Review: Lightspeed #100

Lightspeed #100, September 2018

Original Fiction:

  • “Her Monster, Whom She Loved” by Vylar Kaftan (science fiction short story)
  • “Harry and Marlowe and the Secret of Ahomana” by Carrie Vaughn (science fiction novelette)
  • “The Last to Matter” by Adam-Troy Castro (science fiction novelette)
  • “The Explainer” by Ken Liu (science fiction short story)
  • “Hard Mary” by Sofia Samatar (science fiction novelette)
  • “Abandonware” by Genevieve Valentine (fantasy short story)
  • “Jump” by Cadwell Turnbull (fantasy short story)
  • “You Pretend Like You Never Met Me, And I’ll Pretend Like I Never Met You” by Maria Dahvana Headley (fantasy short story)
  • “Conspicuous Plumage” by Sam J. Miller (fantasy short story)
  • “A Brief Guide to the Seeking of Ghosts” by Kat Howard (fantasy short story)

Lightspeed brings us a more-than-double special issue for its 100th number with five original SF stories, five original fantasy stories, plus extra reprints and non-fiction. (The online edition swaps two of the usual reprints for two bonus originals with the Kaftan, Vaughn, Castro, Valentine, Turnbull, and Headley being made available.)

Monster” is a cosmic fantasy with scientific phrases sprinkled about and involves a goddess creating some children, one of whom is a monster, and follows their battle of the eons. It has a lot of the feel of June’s “Silent Sun.” “Ahomana” is a “shipwrecked on an island with a secret city” story with an additional component of alternate history in which “Harry” and Marlowe wander from their Victorian England (which has been modified with relics of alien tech) and discover the wonders of Ahomana. Even for being a part of a series and granting that this episode is finished, this is a middle and a bit long for its content but entertaining enough. “Matter” is a “jaded at the end of the worlds” story with a splash of posthumanism thrown over the New Wavy core. A man is ejected from his “orgynism” of perpetual sex to discover the City is dying and decides there are two ways to go and picks one. Some of this is repellent, the rest is common, and the end isn’t as deep as it purports to be. “Explainer” is metafiction nominally involving a repairman and a little girl, in which a broken (lying) house AI is relevant to the craft of fiction and, more generally, the drive for narrative.

The (perhaps excessively) gender-edged “Hard Mary” was much too long for its content (nearly a novella) but the oddly Simakian tale was the most interesting of the SF tales. Lyddie (narrator) and Mim (misfit genius) are effectively characterized young women living in an isolated religious village in the near future who, with some others, discover an abandoned, semi-functional robot they come to call “Hard Mary.” The (mostly mild) tension comes from multiple places including within and between the characters, between that group and the village, and between all of them and  the “Profane Industries” men who created Mary.

Abandonware” involves a broken narrator talking about a sort of VR game while covering her childhood and her current situation with a dead mother and a father who has replaced both of them. There’s a symbolic deer and some things that could be called hallucinations but no real fantasy or effect. “Plumage” takes us to an alternate 1950s where everyone has a fantastic talent, though the narrator’s hasn’t manifested because she first wants to learn more about the murder of her gay brother who “danced birds,” so to speak. From the street that went on forever to its questionable rock history and odd perspective on baseball to its ending, it’s unconvincing and “drops frames” at an increasing rate through the sketchy narrative. “Brief Guide” is no story but yet another ineffectual list (eleven sections on how to avoid or attract ghosts depending on season, weather, time of day, and a tip for the ghostless).

Moving up quite a way, “Pretend” is an initially darkly delightful tale of the less magical son of a magician who has to entertain at a birthday party. Naturally, he goes to a bar and hits on what turns out to be a bereaved mother whose child was killed and husband injured in a motorcycle accident. That turns out to be the high point of his day. His life hasn’t been much better, either, as we learn about his childhood, his dad, and deals with Death and/or the Devil. The sardonic tone and comical imagery (the magician’s bright yellow “lemon” of a VW Beetle accidentally ending up in a funeral procession, for instance) keep this story involving and entertaining and the only real problem is a somewhat incongruous and pat ending.

