but is otherwise interesting and unusual and its milieu of a hardscrabble colony being shafted by the corporation felt tangible and plausible once the premise was granted. “Marcel Proust, Incorporated” is an infodump of unconvincing melodrama but had a fairly fresh idea of brain-stimulated learning and was interesting despite its problems. “Utopia, LOL?” is severely flawed by its choice to project yesterday’s webspeak into the far future but, if you can get past that, this almost Futurama-esque tale of thawing out the cryogenically-preserved primitive is reasonably funny and entertaining and with a serious undertone. Finally, “Owning the Dragon” is a wacky (symbolic) take on a woman and her dragon and juggles a surface (and much more individual) whimsy with its own serious intent.
 Edit (2017-07-04): Well, Tor.com didn’t publish another story but I did notice I’d missed Diabolical Plots‘ “B” story again, so read it, which brought the totals up to 36 stories of about 171K words.
- Rec: “Thinking Inside the Box” by Michèle Laframboise
“Thinking Inside the Box” by Michèle Laframboise, Compelling Science Fiction June/July 2017, SF short story
It’s a familiar setup when we see two human diplomats through the cognitive estrangement of alien perception but angels (so to speak) are in the details just as much as the devil. The aliens’ love of constant, arbitrary change is interesting and they are generally nicely judged, not being “bumpy forehead” aliens nor incomprehensibly bizarre for its own sake but merely comprehensibly strange. When things go haywire and the shapeshifting ability of the alien spaceship is damaged, the psychological and mathematical elements of the tale come even more to the fore and they are quite interesting. In a way, this is a very old-school tale—one might wonder why the alien engineers haven’t foreseen this potential problem and developed some kind of “VR” solution or something—but I like the “beings and ships” sort of flesh-and-steel pre-cyberpunk sensibility. And I’m not sure it’s not a flaw for a part of the ending to be dependent on insider information but at least very few SF fans will fail to get it. I enjoyed this one.
- Rec: “Crossing the Threshold” by Pat Murphy
“Crossing the Threshold” by Pat Murphy, Lightspeed June 2017, short story
This is billed by Lightspeed as fantasy but it’s only fantasy if you want it to be. It also discusses the scientific concept of entropy but isn’t really SF unless you really want it to be. This is sort of indicated in the story itself when, after meeting an old man stuck on a fence and helping him over, the protagonist/narrator says,
I realized that I could think about that old guy in two different ways.
Here’s option number one. He was an ordinary old man….
Then there’s option number two, an option that might occur to you in the dark of night a couple of months after your father died when you’re drinking red wine and reading an article about the devil.
I’ll grant that this story may not have the tightest structure or the most climactic of climaxes and that I’ve had a weakness for Pat Murphy stories for many moons now. Still, it’s a good, quirky, San Francisco treat and I hope folks will read it and enjoy it as much as I did.
- Rec: “Fool’s Cap” by Andy Dudak
“Fool’s Cap” by Andy Dudak, Clarkesworld June 2017, SF novelette
A woman hunting a war criminal gets stranded on a planet with nothing but her drone swarm, the planet’s strange psychoactive alien lifeform, and her prey. Nothing goes as planned and nothing survives unchanged.
While calling this a “sympathy for the devil” story may be a bit much, it is at least a remarkable “let he who is without sin” story. It is perhaps overly reminiscent of things like Alastair Reynolds’ “Turquoise Days” and even Ian McDonald’s “The Tear” except that it is less adroit than either of those tales. It’s also reminiscent of other works I’ve read by Dudak, himself, but is more adroit than those. It’s extremely interesting on both intellectual and emotional levels and feels like genuine science/speculative fiction. It’s an unsettling, uncomfortable read in a good way and I appreciate its lack of self-righteousness and its blending of the thematic focus with an actual dramatic focus and how it wrests such a large scope out of such a seemingly small structure. In sum, a piece worth a solid recommendation.
(It’s also a relief to find something noteworthy in Clarkesworld again. After a strong start to the year, it’s basically been without interest until this story. I look forward to the rest of the issue. Also, since I’ve already read the stories released by the weeklies, bi-weeklies, and other monthlies so far this month, once I finish it and Compelling I’ll be caught up.)
- Summation of Online Fiction: May 2017
This May there were even more reprints and translations than usual in fewer issues than usual (and I did skip one story which is not included in the total) which may explain why I get only 33 stories (one unfinished) of 146K words from eleven prozines, but it still seems a little light. I can’t find anything I missed, though. If there’s a coincidental streak or theme to this month’s fiction it’s not necessarily general but resides in my SF recs all being forms of horror. That’s not the kind of SF I like to recommend in the abstract, but I have to play the hand I’m dealt.
- “Let Me Sleep When I Die” by Wendy Nikel, Nature 2017-05-24, short story (rec)
- “Sweetlings” by Lucy Taylor, Tor.com 2017-05-03, novelette (rec)
- “This Is for You” by Bruce McAllister, Lightspeed May 2017, short story (rec)
I’d said in an earlier post that I had “several honorable mentions” but my own notes on most of them waffle on whether I was “grading on a curve” because I’d read so many stories I intensely disliked that simply not disliking some made merely decent, publishable work seem artificially special. I’ve decided against curves and will only note the couple that I didn’t quibble much about on the “honorable mention” level.
- “Sanctuary” by Allen Steele, Tor.com 2017-05-17, short story
- “The Stars That Fall” by Samantha Murray, Flash Fiction Online May 2017, short story
Even there, Murray’s story about asteroids with names on them (like large-scale cosmic bullets) was billed as SF when it’s not remotely and, among other issues, has an opening sentence of mixed tense, but I liked its core.
