Here’s a somewhat unusual round-robin review:
(Stories reviewed by Mike Wyant, Jr., Jason McGregor, and Victoria Silverwolf)
- “Painless” by Rich Larson (science fictional short story)
Here’s a somewhat unusual round-robin review:
(Stories reviewed by Mike Wyant, Jr., Jason McGregor, and Victoria Silverwolf)
This issue of F&SF is markedly populated by familiar, ideological, misanthropic, underplotted stories which tend to focus on dysfunctional spouses and parents. One of the few exceptions (though a little cynical about human nature, itself) is a reprint of an obscure picaresque fantasy and it’s also the best story in the issue, though a few others have their points of interest and elements of merit.
I don’t ordinarily review reprints but didn’t read the blurb at the front that acknowledged its reprint status until I’d already reviewed it. Tangent doesn’t review reprints at all, so here’s what I wrote on “Sternutative Sortilege” by Matthew Hughes:
Raffalon is a thief who is looking for a new home after the partial destruction of the city he’d previously called home which was not at all his fault, no sir. Instead of setting up comfortably in virgin territory, he finds himself captured by a cult who uses their sneezing prisoners as tools of divination and must escape before their sneezing powders kill him.
This picaresque tale (one of several with this protagonist) has a style that smacks slightly more of artificiality than artifice and a conclusion that is a little underwhelming but the concept and phrasing of “sternutative sortilege” is as amusing as it is disgusting and the structure and pacing is sound, though the mortal threat to the protagonist initially depends on some wasteful priests who don’t seem to appreciate simple pepper. All in all, it’s good entertainment.
The original stories in this issue of Clarkesworld include something I can’t see as SF, two pieces which provide only indifferent tokens of SF, and two more vigorously science fictional tales.
“Ripen” feels like a strange hybrid of science fiction and fantasy involving an island of colorful people interacting with mainland tourists while menial colorless people try to get by. When a tourist and a colorful person with skin problems get involved with some colorless people on the illegal edge of the makeup industry, someone may get hurt. Akin to last issue’s “Smile,” the story is rife with uncorrected solecisms though they generally weren’t as bad as last month’s story, aside from things like someone demanding to see Madam’s crack. The story wasn’t especially interesting but I did appreciate the positively shifting appearance (beyond the skin-deep) of one of the characters.
“Skyscrapers” is an unsatisfying elliptical short tale about an ill and/or older woman memorializing an old flame via a time capsule. The speculative element is that she’s doing so in an ecologically ruined Shanghai.
A female becoming a male and someone who may be male are searching for a third who, in turn, has gone looking for “The Last Eagle” and the pair find something. There’s very little story in these 6000 words and less science fiction with only the symbols of a future post-war period in which the third they’re searching for is an “Artificial.”
The protagonist of “Social Darwinism” is woman who has been modified to be an attention-whore. She’s offered advertising minutes if she’ll participate in the agenda of a shadowy group of differently modified people to sway public opinion to do away with her kind. It’s good that this story has integral SF elements (however thematically/symbolically deployed) but they are confusingly presented and the actual core of the story is repellently akin to a daytime TV show.
Finally, “Gaze of Robot, Gaze of Bird” is about a “complicated toaster” and a “knot of fuzz.” The former takes the latter to an alien world and begins to modify that world, along with its prokaryotic life. Along the way, we learn that the robot has been sent out by a species that has been wiped out long before our tale starts with a stuffed monkey as a sort of ideal of beauty and teleological goal for recreating the dead species. This is one of those stories where words fail me, but it’s certainly one of my favorite stories of the year, joining Auston Habershaw’s “Applied Linguistics” (Jan./Feb. 2019 Analog) and Tom Greene’s “Better” (Mar./Apr. 2019 Analog) in a triptych of recent rare examples of Real Science Fiction™. There is one overt didactic paragraph I wish could have been more dramatically integrated with the main story and one can certainly argue about the odd morphological rather than, say, genetic approach to the task and there is certainly an interesting moral conundrum for the reader to play with which can put a sinister interpretation on the events but the latter two are as much virtues as vices, being among the things which give the reader much to think about. This is a short story which operates on gargantuan scales of time and space, has an intriguing combination of hard-edged objective narration and earned, unashamed sentimentality, and has a protagonist in J11-L that is worthy of joining the pantheon of Asimovian robots. I vigorously recommend this tale.
After five consecutive installments, the flood of novel out-takes apparently ends with “Seeds.” The other fantasy is a short fable in which a “Conch-Shell” allows people to choose their own adventures (including a man who slays a dragon but loses a girl, another who becomes a mayor and gets a girl, and a girl who won’t speak for herself or take responsibility for her own (in)actions) with the baldly stated theme of complaint that the shell “sang of the men’s work, their sacrifices, but not of the women’s” and a selfish and simplistic ending.
