Review of January 15, 2018 Strange Horizons for Tangent

In the first section, “we” are “crones” and watching “Moscow burn” and one of us sets another one of our faces on fire. In the second section one of “us” is sick and “they” are wearing hazmat suits around her….

Full (single-story) review at Tangent: Strange Horizons, January 15, 2018.


Weekly Webzine Wrap-Up (2018-01-13)

Weekly Webzine Wrap-Up image

I’m posting this with a gasp of relief. With this relatively light Wrap-Up, the busy year-end period and “holidays” and flood of January reviews is over and, as far as I know, in terms of zine reviews this month, there will just be another Tangent piece and a couple more of these Wrap-Ups. So, now, on with this one…

  • “Refugee; or, a nine-item representative inventory of a better world” by Iona Sharma, Strange Horizons, January 8, 2018 (science fictional short story)
  • “A Street but Half Made Up” by Anna Zumbro, Nature, January 10, 2018 (science fictional short story)
  • The Substance of My Lives, the Accidents of Our Births” by José Pablo Iriarte, Lightspeed #92, January [11], 2018 (fantasy novelette (officially, though I get 7482 words – either way, it’s within the category fuzz factor))
  • “The River” by Tori Cárdenas, Terraform, January 11, 2018 (science fictional short story)
  • “The Animator” by Adam Millard, Grievous Angel, January 11, 2018 (fantasy short story)

Except for one story which missed the memo, this was apparently Surreal Flash Week. First, as has been and will be the case with all Strange Horizons stories this month, I reviewed “Refugee” for Tangent. “The Animator” involves a guy waking up from a nightmare about a giant hand chasing him and segues into its bizarre conclusion. As Gardner Dozois said someone said: “One thing that never changes—the avant-garde.” It’s very disturbing when Grievous Angel is even a little more surreal than usual, yet the science magazine Nature tries to match it. In “A Street Half Made Up,” a robot is on “Fiction Street” where it is supposed to be shelving books at bus stops and stores but it insists on giving humans books while quoting the Mary Shelley it just read. Finally, “The River” involves the US kicking out every “foreign” person and follows one of these people “home” to an unfamiliar Amazon trickling through a city with albino crocodiles. None of these did much for me. Moving on…

I’ve read stories about past lives, complete with gender shifts from life to life, and I’ve read a few billion stories, mostly poor, about identity/orientation, but I don’t recall reading one which combines them like “The Substance of My Lives, the Accidents of Our Births.” Jamie is a young person who vaguely recalls having been female in some past lives and is biologically male in this lifetime. Jamie’s best friend, Alicia, is a girl who indicates she may be a lesbian and the story takes off when they are hanging out, observing a new neighbor move in. Jamie realizes s/he knows this guy and eventually figures out that he’s been released from prison for murder. Murdering her. In a past life, Janie was married to a man who was friends with the man now moving in. Understanding what happened then and deciding what to do about it now (and dealing with stray bullies, an insufficiently ferocious pet pit bull, and with feelings for Alicia) drives much of the rest of the story.

There are so many things to like about this story (even if you’re not interested in the gender issues – and more if you are) that it’s hard to know where to begin. The story is utterly mainstream except for Jamie’s awareness of past lives, but this is woven into and affects everything in the story. Jamie is a wonderfully crafted character whose mix of self-confidence and self-doubt feels very authentic. The first-person narration is superb, reading like a real individual without gimmicks. Alicia and the ex-con are also well done. Jamie’s initial impulse to “do to” is very human and natural and the later interest to “do for” rises above this. The story’s deadly serious subject matter doesn’t preclude some genuine humor. (The narration/dialog around Alicia getting Aunt Hilda’s dress for Jamie is very funny.) If I had to invent a criticism, I admit the climactic scene might conceivably be considered a little melodramatic but I actually think it works extremely well. All in all, this is one of those stories I don’t feel like I can do justice to because, along with the general soundness of concept, plot, and character, much of the excellence derives from subtle nuances from thought to thought and expression to expression. Go read it for yourself and experience all its richness.