I don’t ordinarily give more than a line or two to HMs but Steele’s tale of a pair of colony starships encountering a crisis upon reaching their new world was particularly important but frustrating. This was a good old-fashioned science fiction story which makes up about 2% (or less) of the “science fiction” web market these days but it went beyond being “old school” and was just downright derivative. The hubris dynamics have been handled by Theodore Sturgeon and others, including Clifford D. Simak. Indeed, his 1951 story “Beachhead” is almost exactly like this one bio/tech-wise except for the specific type of the point of failure. For another point that I can’t comment on much without spoiling, a minor victory snatched from major jaws of defeat was snatched from out of nowhere – it’s a perfectly plausible and reasonable device if prepped, but it felt like a deus ex. It also posited what I hope will turn out to be odd technological lags such as some members of a starship crew in the year 2266 having dental bridgework. It also does something odd with the completeness of the incomplete log. Finally, while it does have a sort of ending, it makes the piece feel more like a novel excerpt than a story. So all this thoroughly precluded it from being a recommendation. But if you haven’t read all its predecessors it should seem fresh and good and if you’re just really hankering for a starship-is-actually-a-starship tale then this certainly can’t go completely unnoticed. Alas, it still won’t fully satisfy some due to [spoiler], but it’s worth looking into if you’re in its general target audience.
 Edit (2017-06-15): I actually did miss a second story from Diabolical Plots, which I’ve now read and brings the total up to 34 stories of 149K words.
- Rec: “Sweetlings” by Lucy Taylor
“Sweetlings” by Lucy Taylor, Tor.com 2017-05-03, SF novelette
I’m impressed that this science fictional horror story doesn’t have one of those annoying “trigger warnings” prefacing it. It’s an intermediate-future tale of climatic disaster which has resulted in a few weird folks clinging to an unpleasant life in what used to be the inland (now ocean-front) Southeast. Fortunately, things go downhill from there. In all seriousness, what could have been a dreary, dull “cli-fi” tale becomes a gripping, transporting tale of vivid, energetic horror, largely centered on a somewhat rubberized science of very fast evolution. Rather than preaching “Quit screwing up the environment,” this story is a story first and foremost, which leaves the reader saying, “Holy $#!^, man, let’s really quit screwing up the environment!” My only quibble with the story is that, after being quite deliberate and explicit, it has an oddly rushed and almost coy ending, at least comparatively. But even that is still fairly effective and the whole tale is quite an experience. I wouldn’t be surprised if some folks intensely disliked this but, if it sounds intriguing at all, give it a try. (To be fair, I should note that the story doesn’t initially read too much like horror and it does create a very interesting trio of main characters, so has things that will appeal to general speculative fans… and which make the horror all the more effective.)
[I was going to post this and finish up Tor.com‘s May offerings yesterday but my ISP screwed up my internet connection for over a day. Technology willing, I will get caught up soon.]
- Rec: “This Is for You” by Bruce McAllister
“This Is for You” by Bruce McAllister, Lightspeed May 2017, SF short story
Another short-short (~1200 words). This one involves a boy, who has recently returned from an alien world, giving an extraordinary painting to the girl he has a crush on. Some people may grok it immediately but I don’t want to say more and risk spoiling it for others. While not the most unique tale in some ways and not exactly to my taste in every way, I thought it was very well done and I especially liked the understatement and indirection.
- Rec: “Let Me Sleep When I Die” by Wendy Nikel
“Let Me Sleep When I Die” by Wendy Nikel, Nature 2017-05-24, SF short story
Sorry, I’m running just a tiny bit behind, but I have read all the May prozine stuff except Lightspeed and Tor now. I’ve come across several “honorable mentions” but I particularly liked this Nature short-short about a horror of future war and how perceptions can change for some and not others. It’s not the hardest SF or most logically airtight premise but it’s a form-fitting epistolary tale which is effectively creepy and aesthetically thoughtful, so to speak.
- Rec: “Sun, Moon, Dust” by Ursula Vernon
“Sun, Moon, Dust” by Ursula Vernon, Uncanny May/June 2017, fantasy short story
Allpa’s dying grandmother leaves him a magic sword. When unsheathed, Sun, Moon, and Dust materialize from it and they’re all supposed to go be heroic warriors together. But Allpa is a simple, dutiful, potato farmer. The tale deals with his unenthusiastic participation in training and his varied relationships with the ill-tempered and bloodthirsty Dust, the somewhat remote Sun, and the sympathetic Moon.
This rural encomium, while thematically in Vernon’s comfort zone, is conceptually more of a BCS-style secondary-world pure-fantasy tale than the Vernon I’ve read which tends to be fairly connected to this world regardless of its fantasy elements. It’s also not her strongest, perhaps because of this. But her strongest is extremely strong and this is still pretty good. I particularly like her similes and turns of phrase, as in the scene where Moon is expressing his feelings about his own long-forsaken lands and Allpa reacts:
“You can stay here,” he said. The offer was purely instinctive, as if Moon was bleeding and he had lifted his hands to staunch the flow.
There is also humor such as when Dust is wanting to kill Allpa and be done with him, else they’ll have to wait in the sword for the next owner to unsheathe them:
“And look at him, the wretch, you know he’ll live to be ninety!”
