Weekly Webzine Wrap-Up (2018-07-21)

Weekly Webzine Wrap-Up image

Original Fiction:

  • Jesus and Dave” by Jennifer Lee Rossman, Diabolical Plots #41B, July 16, 2018 (fantasy short story)
  • The Trees of My Youth Grew Tall” by Mimi Mondal, Strange Horizons, July 16, 2018 (slipstream short story)
  • Papa Bear” by Kurt Pankau, Nature, July 18, 2018 (science fiction short story)
  • Drawing the Barriers” by Tamara Vardomskaya, Beneath Ceaseless Skies #256, July 19, 2018 (fantasy short story)
  • Flesh and Stone” by Kathryn Yelinek, Beneath Ceaseless Skies #256, July 19, 2018 (fantasy short story)
  • The Nearest” by Greg Egan, Tor.com, July 19, 2018 (science fiction novelette)
  • Next Door” by Ryan Harris, Terraform, July 20, 2018 (science fiction short story)

Beneath Ceaseless Skies brings us half the week’s fantasy stories and they are about artists with cramped styles. “Drawing the Barriers” sketches an almost modern society which oppresses its magical people, resulting in a trio of rebels (the artistic mage, the lesbian mage, and the incognito mage) starting to strike their blows against it. “Flesh and Stone” is a vaguely Pygmalion-like tale about a sculptor making, falling in love with, and bringing to life, a statue for himself and one for his medieval nobility but lacking Aphrodite’s touch. For the other half, “Trees” has the oddity of tree-dwelling people but is otherwise not fantastic as it describes them having their habitats taken from them by evil white people and follows an old woman who loses and looks for her son while making her way in the city. The week’s best fantasy is the lightly amusing “Jesus and Dave” which describes how hard it is for Dave to maintain his atheism in the days after Jesus’ return but also describes how useful that might be.

The week’s science fiction is quite imbalanced, being made up of two minor flash pieces and a novelette (near-novella) that is the week’s best story. “Next Door” is about keeping up with the Joneses even in a nearly uninhabitable future of nukes and pollution while “Papa Bear” drops a confusing mainstream bit about dementia into an irrelevant dystopia. Even “The Nearest” isn’t free of a bit of “mainstreamism,” as it deals with a real condition with only a slight, but important, science fictional twist and is set in an interesting technological near-future which isn’t especially vital to the story but it’s so detailed, concrete, engrossing, and downright scary that it works. A cop is dealing with a batch of missing persons cases when she’s assigned the case of a missing mother and the woman’s murdered husband and two children. With drones, black boxes in cars, and other such mechanical aids to her investigation, she tries to figure out what happened and why. Things kick into overdrive when she wakes to find a stranger in her bed and a mechanism in place of her son. The tale becomes a neatly balanced descent into the paranoia of “The Invasion of the Soul Snatchers,” causing the reader to wonder who is crazy and who is sane. There are some acronyms (SOCO, CSF) I had to look up that should have been properly introduced and I don’t think the cop’s final approach was wise or would have worked out the way it’s depicted but these are relatively minor blemishes in an otherwise tautly executed tale that doesn’t play around with narrative or stylistic gimmicks and doesn’t need to. Good stuff.

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Weekly Webzine Wrap-Up (2018-07-14)

Weekly Webzine Wrap-Up image

Original Fiction:

The weekly/irregular publications brought us three flash pieces and two novelettes this week. They were of unusually high quality with a recommended story, two honorable mentions, and one close runner-up.

Grievous Angel put out two pieces this week but I could only find speculative elements in “Goth Robots,” which is naturally a downer about fake faux tatoos. (Ink it black.) “Congratulations” is reasonably interesting as it uses a “Smart Vac” as a naive narrator to convey something much bigger than it would seem. “Your Face” is also a mostly elliptical tale which tackles things even closer to us in a dystopian noir crime story about bots, genetics, facial recognition, and more. I get the “second person-ness” of this story though I still could have done without it but, even so, it’s worth noting.

Moving to the bigger tales, “Last Banquet” is another food fantasy listory and even has exactly five dishes. Given that, I was thinking this would have to be a heck of a good tale to stand out from all the other similar stories recently. It’s not quite good enough to do that and I was really not pleased with the ending which was both awkward in terms of a couple of pieces of dialog and yet another simplistic revenge fantasy but it was good enough to hold my interest and move well until then. In the story’s only piece of speculation, the narrative device of backstory is made fantastic by having magic pastries forcibly move people into states of memories and we thus learn about the evil usurping Duke/Regent and the pastry maker and his beloved/narrator along with all the bad things that have happened and what, if anything, can be done about it.