Review: Analog, January/February 2018

Analog, January/February 2018

“The Journeyman: Through Madness Gap” by Michael F. Flynn (science fiction novelette)
“Hobson’s Choices” by Mary A. Turzillo (science fiction short story)
“Ten and Ten” by Alan Dean Foster (science fiction short story)
Probability Zero: “Margin of Error” by Paul Carlson (science fiction short story)
“One to Watch” by Andrew Barton (science fiction short story)
“Home on the Free Range” by Holly Schofield (science fiction short story)
“Endless City” by David Gerrold (science fiction novelette)
“When the Aliens Stop to Bottle” by Ian Watson (science fiction short story)
“Two Point Three Children” by Marissa Lingen (science fiction short story)
“Air Gap” by Eric Cline (science fiction short story)
“The Dissonant Note” by Jeremiah Tolbert (science fiction short story)
“Blurred Lives” by Adam-Troy Castro (science fiction novella)

This issue of Analog is the reverse of the companion issue of Asimov’s in which all but two were stories in series as this may have as few as two that are. Teo and Sammi return with another middle added on to their saga. In “The Journeyman: Through Madness Gap,” they must enter the titular “haunted” pass and deal with the dangers there. I can add little to my review of one of the previous installments. If you enjoyed the earlier stories and aren’t tired of them, you’ll enjoy this. Otherwise, you won’t. If you aren’t familiar with them, the slow pace of the open, the simplicity of the resolution, and the middle-ness of it all means it may not work for you, especially if the humor rubs you the wrong way. But, if you do find it funny, you’ll probably find it a fair read. The totally humorless “Blurred Lives” involves Draiken and Thorne catching up to another old enemy, Silver, and embarking on a wager which involves Draiken being imprisoned in a mind-control camp with just one way out. Again, my review of a previous installment, particularly on the low event-to-word ratio and non-ending, basically covers it.

While I’d like to see a few more novelettes in lieu of several short stories, all but one of the other tales (excluding the first part of a serial) are short or very short. I’ll start with my favorites of those.

Ten and Ten” involves cuttlefish, which are related to the squid, octopus, and such, and have ten “fingers” like humans do. A scientist working on her Ph.D. is trying to teach one sign-language, starting with “hello” and “goodbye.” Her work is complicated by the short lifespans of cuttlefish, hunters in the region, and impatient grant committees, so she’s running out of time. This, while science and fiction, is only barely “science fiction,” if at all, and it may not work for everyone but did for me. It’s very short and I can’t get into it much, but I recommend it.

Margin of Error” is a short-short which deals with a hotly contested election of the future, in which we follow the vigorous efforts of a couple of political apparatchiks, ending with a nice twist that didn’t even really need the final line because it could already be inferred. It has an important message which doesn’t interfere with its humor.

Other stories include “Home on the Free Range,” which is a solid alien ecology tale of two farmers (who used to be a starship captain’s daughter and a starship grunt) trying to rescue their livestock from the alien critters who nabbed them; a neo-noir VR/meatspace murder mystery in the “Endless City” which suffers a bit from stream-of-consciousness logorrhea, has a tired solution, and is a little long, but is otherwise fine; “Two Point Three Children,” involving a court case over the custody and abuse of an AI “child” and memory edits, which is decent, despite being a little silly in the presentation and having a weak ending; and “Air Gap,” which, like many modern AI stories, is a regression to pre-Asimovian robot SF but effectively deals with a genocidal but quarantined AI until the story blows up in the end when the big reveal shows the underpinnings to not actually make sense.

The remaining stories are “Hobson’s Choices” which would feel like an old Galaxy social satire if it were better and actual SF but simply satirizes the judgmental and conformist “Goodenough Village” in a judgmental, conformist, and non-speculative way; “One to Watch,” in which a guy in mission control (who needs a happy pill, stat) is guiding a rover on Mimas and finds what may be evidence of alien life; “When the Aliens Stop to Bottle,” in which alien octopi have taken over the earth and an advertising executive muses about this, language, and philosophy;  and “The Dissonant Note,” in which a starship, currently populated by musical computer iterations of a predecessor, is stuck studying the same planet for 12,000 years with the titular “dissonant note” and another rebel mind plotting against the “harmony” that keeps it there.