- Summation of Online Fiction: April 2017
I thought ralan.com might have been hasty in declaring Terraform dead but I’m calling it, too. Leaving aside comic strips, after four stories in January, there’ve only been two in each of February and March and none in April. The remaining dozen prozines brought us forty-two stories of 199K words.
In one of Dozois’ Annuals (I forget which) he says something about the industry going in streaks with some years producing no anthologies about wombats and others producing ten of them. The same is true of webzines on a monthly basis. As March was Horror and Tor/Nightmare Month, so April was Fantasy, BCS/Lightspeed, and Novella Month.
Taking the last first, Clarkesworld and Uncanny brought us the rare treat of webzine novellas, for which they are to be commended. Alas, both novellas were quite flawed and, ironically, one of the flaws was that neither had a novella’s worth of material but would have easily fit into novelettes. Still, I hope the novella trend continues. For the other two monthly statistical anomalies, almost all my recommendations were fantasy and almost all from two venues. Only one SF story really stuck out and not in an especially sfnal way (though, conversely, a couple of the fantasies had sfnal elements). Two honorable mentions were both SF, though, and both from Compelling. Deborah L. Davitt’s “Demeter’s Regard” is a tale of a human/AI romance onboard a multi-generational starship and Karl K. Gallagher’s “Samaritan” is a pretty upbeat tale of a Neo-Amish Boy in the Big Lunar City.
- “The Black Clover Equation” by Zach Shephard, Flash Fiction Online, short story (rec)
- “I Have Been Drowned in Rain” by Carrie Vaughn, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, short story (rec)
- “Remote Presence” by Susan Palwick, Lightspeed, novelette (rec)
- “When We Go” by Evan Dicken, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, short story (rec)
 Edit (2018-01-13): Looking for something else led me to find the quote. On page xxv of the Ninth Annual, Dozois said, “Turning to the nonseries anthologies, we are reminded once again that anthologies come in bunches—or, at least, that often a number of anthologies with similar themes seem to come out all at the same time . . . so that, say, there’ll be no anthologies about wombats, and then suddenly there will be three of them. No one knows why.”
- Rec: “Seven Permutations of My Daughter” by Lina Rather
“Seven Permutations of My Daughter” by Lina Rather, Lightspeed April 2017, SF short story
Still pouring. (Coincidentally, it’s literally pouring where I am, with flood warnings and everything.) Lightspeed achieves the remarkable feat that BCS just achieved of impressing me twice in the same month. And Lina Rather has now impressed me twice in three months. I first noticed her February FFO story, “Marking the Witch” and I was wondering if she could do it again without doing it again, so to speak.
Rather than a fantasy about a romantic connection, this is a sort of SF story about a familial connection. Something horrible is going on with a woman’s daughter (Elena) and that woman (Sarah) happens to be a mathematician/physicist who has been and is exploring the worlds of the multiverse in order to find a pattern in which the daughter and family are happy. She hopes to see that it’s possible, understand it, and perhaps apply it.
The structure of the “permutations on a theme” is very familiar and even the “scientist uses special knowledge to pursue a personal goal fervently” is familiar. But, somewhat as the virtues in “I Have Been Drowned in Rain” compensated for the familiarity of some of its elements, so the emotional freight of this story (which it shares with “Marking the Witch” but even exceeds) serves to make this story special. It’s so easy for stories aiming for passion and emotion to fall flat on the one hand or to seem overwrought on the other. It’s so easy for stories about pain to be aesthetically painful for the reader. But this story excels at finding that emotional pitch where the character feels genuine and she really, really wants something and it’s easy for the reader to sympathize.
Also, somewhat akin to “When We Go,” it has a strong, direct style which I appreciate. For a sample of that and the emotional pitch, I like lines like, “I will tear space and time apart for you, Elena. I will remake the world for you,” placed in stories in which they seem appropriate and credible. Further, the last line is superb.
- Rec: “When We Go” by Evan Dicken
“When We Go” by Evan Dicken, Beneath Ceaseless Skies #223 (2017-04-13), fantasy short story
My last recommendation had “rain” in the title and, when it rains, it pours. Here’s a second excellent story from the same issue.
The Bronze Faces have been killing off the protagonist’s people in general – and her family, specifically – and she believes the gods have abandoned them. In vengeance, she has been hunting the gods down and killing them with the World Serpent’s Fang, asking them a last question: “Why did you forsake us?” With no satisfactory answer, she intends to hunt down the last: Coyote, the trickster. So, naturally, things are not as they seem.
The people are being driven to the edge of the western sea and the bulk of the story takes place in their refugee camp. (The other story in this issue has a similar locale with at least one common bit of significance, but with a very different scope and mood.) One of the many strong elements of the camp sequence is the “fire singing” in which young warriors tell of what their passing will be like. “I will soar like a sparrow when I go…. My enemies but tiny specks, I shall rise until they are nothing when I go.” Both on this scale and a social and cosmic one, as the title indicates, this is a tale of death/change.
This theme and the imagery of the story is complemented by its style. As readers of this blog may know, I’m not a big “style” guy, generally favoring simple clarity. Most of what passes for “style” slows the pace or produces obfuscation or a lilting, mincing, weak feel or any number of other failings. This story has a definite style, but a style I enjoyed, being just elevated enough to avoid plainness but remaining direct and achieving power. In addition to the line above, I’d like to quote a couple of paragraphs to illustrate this but they’re too near the climax, or another bit which achieves one of several frissons of awe after the protagonist has dealt with Death but it’s too extended, so perhaps this paragraph will suffice as an example.