Finally, “Chasing the Start” could almost be a mainstream tale in that it’s about an aged runner continuing to race against the young upstarts who wish to bring her down but it ultimately relies on its main speculative element while overflowing with other, almost gratuitous, speculative imagery and even ideas. Nearing the year 2400, people race through various timelines in the multiverse while wearing powered armor and every entity from one end of the Solar System to the other (except for Pluto – not Pluto) watches and cheers. The dangling mystery the reader chases is the question of what the protagonist is chasing and why, while a cabal of unscrupulous adversaries add surges of adrenaline. Well before the end, the end is no longer a mystery, but it still concludes satisfactorily and I enjoyed this one quite a bit. This managed to both have serious points and be fun and imaginative.

Weekly Webzine Wrap-Up (2018-07-07)

Weekly Webzine Wrap-Up image

Original Fiction:

  • Crimson Hour” by Jesse Sprague, Diabolical Plots #41A, July 2, 2018 (fantasy short story)
  • The Athuran Interpreter’s Flight” by Eleanna Castroianni, Strange Horizons, July 2, 2018 (science fiction short story)
  • Ded-Mek” by Matt Thompson, Nature, July 4, 2018 (science fiction short story)
  • Speak Easy, Suicide Selkies” by E. Catherine Tobler, Beneath Ceaseless Skies #255, July 5, 2018 (fantasy novelette)
  • The Scrimshander” by Damien Krsteski, Beneath Ceaseless Skies #255, July 5, 2018 (fantasy short story)

Tor.com is missing in action; Terraform‘s “story” is a “continuation” of an excerpt that I didn’t review last year so I’ll be skipping it, too.

In “Crimson Hour,” a father has lost his son to a vicious unicorn while the townspeople fete the Hero who afterwards killed the unicorn. The father blames the Hero for the son’s death and decides to try to kill him before we learn that all the arbitrary assumptions baldly posited by the story were red herrings.  In “Ded-Mek,” a woman has lost her son and spends the story going over repeated iterations of a distorted form of pseudo-scientific resurrection but it’s not about any of that because it’s all that there simbulizm. It’s actually about the evils of our godless technology or at least the blasphemous mentality behind same. In “The Scrimshander” it’s the father’s turn again to lose, not a son, but a daughter in service to a Dickensian indictment of the Powers That Be who distract the populace to stay in power while everyone else stays in misery.

In “The Athuran Interpreter’s Flight” (which is very hard not to read as “Arthurian” though it has nothing to do with it), we’re dealing with a pseudo-scientific cobbling together of “Earthian” and alien and machine with a somewhat dead child (or pair of them) being used as a bound doll translator by the evil “Earthian” businessman who’s trying to make a deal with the very aliens part of the translator comes from. Like “Crimson,” only more so, this story sets up parameters which it then proceeds to violate without explanation throughout the story and, like “Scrimshander,” it’s all simbulizm.

Finally, “Suicide Selkies” presents us with yet another selkie story which stretches a short tale out to the edge of novelette length by telling us of an interminable series of mostly disconnected suicides by oppressed women who are magically transformed by the sea while discussing the main tale of a magical fat circus lady and the selkie who comes back to reclaim her fur. At least this ultimately faces up to the world though it spends the vast bulk of the story seeming like it’s trying to sell suicide.

Despite unconvincing contrary notes at the last minutes of most of these stories, the overall tone of misery and death is loud and clear. Even if that’s what you’re looking for, there are technical problems with most of them as well.