Review: Asimov’s, January/February 2018

Asimov’s, January/February 2018

“The Seeds of Consciousness: 4107’s Story” by James Gunn (science fiction short story)
“The Final Commandment: Trey’s Story” by James Gunn (science fiction short story)
“In the Lost City of Leng” by Paul Di Filippo & Rudy Rucker (science fantasy novella)
“The Equalizers” by Ian Creasey (science fiction short story)
“Solicited Discordance” by Matthew Hughes (science fiction novelette)
“Assassin in the Clouds” by Robert R. Chase (science fiction novelette)
“Barren Isle” by Allen M. Steele (science fiction novelette)
“Mother Tongues” by S. Qiouyi Lu (science fiction short story)
“The Rescue of the Renegat” by Kristine Kathryn Rusch (science fiction novella)

The January/February issue of Asimov’s is disappointing in that there are no truly remarkable stories but there are several decent reads. Either way, this issue is one for the series lovers. “In the Lost City of Leng” is a “sequel” to H. P. Lovecraft’s “At the Mountains of Madness” while “Solicited Discordance” adds to the SF part of the Archonate series, “Assassin in the Clouds” is another Angelo and Sphinx adventure, “Barren Isle” adds to the Coyote saga, “The Rescue of the Renegat” adds to the Diving universe, and “The Seeds of Consciousness” and “The Final Commandment” form a series within this single issue, not to mention being related to the Transcendental novels. And those are just the ones I know of, making a minimum of 7 of 9 of the original stories (or 10, counting a translation). I am a story-series lover, myself, but this is a bit much, even for me. However, one of the most important things a good series story must do, while adding to the overall picture, is to stand on its own and, while these may not entirely do so, none but the last two I mentioned feel like middles or excerpts.

Speaking of those two, both “The Seeds of Consciousness” and “The Final Commandment” follow on from an article (“Thought Experiment: Space Opera and the Quest for Transcendence,” also by James Gunn) which talks first about the history of space opera and then about the Transcendental series. It seems to indicate we will be getting two character-based narratives but what we get are two (perhaps Stapledonian) infodumps which recap Darwinism-with-variations. The first deals with a sentient mobile plant species and the second, with a “species” of intelligent machines. The explanation of the plant’s sentience-trigger and really the whole species strains belief. Both are interesting in a “fictitious non-fiction” way but neither are as stories.

Other less successful stories, to me, were “The Equalizers,” which uses a Human Resources director as the protagonist in a tale about a trial run of using special goggles which turns everyone into monotone brightly colored blobs for the purposes of non-discrimination and is mostly devoted to the woman’s conflict over her sex life after a recent breakup. The “dishwashing liquid commercial” tone of the dialog, under-utilization of the technology gimmick, and weak ending hurt this for me. “Mother Tongues” deals with the mixed emotions a woman has over selling her native language faculty (which can be transferred to another mind after being erased from her own) to pay for her daughter’s education. The idea is old, the pace is slow, the emotions are dreary, and the conflict doesn’t speak to me (no pun intended). Your mileage may vary.

An oddball story (with a hollow earth and sea cucumbers) is “In the Lost City of Leng,” which, again, is a “sequel” to “At the Mountains of Madness.” I’m at a severe disadvantage here as I am not very familiar with Lovecraft’s works (a deficit I’ll correct Real Soon Now). Apparently the first story deals with a first expedition to the Antarctic to fight weird critters in 1930. This story speaks of a second expedition which failed horribly and details the third in 1934, in which our protagonist quits his job as a reporter to join an oddball gang of adventurers. This story’s style isn’t quite modern or quite 1934, isn’t quite Lovecraft’s style but will occasionally lapse into it, isn’t quite comic but isn’t entirely serious. And I don’t know if this is a strength or a weakness or how a true Lovecraftian would react. It at least entertained me.