I’d felt neither hunger nor exhaustion since the Field of Husks, the emptiness inside me lost against the vast hollow expanse of a thousand worlds fallen to rot amid the roots of the World Tree. I’d left more than my blood upon that long crawl down to the Serpent’s lair, the jagged tangle of obsidian roots carving away whole parts of me. And yet, something tightened in my chest as I surveyed the valley. The smoke on the air, the faint calls of herders, the distant glimmer of fires—I needed no rest, I needn’t even stop, but it would be nice to ride toward the camp for a while, to pretend I was coming home.
- Rec: “I Have Been Drowned in Rain” by Carrie Vaughn
“I Have Been Drowned in Rain” by Carrie Vaughn, Beneath Ceaseless Skies #223 (2017-04-13), fantasy short story
Jared is leader of a small group (“the magician, the knight, the thief, and the princess” and “the young woman Kat” – who is the focal point from Jared’s point of view) who are attempting to avoid the Wrath’s servants and get the princess through unfriendly lands, across the water, and back to their own lands where she can help oust the usurper. The core of the story is about them being one step from success and wondering if they’ll be caught or if they can even trust each other.
Perhaps this is a generous recommendation as I can’t quite articulate why I liked it as much as I did. At first, I wasn’t sure if it might not be intended as a parody because it seemed so extremely generic but I quickly became interested in Jared’s thoughts and Kat’s weirdness (see semi-spoiler paragraph if so inclined). The setting was made vivid and tangible. While there’s virtually no action there was enough tension to fill its wisely short length. (See semi-spoiler paragraph for a hint about one of my favorite things about the story.) In sum, it was just a gripping read that I enjoyed.
Semi-spoiler paragaph (one “reverse-spoiler,” so to speak and one only by innuendo): Regarding Kat, I found her compelling – the only tiny negative was that I was a bit disappointed that her backstory didn’t have an element I thought it should have even though I know BCS only does science fantasy as a special thing. Regarding one of my favorite things, I love it when a story reaches a fork in its road and does exactly what I think it should do. I frequently groan when characters become stupid from misguided concepts of nobility and almost always appreciate some realpolitik, at least when its not inappropriate to the story and character.
- Rec: “Remote Presence” by Susan Palwick
“Remote Presence” by Susan Palwick, Lightspeed April 2017, fantasy novelette
Win is a chaplain charged with providing spiritual care as mandated by the JCAHO (Joint Commission on Accreditation of Healthcare Organizations) which is sending an inspection team to Win’s hospital. The problem, as his boss and her boss both inform him, is that they’ve found out about the skeleton in his closet – or, more accurately, the ghost. Most people die and move on, either pushed with enough love from those on earth or pulled by those who have already gone before. Maisie, however, is one of those who’s gotten stuck between planes and is lingering around the hospital, talking with and comforting patients and even employees. This will cause significant problems according to the JCAHO rules but does a lot of good as well – breaking the letter of the rules but not their “spirit.” There is a further complication in that Win has to question both his motives for not having helped Maisie across and his thoughtlessness in certain regards. The main plot tension revolves around the inspection and possible closure of the hospital and Maisie’s status, particularly as it involves a recently arrived homeless patient.
This story includes a mainstream feel with the hospital, an SF feel with the telepresence, and a fantasy feel with the spiritualism. Some stories do such things and feel like “mash-ups” or ostentatiously “genre-bending” stories (or just bad SF) and often don’t work at all, but there’s a harmony to this fantasy that doesn’t feel “mashed” at all. It is also a nominally Christian tale, but is ecumenical in the broadest sense, dealing with love and compassion. Further, it has a genuine plot, is directly told, and shows all the professionalism one might expect from a writer with over thirty years of publications. For instance, the emotions are neither suppressed nor mawkish but are simply appropriate to the depicted people and situations. My only quibble is that, while some of the backstory anecdotes exemplify why some people have a hard time crossing, Maisie’s inability to cross didn’t seem adequately explained. On the other hand, I’d recently complained about telepresence technology constantly being used in SF as a “distancing” trope and I particularly appreciate it being used in this fantasy to facilitate connection. I enjoyed this well-told, fairly novel, and touching story.
- Rec: “The Black Clover Equation” by Zach Shephard
“The Black Clover Equation” by Zach Shephard, Flash Fiction Online April 2017, fantasy short story
This short-short takes a scientific (and hilarious) approach to lucky charms and their counterparts. (Given that approach and another element, it’s almost as much SF as fantasy.) The terse, dispassionate notes are appropriate for what they’re supposed to be but also create an almost Steven Wright delivery which makes it even funnier and the outrageous extension of the tale takes it to the finish line. (Although I think my favorite specific bit was the relatively modest black spray paint/combo effort.) Humor is in the funny bone of the beholder but I strongly recommend this.
- Summation of Online Fiction: March 2017
Compelling was off this month and the other twelve prozines produced forty-nine stories of 168K words. Only three of those struck me as especially noteworthy but that was partly offset by several honorable mentions. Tor.com came alive (mostly thanks to Ellen Datlow) when most other zines were below their average. Like Tor, Nightmare was also a little more impressive than usual – and in a month when it had a lot of competition, as many zines seemed to want to include some horror in this spooky month of March.