Review: Uncanny #23

Uncanny #23, July/August 2018

  • “Red Lizard Brigade” by Sam J. Miller (science fictional)
  • “You Can Make a Dinosaur, but You Can’t Help Me” by K.M. Szpara (science fictional)
  • “Bones in the Rock” by R.K. Kalaw (fantasy)
  • “By Claw, By Hand, By Silent Speech” by Elsa Sjunneson-Henry & A. Merc Rustad (science fictional)
  • “The Tale of the Three Beautiful Raptor Sisters, and the Prince Who Was Made of Meat” by Brooke Bolander (fantasy)
  • “The Emigrants’ Guide to Oregon, California, and the Unknown” by Brit E. B. Hvide (fantasy)
  • “Give the People What They Want” by Alex Bledsoe (science fictional)
  • “Nails in My Feet” by Mary Robinette Kowal (fantasy)
  • “Everything Under Heaven” by Anya Ow (fantasy)

The twenty-third edition of Uncanny is a special issue, all the (short) stories of which are set in a shared world of multiversal spacetime gates and which are supposed to feature dinosaurs. A brief introduction credited to several contributors lays out the softly science fictional premise to bring in a subject which many people are inordinately fascinated by: the terrible lizards. Even with these easy parameters, most of the stories mostly or entirely ignore the premise (to the point of not even being in the same genre) and none of them show any interest in dinosaurs. The stories and this aspect of them make me think of the L7 song, “I Need,” which includes the lines, “Enough talk about me. Let’s talk about you. What do you think of me? me? me?” I don’t ordinarily review shared world fiction but entire issues of the magazines I do review aren’t usually devoted to them, either, and skipping an entire issue seems odd, so I’ll briefly sketch what you may be in for.

Red Lizard Brigade” is about a Soviet soldier trying to prevent his fellow soldier and lover from defecting. The two men have a final confrontation in which the dinosaur the loyalist rides is analogous to any military tool. “You Can Make a Dinosaur, but You Can’t Help Me” (me, me, me) is a second person tale in which you were born a female and get mad when your dad won’t pay for your sex change operation. Late in the story, the protagonist says he doesn’t, and I quote, “give two shits about [dad’s] portal and his dinosaurs.” In “Give the People What They Want,” we’re treated to a scam to produce dinosaur porn, the third scene of which is impossibly narrated.

By Claw, By Hand, By Silent Speech” is the last of the vaguely science fictional tales and one that features another strong theme of the issue: insofar as dinosaurs are featured at all, they are still not usually real creatures of flesh and blood but are romanticized symbols. In this one, a deaf person teaches a raptor (almost none of the stories have anything besides raptors, usually velociraptors) sign language because she wants to get inside the cage with it. Coincidentally, I just recently learned about Timothy Treadwell and think our protagonist should fare no better. “The Tale of the Three Beautiful Raptor Sisters” is similarly romantic about the noble dinosaur as it treats men as idiots and women as wise but is at least written explicitly as a fairy tale, so its witch hobnobbing with the dinos seems less preposterous. “Bones in the Rock” also recalls “Claw” in the sense that, as “Claw” is aiming for “Enemy Mine” emotional weight, so this tale, about a deeply loving dinosaur reincarnated repeatedly as a human, aims for emotional weight but is fundamentally silly.

One fantasy that doesn’t fit with the others is “Everything Under Heaven” in which a woman complains about her insufficient mother-figure and cooks while the other woman (and prospective lover) hunts the Great Green Dragon. Two even further outliers are “The Emigrants’ Guide” which adds a crazy member to the Donner party along with his pet “strange little bird” and “Nails in My Feet” about a sentient dry-rotted dinosaur puppet. Watch Buffy the Vampire Slayer‘s “The Puppet Show” instead.

As can be seen from the increasingly random tales, one of the many ways in which this issue fails is in not capitalizing on a particular virtue of connected story sequences: none of the stories relate to the other except incidentally or accidentally and certainly don’t build on each other to create a whole that is greater than the sum of the parts. Taken individually, none is successful and, taken as parts of a shared whole, they’re worse.

Review: Apex #110

Apex #110, July 2018

Original Fiction:

  • “The Chariots, the Horsemen” by Stephanie Malia Morris (fantasy short story)
  • “When You’re Ready” by M. Ian Bell (science fiction short story)
  • “Kerouac’s Renascence” by Tal M. Klein (science fiction novelette)

This issue also includes a reprint and a translation as well as the Patreon-funded original novelette and the usual two originals. I did like aspects of the first and third originals but the sum didn’t work for me.

In “Chariots,” the protagonist and her mother can fly, or could, if the patriarchal figure wasn’t literally keeping them down. It’s mostly well-written and has a well-realized protagonist but is thematically simple and unsubtle.

Ready” is about a boy who meets a boy and loses a boy and, undaunted by an apocalypse that should render such things even less likely, takes narcissistic mad scientist steps to regain boy. It’s stylistically very dull and is a case where the present tense specifically contributes to that problem. With yet another example of the “and… or… and… or…” structure, it has no real plot or climax.