In addition to the “series” theme, a second theme is that of rescue or guardianship. While I don’t care for themed magazine issues, this is where most of the better stories are to be found. “Solicited Discordance” involves an “op” being hired by an imperious aristocrat to find her son, who has disappeared with a strange girl. After getting on their trail and noticing another man following the pair, the op develops a theory about off-worlders coming in to scam rich locals and tails them to see if it will play out. I thought the op was wrong the whole time and found his misanthropic certitude grating and the plot was convenient (the op’s AI assistant can do just about anything) but this was generally readable. “The Rescue of the Renegat” nearly kills itself as soon as it begins, with a heavy “tell, don’t show” style with many contradictions, redundancies, and other problems, but finally gels into a decent adventure in which a starship crew tries to rescue that of another which has just reappeared in normal space (from a hundred years ago) and whose drive is about to blow. The very end is also simplistic and heavy-handed, though. “Barren Isle” deals with a couple of children escaping from a religious cult and getting into trouble. They’ve encroached on the island of diminutive but fierce natives and things get complicated when some cultists and our viewpoint rescue team come after them. I have no love for religious fanatics but Steele so clearly does not that it harms the tale, making it a bit cardboard, but the action is good. And Angelo and Sphinx return to deal with an “Assassin in the Clouds.” Angelo’s on an aerostat with a scientist who has developed a way to increase human processing capabilities, but the process has severe limitations and drawbacks. One of the drawbacks is that someone may want to harm the scientist and it’s Angelo’s mission to protect him. This deals with an interesting idea and the action is kind of exciting.

Review: Uncanny #20

Uncanny #20, January/February 2018

“She Still Loves the Dragon” by Elizabeth Bear (fantasy)
“Contingency Plans for the Apocalypse” by S.B. Divya (science fiction)
The Hydraulic Emperor” by Arkady Martine (science fiction)
“Lines of Growth, Lines of Passage” by Marissa Lingen (fantasy)
“Your Slaughterhouse, Your Killing Floor” by Sunny Moraine (fantasy)
“The Utmost Bound” by Vivian Shaw (science fiction)
“The Date” by R.K. Kalaw (fantasy)

All the stories are short except the last, which is shorter.

The one I most want to talk about is The Hydraulic Emperor which is probably my favorite story of the young year and certainly one of the top two.

The Hydraulic Emperor is a short “immersive” film and there may be only one print in the universe. Mallory Iheji is a huge fan of the filmmaker, Aglaé Skemety, and is desperate to experience it. When a corporate suit offers it to her in payment for a mission, she accepts. The mission is to acquire a puzzlebox from the alien Qath who are very strange and hold bidding competitions with sacrifice as payment – whether they are psychic or through some other means, they can determine the personal cost of the sacrifice which is what they care about rather than the human monetary value. When an old flame/colleague shows up and begins bidding against her, Mallory’s task of acquiring the puzzlebox (and thus the film) gets more complicated.

Some stories are “Oh, this again,” in a bad way and some are, “Ooh, this again.” The grail motif and the art-within-art element and the weird aliens and the various other things aren’t new, obviously, but are hard to wear out and are good things to build good stories out of. This particular example does a great job of engaging both intellect and emotion. The protagonist is smart and passionate but expresses her deep emotions in an almost stoic or restrained way. The milieu and the aliens are fascinating as is the sacrificial barter concept. Thematically, the story engages several kinds of nullity in a very full way, so to speak. Along with another slight problem difficult to express without getting too much into the closing sequence, you do have to swallow the idea that there is somehow only one known copy of the movie but it’s theoretically possible and worth it to make the story go. I enjoyed this one a lot.

As far as the other stories, there is something wrong in the realms of speculative fiction when I’ve read about as many stories this month about women being burned by dragons and liking it as I have about spaceships. “She Still Loves the Dragon” would seem to be an abusive relationship of some kind but is supposed to be beautiful and empowering somehow. Between the two, I preferred “Mother’s Rules for a Burned Girl,” which is otherwise quite different.