- “The Last Novelist (or A Dead Lizard in the Yard)” by Matthew Kressel, Tor.com, short story (rec)
- “Rising Star” by Stephen Graham Jones, Uncanny, short story (rec)
Fantasy (billed that way, anyway)
- “Margot and Rosalind” by Charlie Jane Anders, Tor.com, short story
- “Mr. Singularity” by Norman Spinrad, Nature, short story
- “Things Crumble, Things Break” by Nate Southard, Nightmare, short story
- “Luminaria” by John Hornor Jacobs, Apex, novelette
- “Nightshade” by J.W. Halicks, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, short story
- “You Will Always Have Family: A Triptych” by Kathleen Kayembe, Nightmare, novelette
Both stories from Nightmare and the one from Apex are horror or akin to it. “Triptych,” especially, was close to a rec but an “idiot plot” and other issues hurt it. Similarly, “Nightshade” was an offbeat, enticing, almost Burtonesque tale but ended up being too beholden to incompatible fantasy conventions. Tor.com went on a “Women’s Day” binge of mostly unremarkable mostly flash pieces but a couple stuck out more than the rest, with the “hyperbrain” story “Margot and Rosalind” being my favorite. Another AI short-short, Norman Spinrad’s “Mr. Singularity,” was a bit too much of a straw man and not entirely convincing, but was interesting and idea-centric.
- Rec: “The Last Novelist (or A Dead Lizard in the Yard)” by Matthew Kressel
“The Last Novelist (or A Dead Lizard in the Yard)” by Matthew Kressel, Tor.com 2017-03-15, SF short story
There’s not much to say to summarize this tale. In a future age of neurals, a novelist of pen and paper and self-typeset books who has a terminal condition travels to Ardabaab to work on his last novel while awaiting death. He meets the personification of youth and hope and talent in “Fish,” a young girl who becomes his muse and illustrator and typesetting assistant. All of this goes to answer the question about why and how we persist in doing the things we do.
It’s irrelevant but I can’t help but notice the oddity of reading this, which may well have been written on a word processor, on a webpage.
It’s unpleasant, but to get the quibbles out of the way, the dying author’s writing (given in alternating italicized sections) seemed oddly worse than the rest of the story, being more mannered and flowery. The girl is implausibly innately talented for a real character vs. a symbol. Most importantly, I find it hard to believe we will “wiki” in the future any more than we “gopher” today and that anyone will be from Google Base any more than they will be from AOL Orbital. A similar problem is exemplified by the locals offering the protagonist “braino and neur-grafts and celebrilives.” Everyone from Cordwainer Smith to Bruce Sterling can write lines almost like that but which have an elegant ring of native sfnal authenticity which this lacked.
All that is fundamentally insignificant, though. The characters are likable or explicable and the two main ones have a charming sort of plausibly implausible chemistry. The story is just the right length, with just the right pace (leisurely, but not slow, with an ever-present sense of the ticking clock), and comes together beautifully in the end with some emotional and thematic weight. Basically, other than stumbling over some of the odd diction mentioned above, this was a delight to read.
- Rec: “Come See the Living Dryad” by Theodora Goss
“Come See the Living Dryad” by Theodora Goss, Tor.com 2017-03-09, novelette
A woman in the present investigates the murder of her great-great-grandmother who was part of a “freak show” as a “living dryad.” (She actually had an extremely bad (and non-fictional) skin condition.) The story is told through narration in past and present as well as by means of sometimes nested letters, book excerpts, and other sorts of things (such as a box of evidence at a police station), producing the effect of looking through a scrapbook or mementos and family heirlooms which is basically what the present-day protagonist is doing.
If you need this story to have a revelatory twist, you’ll likely be disappointed as the whodunnit is pretty clear early on. Perhaps more problematically, this story’s vegetable love grows more slow, as Marvell might have it. However, while I value pace more highly than most readers, even I found the backstory, foreground, phrasing of the tale, and strokes of characterization sufficient to keep me involved. Perhaps the most problematic issue is that this is basically a mainstream story (and closer to SF if anything, despite being billed as fantasy). Unless I missed it, nothing supernatural happened and nothing scientific was projected though the story was reasonably scientific in both medical and criminal terms. All that’s particularly “made up” are the plot and characters, as in any fiction. But, much like Apollo 13 is sometimes lumped in with SF because “a space movie equals a science fiction movie,” so this “feels” a bit like SF and a bit like fantasy, so is “of interest” to the field. And, speaking of movies, I feel like anyone who enjoyed The Elephant Man would enjoy this story. There are so many similarities that this story could be dismissed as “derivative” but I feel it would be fairer to say it was partly “inspired by” the story of Merrick (who is name-checked in this tale). Finally, another of this novelette’s better features is its humanist theme which is certainly clear but handled reasonably lightly. While the heroes and main villain conform to today’s standards, the story does not settle for simplistic praise or condemnation (when it has more reason to than many stories) but remains true to its universal theme.
- Rec: “Rising Star” by Stephen Graham Jones
“Rising Star” by Stephen Graham Jones, Uncanny March/April 2017, science fiction short story
If nothing else, I like this story for talking about the spatial problems with time travel but there’s much more. The synopsis is quite simple, though. A scientist – or crackpot? – or the author? writes a proposal to a grant committee with great certainty that it will be accepted and explain a (real) mystery.
The only real complaint I can see regarding this story is that, by being a letter, it isn’t the most action/adventure-oriented plot but, by being all about the concept and detailing some pretty intense stuff it’s quite exciting. Otherwise, this has clean narration and the perfect marriage of form and content that “Cease and Desist” had. Further, it’s a genuinely tight and fun concept. I’m a guy who’s a hard sell for time travel stories but I’m buying this one and hope you do, too.
- Summation of Online Fiction: February 2017
Thirteen February pro-rate webzines (the same as last month‘s list except that a new bimonthly issue of Compelling replaced the defunct Fantastic) produced forty-three stories of 196,912 words. I most appreciated six (amounting to 14% of the whole).
