Recommended: None. (Both stories were quite readable, though.)
“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.
“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.
“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.)
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.
“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.]
“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.