Contingency Plans for the Apocalypse” deals with what seems to be an abortionist and her spouse (who has breasts but is not a “she,” if I understood correctly) living in a dictatorial future Arizona when the government forces kill the doctor, forcing the spouse to flee with the two children to California. It’s too overwrought, emotionally manipulative, and too simply conceived, plotted, and resolved, though some may respond to its intensity. “Your Slaughterhouse, Your Killing Floor,”  is a similarly intense but overwrought and simple story in which a girl walks into a bar… and walks out with another girl and they destroy the world. This “oh, this again” story, like its many companions, lacks shape, judgment, balance… art. Another, more restrained, story about two lonely people finding kindred spirits is “The Date,” a flash piece about a praying mantis lady and some other carnivore.

The Utmost Bound” is almost a good ol’ space story and I’m a supporter of manned space exploration but it’s still inexplicable that two people would be orbiting Venus so they could run a rover over the surface and is further hurt by having one of the astronauts panic at what they find when, like a pilot who calmly tries X, then Y, then mutters “Crap” as the last word before crashing, an astronaut (and most civilians) should be able to handle what happens. Plus, its central idea is simultaneously Fortean and yet too much like a Karl Schroeder story (“Laika’s Ghost,” if I recall correctly).

Perhaps the best of the rest is “Lines of Growth, Lines of Passage.” When the protagonist sorceress is stuck inside a tree by her duplicitous apprentice while on a job to find a way to cross the frost giants’ domain, she learns about walking a mile in a cherry tree’s shoes, so to speak, as well as the application of this to intercreature diplomacy. The tone is almost as annoying as it is amusing and it’s conveniently plotted, but it’s still a decent tale.

Review: Galaxy’s Edge #30

Galaxy’s Edge #30, January 2018

“Of Love and Olives” by Nick Dichario (fantasy short story)
“Kite Dancer” by Laurie Tom (fantasy short story)
“See A Penny…” by David Afsharirad (fantasy short story)
“Frozen Moments, Stolen Out of Time” by George Nikolopoulos (fantasy short story)
“After the Story Ends” by M. E. Garber (fantasy short story)
“An Unfamiliar Face” by David VonAllmen (horror short story)
“The Godhead Grimoire” by Sean Patrick Hazlett (horror short story)
“A Song for Charon” by Eric Leif Davin (fantasy short story)

Galaxy’s Edge returns to webzine status with all January stories being available on the newly redesigned website (which is questionably designed in general and, worse, doesn’t work at all without javascript). The original stories in this issue of the science fiction/fantasy/horror magazine are, disappointingly, all fantasy/horror short stories or flash. Genre and length aside, almost none are especially bad or especially good but it’s a pleasant enough reading experience overall.

The two stories which stuck out a little for me were “After the Story Ends” and “The Godhead Grimoire.” The latter is a horror story in which a woman, who is trying to get a divorce from her cheating husband, receives a package intended for him and opens it, finding a Book which leads her to increasingly bloody acts in pursuit of the godhead it promises. It’s not the most original thing in the world, there’s a glitch involving the dog, and the ending is debatable and has an element of potential confusion, but it’s certainly a vigorous, engrossing, and horrific tale. “After the Story Ends” seems to take a variant page from what I’ve heard of Darryl Gregory’s Afterparty in that it tells the story of a woman who went into Fairy(land) to save her daughter but the narration starts after her successful return when she’s basically dealing with addiction to Fairy’s glitter and glory, as this world now seems colorless, tasteless, and insipid and her love for it and all within it has faded. The speechifying between her and the Wise Character is a little bald but the story as a whole paints an interesting dilemma with plausible dynamics.

Of the other short stories, all involve World War I and/or marriages. Set in Italy, “Of Love and Olives” has a woman find a soldier who was frozen a century ago and is thawed out, having improbable but well-drawn effects on her and her husband. “Kite Dancer” is not set in our WWI but has a tiny Chinese woman controlling the winds for German zeppelins. Like “Olives,” “See a Penny…” eventually takes a fantastic look at marriage via a magic penny that helps grant the power of suggestion to the protagonist.

Of the very short (less than two thousand word) stories, “Frozen Moments, Stolen Out of Time” depicts a desperate father trying to save his child when an assassin pulls the trigger and time stops, “An Unfamiliar Face” is a horror story about a critter trying to reproduce, and “A Song for Charon” is a variant on the Orpheus and Eurydice tale from Charon’s point of view which, for those who know the traditional myth, ends on an odd note.