- “The Perfect Porn” by Carl Franzen, Terraform, short story (rec)
- “Tav” by Dustin Kennedy, Compelling, novelette (rec)
- “The Terminator” by Laurence Suhner, Nature, short story (rec)
- “The Garbage Doll” by Jessica Amanda Salmonson, Nightmare, short story (rec)
- “Gravity’s Exile” by Grace Seybold, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, novelette (rec)
- “Marking the Witch” by Lina Rather, Flash Fiction Online, short story (rec)
There are several honorable mentions this month, so I’ll give them their own section. In principle, the only webzine stories I write up on this site are recs but you can read about the Lightspeed honorable mentions in my review of the whole issue at Tangent, if you wish. As far as the others, “Cupids” would appeal mostly to some women, people with an interest in postmodern mythology, or those who respond to its sense of humor (I like classical mythology and thought it was kind of funny) and “Thule” would have interest to some fans of Poe (he plays a large role in the story – perhaps larger than the author even intends, given its theme) and to those who can get through its over-engineering to enjoy its rococo prose and sneakily involving action.
- “The Last Garden” by Jack Skillingstead, Lightspeed, short story
- Rec: “The Terminator” by Laurence Suhner
“The Terminator” by Laurence Suhner, Nature (2017-02-22), science fiction short story
A woman has a task which makes her contemplate beginnings and endings, yin and yang: terminators. And she does this in a system of a tiny cool star and three habitable planets.
I’ll grant that this story may be a little lacking in the dramatic/fictional departments and some of this is just excitement over the timely topic but this is a brilliant evocation of the possibilities of the system. No, it is almost certainly not like everything described in the story and it’s not even very likely it’s much of anything like it (though the author does address some of my concerns about the effects of tidal locking on temperatures and atmospheres and the effects of strange suns and their radiation fields on close planets and so on). Still, one of the strengths of real science fiction is its ability to make genuine possibilities imaginatively concrete and this story concisely achieves that.
For the non-fiction behind the fiction:
- These seven alien worlds could help explain how planets form (nature.com*)
- A whopping seven Earth-size planets were just found orbiting a nearby star (popsci.com)
- Star found with record seven Earth-size planets (spaceflightnow.com)
- Major Discovery! 7 Earth-Size Alien Planets Circle Nearby Star (space.com**)
- Searching for Life on 7 Nearby Alien Worlds: How Scientists Will Do It (space.com)
* At the time of this post, this article is inaccurate (or at least makes a wildly optimistic, unreasonable, and unnecessary overstatement): “All of them orbit at the right distance to possibly have liquid water somewhere on their surfaces.” Only three do (if three can be described as “only”).
** Ditto: “all of them may be capable of supporting life as we know it…”
- Rec: “Gravity’s Exile” by Grace Seybold
“Gravity’s Exile” by Grace Seybold, Beneath Ceaseless Skies #219 (2017-02-16), fantasy novelette
Jeone Serrica is climbing what seems to be a world entirely of mountainside or cliff-face when, after scaring off a giant lizard, she encounters a village of strange women. After being somewhat ambivalently welcomed and despite being told to remain in her guest quarters, our intrepid explorer sneaks a peek at the villagers’ rites. What she sees mystifies and horrifies her but, before she can even try to come to terms with it, she’s snatched by a giant bird and taken off to an even stranger realm and an encounter that requires much more from her than even facing down giant lizards.
There’s a joke to the effect that, if you want to get published in The New Yorker, you just need to throw away the last three pages of your story. A similar joke could be made about BCS but it would seem to take more work: just extract the middle third of your tale and send that off. This story, as many BCS stories do, implies backstory so strongly that it feels like there must be a prequel story and, while its particular action is completed, it ends with an intimation that there must be a sequel story yet to come. Also, the style of this story is peculiar. Tunnels twist beguilingly, light is pearlescent, and gazes are chatoyant. (I had to look that one up. Very—almost too—precisely chosen.) Referencing them together like that makes the style sound better and more consistent than it actually is because the bulk is strongly written and these words seem like coruscating excrescences. A final relevant quibble could be that the action-oriented climax is too talky and slightly awkward. Also, probably irrelevantly, this story was fundamentally fantastic but kept making me want to try to read it as science fiction and to force it to make more sense. But that’s probably just me. Point is that, all that aside, the imagination brought to bear in conceiving this doughty protagonist and this amazing world and the entities she interacts with was extremely impressive and I thought the mix of conflicting social and individual perspectives and desires was handled very well. The main thing is that it was fascinating throughout and will live in the memory for quite some time.
- Rec: “Tav” by Dustin Kennedy
“Tav” by Dustin Kennedy, Compelling #5 (Feb/Mar 2017), science fiction novelette
This story takes place in the near future when VR is quite advanced. William and Tav have been the primary movers behind a company that has gotten phenomenally large and powerful. After a celebration party for William at his home, Tav (the viewpoint character) is invited downstairs by the host of honor where William’s very special VR, and an entity in it, is revealed. The three then tour the realm and have a psychologically and existentially loaded conversation that creates a remarkable degree of tension and even spookiness. It leads Tav to make a radical move.