While much more understated (but consistent), “Jump” is the issue’s best story. One fine day, in an overflow of love and joy, Mike and his girlfriend Jessie teleport home. A desire to repeat the experience comes to obsess Mike while Jessie prefers to treasure the singular experience. For a time, she accedes to Mike’s efforts and, somewhere in there, they get married but this thing that cemented their relationship also tends to tear it apart. Very concise, yet well-realized and with some humor and pathos. Good stuff.

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Weekly Webzine Wrap-Up (2018-09-14)

Weekly Webzine Wrap-Up image

Original Fiction:

  • Mountaineering” by Leah Bobet, Strange Horizons, September 10, 2018 (short story)
  • The Congress” by Dave Kavanaugh, Nature, September 12, 2018 (science fiction short story)
  • Ancestor Night” by Nina Kiriki Hoffman, Beneath Ceaseless Skies #260, September 13, 2018 (fantasy short story)
  • It’s Easy to Shoot a Dog” by Maria Haskins, Beneath Ceaseless Skies #260, September 13, 2018 (fantasy short story)
  • Con Con” by Russell Nichols, Terraform, September 14, 2018 (science fiction short story)

[Still hanging on despite Florence, so here’s a quick “Wrap-Up” of this light (<12,000 words) week.]

In science fiction, it’s satirical con week! “The Congress” involves the sole incoming Interplanetary Congressperson showing up for work, learning an impossibly kept secret, and facing a hard choice. It’s obviously extremely contrived but, beyond that, few will approve of or even believe her choice as depicted. An arsonist can’t get a job at the “Con Con” (convict convention) as a “pop-up adman” with a “PR chip,” which means he’ll be sent back to “corporate” prison. Will an encounter with his cellmate, the identity thief, improve matters? The arsonist’s desperation and the plot’s viciousness are done well enough but the milieu is vague, the epilogue weak, and, as a literal character, the protagonist isn’t appealing.

In fantasy, it’s “inconclusive sibling stories” week! “Mountaineering” is an essentially mainstream piece which depicts a surviving sibling, who’s grown up worshiping  polar/mountain/explorer types and a deceased sibling, climbing a mountain while interacting with that sibling in a way that’s easily taken as psychological. The BCS stories are better, if not remarkable. “Ancestor Night” involves a group of siblings going to a ritual which involves interacting with their dead parents who are now located under a presumably perpetually frozen lake. The eldest sibling learns something shocking about his favorite sibling and makes a severe psychological adjustment. “Shoot” involves a sister wanting a dog and being followed by her younger brother while she searches for one. She finds a witch and makes a deal to get her dog but, when it comes time to make good on her end of the bargain, she has other plans. This has one extremely problematic protagonist along with a problematic “ending.”

Review: Asimov’s, September/October 2018

Asimov’s, September/October 2018

ASF_Sept_Oct_2018

Original Fiction:

  • “3-adica” by Greg Egan (science fiction novella)
  • “The Witch of Osborne Park” by Stephanie Feldman (fantasy short story)
  • “The Huntsman and the Beast” by Carrie Vaughn (fantasy novelette)
  • “R.U.R.-8?” by Suzanne Palmer (Capek-derived playlet, not reviewed)
  • “The Grays of Cestus V” by Erin Roberts (science fictional short story)
  • “DENALI” by Robert Reed (science fictional novelette)
  • “The Callisto Stakes” by Doug C. Souza (science fiction short story)
  • “Survivors” by Sheila Finch (fantasy-like short story)
  • “The Wrong Refrigerator” by Jean Marie Ward (science fictional novelette)
  • “In the Sharing Place” by David Erik Nelson (science fictional short story)
  • “Best Served Slow” by Leah Cypess (fantasy short story)
  • “The Secret City” by Rick Wilber (alternate history novella)

The lengthy reading of this issue and writing of this review has been plagued by innumerable problems and I apologize for the result.