Other than wondering why I was reading it in a “speculative fiction” magazine and its downer subject, I was mostly enjoying “Renascence.” A man dying from Huntington’s is leaving his suicide journal to his sister while on a cruise. However, it then tried to qualify as speculative fiction two-thirds in with a ludicrously presented “too bad even for TV” twist and then withheld the obvious conclusion for too long as though it were a big reveal. Also, by the end, the narrative device of the journal had come to seem inconsistent and inappropriate.

Review of Galaxy’s Edge #33 for Tangent

The thirty-third issue of Galaxy’s Edge contains four reprints and nine originals. Of the latter, the Davitt, Kleijne, and Spires are strictly flash fiction, while the Nikolopoulos and Birch are less than two thousand words, and the Nickel and Leen are less than three. The heftiest stories are the Hodges at four and the Roberts at six. Five of the tales are fantasy and four are forms of SF. Regardless of genre, almost all are humorous or at least light and nearly as many provide some degree of enjoyment though those looking for tales of great complexity, depth, and angst will need to look elsewhere.

Full review at Tangent: Galaxy’s Edge #33, July/August 2018.

Honorable mention:

  • “Resigned” by Floris M. Kleijne (science fiction short story)

Review: Clarkesworld #142

Clarkesworld #142, July 2018

Original Fiction:

  • “Gubbinal” by Lavie Tidhar (science fiction short story)
  • “A Gaze of Faces” by Mike Buckley (science fiction novelette)
  • “The James Machine” by Kate Osias (science fiction short story)
  • “For What Are Delusions if Not Dreams?” by Osahon Ize-Iyamu (science fiction short story)

Perhaps the most accessible short story is the adequate science fictional romance story “The James Machine” which, aside from being four times too long, feels like a Flash Fiction Online story. A dying husband and his wife try to make an AI emulation of the husband and she decides that, if you love someone, you must get them free will. The somewhat less accessible “Gubbinal” is set on Titan and features a woman who is hunting for artifacts left by Boppers (sentient, organic-like machines) when she comes across an injured Ermine (a person modified to live on Titan and other worlds without mechanical aid) and they both set off to explore until pirates have other ideas. This underplotted tale, which seems to be a small piece of a larger story, also seems to want to combine Rudy Rucker and Wallace Stevens in ways not entirely clear to me, but it was interesting. The least accessible, most perplexing short was “For What Are Delusions if Not Dreams?” which deals with a human being treated like an element of a computer or an element of a computer being something like a human. Either way, it would seem to be a metaphor for individual humans caught in the inhuman emergent System of modern society. It’s much softer and quieter than an Ellison story but appropriate that, after his death, it’s reminiscent of such tales as “I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream.”

The novelette, “A Gaze of Faces,” is another example of the stories particularly focused on the cognitive estrangement and dark, unpleasant moods that Clarkesworld is especially fond of. It probably slots near “Gubbinal” in disorientation and near “Delusions” in dark mood. This was the strongest tale of the issue in many ways but had some significant weaknesses. The “estrangement” is produced from simple inversion. The story opens with undefined terms: “I was sixteen when the viz came. The spiral went crazy for a while, shooting, soldiers at the corners.” Then “viz” and “spiral” and the other layers of confusion are basically “de-estranged” by unspooling a series of simple infodumps interspersed with good action scenes. On top of that, the infodumps teeter on the edge of two different connotations of “incredible,” almost leading to a sense of wonder as they expand the scope of the story and its depth of time but almost leading to a sense of ridiculousness as well. Ultimately, the background seems to fall to the latter sense. So now that I’ve begun without a synopsis, I’ll infodump it: on an essentially uninhabitable world, a “vault diver” pokes around in the remnant VR system of the colonial starship and “spiral” of a habitat that was built from it, looking for things of value. He’s tasked with training a young girl and, together, they discover something of importance which changes their understanding of their history and worlds. The numinous alien facehuggers they all live with are quite creepy (though also a plausibility problem) and the brutal, violent, decayed civilization they inhabit is powerfully portrayed. Without seeming to do much to achieve it, the main characters are appealing enough. It’s just that the deep background which produces this powerful foreground doesn’t work. It’s an “honorable mention once removed,” so to speak.