Between the VR and the existential question of “is it live or is it Memorex?” that occupies a good chunk of the story, it’s not the most original thing I’ve ever read but it takes an unusual approach in terms of its viewpoint character. It is also not unusual in being mostly conversational but, as I mention above, it makes that conversation unusually dramatically effective. Also, it doesn’t use its VR basis as an excuse to write a fantasy in SF’s clothing, hewing to merely “enhanced” reality, and provides fairly detailed descriptions of the VR tech and the entity, which were deftly exposed mostly via the subjective experiences of the viewpoint character and only minimally via the conversation. The one serious criticism I might have involves the finale but even though it feels a bit easy, it’s in keeping with both William’s and Tav’s characters and seems plausible in that sense. The story maintained my interest, was sharply delineated and, unlike much other webzine fiction, felt like genuine science fiction, and I definitely enjoyed it.
- Rec: “The Perfect Porn” by Carl Franzen
“The Perfect Porn” by Carl Franzen, Terraform 2017-02-14, science fiction short story
This is a tale of a company (and particularly an employee who is also our narrator) creating an AI which, in turn, creates specially tailored porn. The product is initially so compelling that their hit rate goes through the roof and they get richer as intended but it becomes more and more irresistible and its influence becomes much more significant.
I have to appreciate the cynicism or sense of irony or whatever it is that goes into making the special Valentine’s Day story a story about porn. It’s reminiscent, in a limited sense, of part of Steven Barnes’ “Fifty Shades of Grays” though, strictly in terms of fiction, it’s perhaps only adequate. In terms of content, it says what it is right in the title, so shouldn’t surprise anyone and it should be redundant to say that it may not be suitable for all audiences. However, if you’re willing to try it, you may be as impressed as I was at the bold commitment to the story and the extrapolative vigor which, in the end, carries the satire regarding its “Satyr” to absurd lengths. Certainly not a run-of-the-mill story.
- Review of February 2017 Flash Fiction Online for Tangent
- “Marking the Witch” by Lina Rather (fantasy short story)
- Rec: “The Garbage Doll” by Jessica Amanda Salmonson
“The Garbage Doll” by Jessica Amanda Salmonson, February 2017 Nightmare, horror short story
Okay, this is kind of weird. Horror is not my forte (if I know one thing about horror I probably know three things about fantasy and thirty about SF, though I’ve taken some preliminary steps to try to fix that) and I’m not even sure if I’m recommending this. All I know is that it made me think of David Lynch’s Mulholland Dr. with all the stylish sexiness utterly removed. Still, this story – about a woman who seems to be dying in an ambulance and, not only having her life flash before her eyes, but going back to live in it in a weird no-funhouse way – was very intriguing. I’m not even sure if it’s not “dark fantasy” rather than horror but it seems horrific enough to me.
So consider this an “if you’re also intrigued, then it’s a rec; if not, not” sort of thing. Certainly an extra-honorable mention, though.
- Summation of Online Fiction: January 2017
I tried forty-three stories of 176,695 words from thirteen January 2017 pro-rate webzines (Apex, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Clarkesworld, Diabolical Plots, the final issue of the now-defunct Fantastic, Flash Fiction Online, Lightspeed, Nature, Nightmare, Strange Horizons, Terraform, Tor.com, and Uncanny). I didn’t finish four stories. Thirty-four ranged from bad to good with honorable mentions for “A Human Stain” by Kelly Robson (a horror novelette from Tor.com that at least sticks – like coagulated blood – in the mind) and “Playing for Keeps” by Judy Helfrich (a time travel short-short from Nature). I recommended five (12%). Those five, divided by genre and alphabetized by title are:
- “Cease and Desist” by Tyler Young, Nature, short story (rec)
- “The Ghost Ship Anastasia” by Rich Larson, Clarkesworld, novelette (rec)
- “A Series of Steaks” by Vina Jie-Min Prasad, Clarkesworld, novelette (rec)
- Rec: “Cease and Desist” by Tyler Young
“Cease and Desist” by Tyler Young, January 18 2017 Nature, science fiction short story
Humanity receives a legal notice from the IP folks (and that doesn’t stand for Interstellar Patrol).
This is kinda perfect. This flash fiction blends form and function in a clever and concise satire of a major aspect of our current corporate and legal structure. And, like the best satire, it’s actually at least as sad and serious as it is funny. Astounding/Analog has a section called “Probability Zero” and this would be perfect for that except that it may be Probability One Hundred.
- Rec: “The West Topeka Triangle” by Jeremiah Tolbert
“The West Topeka Triangle” by Jeremiah Tolbert, January 2017 Lightspeed, fantasy novelette
In 1987, a young social misfit who is fascinated by the paranormal has a mystery close to home to deal with. Kids have been disappearing from his neighborhood, which he decides is the “West Topeka Triangle.” Not only that, but he has to deal with a kid who particularly picks on him.
The very insufficient synopsis is because I really don’t want to give away anything at all. I thoroughly enjoyed this tale, in large part due to all those little things (quirky little observations and descriptions) that, individually, don’t have to be in the story but make it concrete and detailed and believable and without any of which, the story likely wouldn’t work. For instance, when a kid’s video game malfunctions and the other kid has to leave hurriedly, the story continues:
“I’m going to call the Nintendo hotline and yell at them until they send me a new game,” Brendan says, red-faced and sweaty. I let myself out as he dials the number, apparently from memory, and begins yelling.
The detail of “apparently from memory” instantly paints a picture of all the previous phone calls the kid has made and what a big part of his life is like and noting it as “I let myself out” gives it a wonderful off-handedness.