The science fiction is much more interesting, but still problematic. “Archronology” is a story about romance and loss along with a dash of epistemology and stuff about a gizmo. When a colony dies, taking a woman’s beloved with it, she and others must use the gizmo (a sort of VR pseudo-time machine) and other methods to find out what went wrong. While the general concept of the gizmo is clear enough, details about it seem gratuitously nonsensical. The hyper-advanced tech is on a 1920s level, recording “light but not sound,” people can rematerialize into walls without further catastrophic effects, there’s no gravity (despite it being in a gravity field), “[t]hings you brought with you were solid, but everything else was basically a projection” and yet, despite bringing your heart and lungs with you, there is “no ambient noise, or even [your] own breathing and heartbeat.” Further, there are cases of purely logical incoherence. The main character was informed in messages that a parakeet on this colony world had died and that crops died and that more crops died and for some reason this didn’t concern her until people started dying. And it is only when reviewing the messages that she makes a connection between the non-human and human deaths. And, presumably, all the other people who have lost all their loved ones got similar messages and no one made this connection. Everyone just assumes the order of things they were told was reversed. “Yes, well, we were told a bird died and then crops failed and then more crops failed and then everyone died but we ‘assumed that the crops and animals had died because the people of the colony had gotten too sick to tend them.'” Further, it’s presented as a mystery but what happened is obvious from nearly the beginning. So, basically, things of this sort constantly took me out of the story which, despite an excess of crying, might have had a workable human-interest core and even some interesting stuff about aliens and knowledge.
Finally, “Gundark” is a sort of bildungsroman and meta-sfnal story about a strange kid’s effect on another kid’s life in the 1980s and the nature of science fiction, imagination, and life. I’m not sure how to evaluate this as a story because it punches too many buttons. It initially seemed topically interesting but fictionally weak as it wandered through a sort of slipstreamish pseudo-SF phase but it began to come together and reach a new level at the end (though I wasn’t happy with how it reassigned credit for some of our imaginative achievements). All I can say is that, for whatever reasons, it seems notable to me.
(Also, on an ideological rather than aesthetic level, I loved the ironic analysis in the section on the “college experience.” I think moving beyond this would benefit a great many people and the field.)
This post is a work-in-progress which recaps the three big printzines (plus two more which were reviewed for Tangent) and BCS, Clarkesworld, Lightspeed, and Galaxy’s Edge which combined to produce 82 stories for 330K words. Other than Galaxy’s Edge, I’ve yet to read the March stories from any of the selectively reviewed zines (and, since Tor.com neglected to produce a second bi-monthly issue, I haven’t read the March stories from it, either), so I’ll finish reading all that in April and update this post then.
In “Sirens Sing,” the Queen Mother wants Velia and her siren sisters to steal a serving dish from an arch-wizard and it turns into a minor romance story (and yet another BCS music story) with the mincing pseudo-fairy-tale style turned up to 11 (except when it collapses into bathos with “smooches”). In the other water story, “The Boy” is bought by Kal because she thinks he might make a good assistant for her profession of divination by drowning (though not actually drowning as in “baleen, baleen” (Alexandra Renwick, Interzone #274, March/April 2018) but simply playing with the magic weeds underwater for awhile). When he develops a special relationship with those weeds which she lacks, things go off the rails. While the climax is disturbing, neither (especially Kal) ever came clear as characters for me and the actual ending is underwhelming, as is the preamble that takes the first third of the story and the overly detailed and then dropped scene with Lord Westin.
“Whiskey Chile” has lost his mother and is going after his bad father for a reckoning in this Weird Western which is soaked in demon alcohol. Narrated by a fire-belching bullfrog named Jeremiah, this world has no joy but some may enjoy the boisterous style which, to me, teetered out of control or the tale’s visuals, which might make an entertaining TV episode. “New Horizons” is a Disney-like sketch about waifs losing their home to the evil empire and making another. It shares the boisterous tone, Weird Western vibe, and familial motifs (turned to different purposes) of “Chile” but reads like the other 90% of the story went missing.
“Undercurrents” has an evil empire keeping the non-binary rivers down but a cell of resistance dowsers works to destroy the evil empire’s evil technology. Heavy-handed, with an oddly Pollyannish ending. In the other tale of the mighty being laid low by the oppressed, a pregnant raped maid who lives in a castle where people are jealous of her accidentally acquired magic realizes she is “Destiny” when an immensely powerful pseudo-twin conquers this domain and wants something from the maid and is willing to trade for it. The “heroine” shows herself to be really small-minded and the only interesting part of this power/revenge fantasy was the idea of magic, like money, being passed on at one’s death (which is how the maid got hers when the dying duchess decided to be whimsically spiteful to her family).
Noted Original Fiction:
I’m behind in this month’s reading of the selectively reviewed magazines and have only gotten to Galaxy’s Edge so far. It produced a mix of mostly okay stories, though it included a particularly bad one which shall remain nameless, and one notable story I will name.
In “Hellhold,” a middle-aged man who was born twelve years previously is being tried in Salem for witchcraft and he tells the story of how those years passed for him, beginning with pirates attacking his father’s ship and continuing on through a nightmarish and hellish journey to take a dread object to a dread place. This was obviously written with some effort at evoking the time and place but isn’t always pitch-perfect (or even grammatically correct in one instance, using “tread” for “trod”), uses perhaps overly familiar motifs, and the ending, depending on one’s reaction, may thrill or disappoint but this sea horror tale was entertaining and effective for the most part.