The Secret City” is an alternate history story which deals with a baseball playing spy (Moe Berg, who is based on a real person) but it seems too similar (if separate) or too different (if connected) to a story from a couple of issues ago by the same author. In this one (also reminiscent of Steele’s “Einstein’s Shadow” (Jan. 2016 Asimov’s) down to having big planes), a couple of parallel-world-shifting spies try to get Fermi successfully into a 1940 US to help build an atomic bomb to answer Germany’s recent destruction of Dublin with theirs and get Rommel’s Texas Korps off the US’s doorstep. This is readable enough but has errors even for alternate history (why would an essentially identical Me-262 be in production in 1940 when it wasn’t even test flown in our timeline until 1941?; why would the Afrika Korps have fought in El Alamein and Tobruk in 1940 when these were 1941-2 battles?; etc.) and doesn’t make any coherent historical argument, seeming to change things randomly (this world’s President Roosevelt is Eleanor and Texas has seceded again without problems because it was so simple the first time). Perhaps worse, the protagonists (including the unnamed but repeatedly referenced “woman”) aren’t especially engaging and the novella is just a middle with a dramatic pause more than an ending.

Moving to supernatural tales, “Witch” deals with modern suburban witches and involves the family unit moving to a new place where bad stuff happens. A familiar-feeling domestic tale in which witchery is taken for granted and the twist is unsatisfying. “Beast” bucks the prevailing trend of male-oriented stories by the unprecedented means of retelling “Beauty and the Beast” with the genders reversed. (I think it says something that my favorite part was actually bad because, while the Prince and Mr. Beauty arguing about the latter’s sanity was funny, it was also out of place, tonally.) “Best Served Slow” is probably the best of the outright fantasies or it could be my enjoyment of “posthumous fantasy” kicking in again. This one deals with an old woman accompanying her family on a return vacation to Greece where she has a murder mystery to deal with. Problems include an otherwise good opening that is helped along by a little too much artifice, a confusing couple of critical conversations, and a necessarily but unsatisfyingly inconclusive conclusion, not to mention the odd aspects of a Delphic oracle being more summoner than sought, and being associated more with the Erinyes/Furies than Apollo. But the zesty protagonist is portrayed well and the story is interesting.

Grays” is very loosely SF, with tropes clothing a social tale of folks working bad jobs in a bad environment in which, to the basically insane artist protagonist, drugs and death seem like the only solution. Similarly, “DENALI” is more pseudo-SF as aliens leave us a magic machine which allows the political will of the people to manifest, making the world switch tracks through parallel universes or the like. Disturbingly, it seems to throw in the towel on democracy though its (perhaps overly symbolic) main couple and their relationship was interesting. “Survivors” is nominally about an “indistinguishable from magic” visitor trying to help out a PTSD vet but the whole thing takes place in a creepy, metmorphosing cemetary and feels like fantasy. It didn’t seem especially emotionally convincing. (Also, no American vet would have a “row” with his wife.) “The Wrong Refrigerator” is a fantasy which applies “quantum entanglement” to people and tangles that up with time travel as a woman who wants kids to paper over her unhappy marriage finds herself connected to an old flame who has been “killed” in a scientific experiment gone awry (akin to Larson’s recent “Carouselling”). Things come to a head when her husband tries to trade her to his boss for a promotion. (Oddly this story references Jessica Rabbit but made me think of what little I’ve seen of Peggy Sue Got Married.)

Moving up a notch, “Callisto” is narrated from the point of view of nanobots charged with keeping a kid alive in a futuristic drag race as he circumnavigates Callisto in a homemade gizmo, ostensibly trying to win some prize money to (akin to “Grays”) ease his horrible and abusive domestic and social situation. The complication is that the kid really has been suicidal and he’s got his kid sister with him in the machine. The viewpoint is interesting, as is the contest within the contest (boy vs. nanos, boy vs. racers). The sentimentality, especially of the nanos with their constant concern for “little Sandi,” is a bit much and much of the story is questionable, but it’s a decently paced adventure with some depth.