This may be part of a general “80s nostalgia” and when Brendan says, “I get to be player one,” I immediately thought “Ready,” even though I haven’t even read Ready Player One. But I don’t think the story relies on its 80s-ness for its core effect. It relies more on its characterization and how life of any era would be for such characters. As the other details do, the period details simply bolster the tangibility of the tale. Either way, it avoids being sappily sentimental or nastily bitter but approaches the historical and personal eras with equanimity.
Another part of the tangibility derives from the fact that this is hardly speculative fiction at all. If anything, from the junk science and rudimentary rationalism of the protagonist, this is almost pseudo-SF more than pseudo-fantasy (though Lightspeed is publishing it as a fantasy) but there’s little in it that requires it to be read as anything but the perceptions of an imaginative kid. (The end of a dinner table scene is perhaps the strongest indication of an actual fantasy element but even it could be dismissed.)
Odd thought: anyone who’s more than glanced at this blog or Tangent knows how I feel about present tense narration, even though it’s become virtually omnipresent. This is a present tense story yet I scarcely noticed. Perhaps because it fits with how children often tell stories, “I says such and such and he goes this and that.” Kids are often very in the moment. It doesn’t feel like it was chosen just as the trendy technique but because it was right for this tale. (An opposite argument could be made, though, that a “retro” tale should have especially been told in past tense.)
Whenever it is and whatever it is and however it is told, I thought the results were excellent.
- Rec: “The Dark Birds” by Ursula Vernon
“The Dark Birds” by Ursula Vernon, January 2017 Apex Magazine, fantasy novelette
Baby tells the story of her family, in which there are always three daughters (Ruth, Susan, and Baby) no matter how many are born (and there are many). The parents are ogres and the children have almost no contact with anyone else, though Ruth does hand down stories of Lily, who came from the great beyond. One day, the mother has another child and Baby thinks she must become Susan but later finds that the baby has died. The current Susan investigates and matters quickly come to a head.
I’m not very conversant with fantasy so can’t be sure, but I suspect this may be a tale modeled on a standard fairy tale or something like that. Perhaps not. And I’m sure it can be read many ways though it seems to me it could be a fantastic retelling of how many women might see growing up in (or near) a small, presumably Southern town. Be that as it may or may not, I like Baby’s narrative voice and how it deftly shows her character and Susan’s, especially. It’s just good storytelling which, perhaps naturally for the presumably dyslexic Baby, feels very rooted in the oral storytelling tradition. Also, while it may not resonate for everyone and only does in a proximate but strong way for me, the depiction of the two-book house (Bible and almanac) and the oranges for Christmas provide extra bits of particular concreteness.
- Rec: “A Series of Steaks” by Vina Jie-Min Prasad
In the course of finishing Clarkesworld I found another I especially liked.
“A Series of Steaks” by Vina Jie-Min Prasad, January 2017 Clarkesworld, science fiction novelette
Helena is a nice girl with a dark past who is hiding under an assumed name in a temporary residence in China, working in a “gray area” as a forger of beef using a 3D printer. One day, she’s blackmailed by a mysterious and viciously foul-tempered person who demands a large amount of steak. Eventually, working under a deadline she feels she can’t meet (almost typed “meat” there) she hires Lily, a boisterous, colorful bundle of energy and things get really interesting as the pair continue to work on the project while also working to get out from under the mysterious man’s thumb.
I’ve read plenty of 3D printing stories for years now but it’s still a strangely underdeveloped theme and I don’t think I’ve read one about steaks before. Beyond that, this story is constructed very well (though it’s a little long), and is extremely vivacious, funny, and entertaining. I don’t know if I’d want to read dozens of stories with the exact same tone which might have the same exhausting effect Lily sometimes has on Helena, but I really enjoyed reading this one. Even the present tense narration didn’t particularly bother me. My one quibble is that, while clever and somewhat satisfying (especially in the details), the conclusion wasn’t quite as earth-shattering as such a big wind up led me to expect. And, of course, if the narrative tone and the two main characters don’t appeal to you, the story is unlikely to, but then you’re immune to some pretty charming stuff.
- Rec: “The Ghost Ship Anastasia” by Rich Larson
It’s a new year and the January webzine stuff is coming out and now this blog can officially begin. I’ve read Flash Fiction Online, and a tale each from Apex and Clarkesworld. The latter produces the first (mild) recommendation of the year.
“The Ghost Ship Anastasia” by Rich Larson, January 2017 Clarkesworld, science fiction novelette
Silas, his sister Haley, Io the muscle, and Yorick the suit are sent by their company to examine a bioship that’s gone silent. Haley dies from micrometeorite damage to her cryo chamber in transit with only a deteriorating software backup of her consciousness remaining, which Silas is determined to save. Their troubles have only just begun, though, as they enter the ship to find the “bio” part has run riot and the controlling software, having become sentient due to the flesh/machine hybrid, is even more out of control. The previous crew appears to have been eaten to provide some of that increased biomass and the new arrivals try to avoid being next on the menu.
This is a gothic space opera and, if you like the first Haviland Tuf tale of George R. R. Martin or the Boojum tales of Sarah Monette and Elizabeth Bear or many Alastair Reynolds or most Neal Asher stories, you may like this. It does have problems: it places too much weight on the Turing test and isn’t very plausible when it comes to computers and AI (from Haley’s inexplicably decaying software to the fact that the AI is supposed to be easily distracted (because if our contemporary computers can’t process millions of instructions per second and can’t multitask how is a futuristic AI supercomputer supposed to?)), and the ending may not surprise everyone, but it’s effectively creepy and full of fast-paced excitement with a believable and interestingly quirky but Ordinary Joe protagonist.