- 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.)
- Review of September/October 2017 F&SF for Tangent
- “Hollywood Squid” by Oliver Buckram (humorous science fiction short story)
- “Starlight Express” by Michael Swanwick (science fiction short 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)
- 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
- 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 steaks. 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.