3-adica” is a “hard math fiction” computer virtuality story in which a couple of sentient game pieces have discovered a really clever GPU hack and are using it to try to make their way to the promised land of the 3-adica game but have so far only made it to a gothic, gaslight, Dracula/Ripper sort of horror game which gives us SF vampires and such. The milieu and the main character are well done but its two phases seem disjointed and it ends abruptly, ultimately feeling like the opening of a novel more than a novella. Also, while 3-adica is intrinsically interesting and symbolically significant, I’m not sure that it’s used in practical plot terms in a way that justifies so much focus on it, especially given what the protagonist actually encounters there.

(By the way, there are several odd word choices early on: “misogynous Ripperology” should probably be “misogynistic,” “desanguination” should be “exsanguination,” and “resile” is an intransitive verb meaning “to return to a prior position” so “I will not resile from the task” doesn’t seem quite right. Leaving aside language, I have no idea why the Shelleys were used the way they were but it seemed pointlessly bizarre.)

Finally, “In a Sharing Place” does everything “wrong” and is the best story in the issue. It’s a second-person present tense tale with lots of Capitalized Concepts which leaves the reader confused about exactly what is going for quite awhile but (apart from an inexplicable reference to “li’l hijackers”) has such a mastery of tone and a well-judged intimation of weirdness (including the easy but effective drama of traumatized kids going off to meet sometimes horrible fates) that it easily holds interest until all is revealed. This story of a strange invasion which has destroyed civilization is ultimately quite powerful and its point-of-view allows it to seem ambiguous and not preachy. The closing segment is an extremely powerful depiction of inside and outside in both physical and psychological ways.

Weekly Webzine Wrap-Up (2018-09-09)

Weekly Webzine Wrap-Up image

Original Fiction:

  • Glass in Frozen Time” by M.K. Hutchins, Diabolical Plots #43A, September 3, 2018 (fantasy short story)
  • Seedlings” by Audrey R. Hollis, Strange Horizons, September 3, 2018 (fantasy short story)
  • Failsafes” by Stewart C. Baker, Nature, September 5, 2018 (science fiction short story)
  • Triquetra” by Kirstyn McDermott, Tor.com, September 5, 2018 (fantasy novelette)
  • Extinction Studies” by Brian Trent, Terraform, September 7, 2018 (science fiction short story)

The two flash pieces aiming at science fiction are both apocalypses of various kinds. In “Failsafes,” a woman has her cache of tech relics stolen but serendipitously finds more and serendipitously finds the thief. The new tech affects both their lives and likely more. (Speaking of serendipity, part of this is reminiscent of the time capsule article I linked to in the latest “Links” post.) In “Extinction Studies,” which appears to use older conceptions of tidally-locked planets and improbable biology, a hunter narrates the tale of how a death match was set up using the apex predators of the day and night sides, resulting in unintended consequences. (Despite the improbability of what happens, it’s completely predictable, perhaps due to the editor’s spoilery intro or due to over-used story conventions.)

I call both the remaining flash and very short stories fantasies but others may not. “Glass” is a superhero story in which the PTSD mother, who can freeze time but has become a control freak who refuses therapy, learns from the mouth of babes. “Seedlings” is about a woman who becomes a trans-species-ist by swallowing a cactus and becoming one, which is too progressive for her girlfriend to appreciate. This seems like it should be written as a New Wavy surreal tale but instead mentions “lab-grown plants” and is told in a doggedly prosaic way, which serves to underscore its unbelievable nature.

Finally, the novelette, “Triquetra,” is a lot like “Rapunzel” from a recent CRES and a few million other stories in that it corrects a fairy tale, this time Snow White. The step-mother has survived the wedding but it turns out that Snow White is neuroatypical and the Prince is a pedophile. He and the gatekeeper and the presumably masculine mirror are keeping Snow White down as she struggles against her daughter and step-mother until the three (with help from another Lady) find a new alignment. It’s an awfully long story for its content and I didn’t care for it but I did think the section of violence and madness was effective and people who like fairy tales, especially revisionist ones, may enjoy the whole thing.

Review: Clarkesworld #144

Clarkesworld #144, September 2018

Original Fiction:

  • “A Study in Oils” by Kelly Robson (science fiction novelette)
  • “Waves of Influence” by D.A. Xiaolin Spires (science fiction short story)
  • “Dandelion” by Elly Bangs (science fiction short story)

Dandelion” is the only story of interest in this issue but is crippled by the choice to write it as a second-person address to a deceased grandmother which leads to a lot of “as you know, You” resonance and helps to isolate the reader from the notionally cosmic but effectively private story. The cosmic story is quite good and involves a secret history in which the American government discovered a spacecraft around 1960, originally thought to be an incredible Soviet advance but later determined to be of extra-terrestrial origin. Through an unlikely progression of three generations of women involved in one way or another in the same project, Grandma sets the thesis and Mom, the antithesis, leaving Narrator to provide the synthesis as the battle between the hopes of interstellar empire and the fears of a trapped, pitiful, claustrophobic, pointless extinction of a necessarily technologically “plateaued” civilization plays out. I don’t actually agree with much in the story, but it tackles a serious subject and arrives at a picture which may satisfy some.

Study” presents us with an off-putting foul-tempered vomiting protagonist who turns out to be a creche-born “Lunite” killer hockey player artist whose life is at risk from his milieu’s strange “justice” system while he hides out in China and paints. The story seems like it almost wants to touch on things like Nietzsche’s idea that “only as an aesthetic phenomenon are existence and the world justified” but doesn’t, really. While the plot unfolds with time’s arrow, the plot’s context is intentionally given to the reader in reverse. Perhaps this was to hide its thinness and generate pseudo-suspense but it only serves to preempt any sympathy for or interest in the protagonist and the story’s events. “Waves” is another social media story which conflates the gravitas of a dying sister with the fluff of the other sister becoming a “social influencer” to “help” her which makes both of them seem shallow. Some language wasn’t the best (“I could almost feel the wisps of digital paint being applied on,” “I had to accept them to make myself seem like I was really interested,” etc.), the plot is overcomplicated for what is done with it, and the ending is rushed, inconclusive, drops a couple of threads, etc.

Review: Flash Fiction Online, September 2018

Flash Fiction Online, September 2018

Original Fiction:

  • “Slaked Lime, Iron Knife” by Aparna Nandakumar (fantasy short story)
  • “Ghost of the Pepper” by M.K. Hutchins (fantasy short story)

A priest is walking through the dark night of the soul (or a forest, whatever) being trailed by a sort of succubus (yakshi), and debating between “Slaked Lime, Iron Knife.” If he gives her the former, she can feed on him; if the latter, he can have power over her. (There’s also a third option of chucking magic stones at her to kill her.) I’m not sure what this is going for as the narrative seems sympathetic to her and none of the options are good. “Ghost of the Pepper” takes the odd notion of dead peoples’ misery and pain being manifested in peppers and eased by people digesting them as a roundabout way of delivering a theme that already has its own ultra-flash platitude (which is a spoiler, so see the comments for it). Unlike eating the pepper, reading both stories is painless but they lack that certain, well, flash, that I look for in flash.

Summation: August 2018

This month has been doubly strange. Despite reading 42 stories of about 201K words from the August magazines, I’m in the unprecedented and unpleasant position of only being able to note one story (and that’s not even fully recommended). Counting a late July story and things for a couple of Tangent reviews, I read 59 stories of about 324K words this month and can at least add two recs and another honorable mention, all from the July/August Black Static, but only one of those is even speculative with the other two being straight horror.

Noted Stories

Recommended

Fantasy

  • “The Monstrosity in Love” by Sam Thompson, Black Static #64, July/August 2018 (dark fantasy short story)

Horror

  • “The Blockage” by Jack Westlake, Black Static #64, July/August 2018 (non-speculative short story)

Honorable Mentions

Science Fiction

Horror

  • “Why We Don’t Go Back” by Simon Avery, Black Static #64, July/August 2018 (non-speculative novelette)

Reviews

Magazines

Books/Other

News