Weekly Review: 2019-01-14 (Tor.com)

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Original Fiction:

Tor.com, January 14, 2019

2019 is still young and Featured Futures‘ structure is still in flux.[1] But Tor.com has a story to review, so I’m reviewing it.

Skidbladnir is an entity who permeates a concrete building, both of which swim under space like a seal under water while people play board games and watch videotapes on their way to tour or trade. “Engineer Novik” and Saga the janitor are the good, non-imperialist crew and a bird-being and a shadow captain are not good. Saga has discovered that, despite all her dreaming, Space Sucks, but she figures at least Skidbladnir doesn’t. When the entity starts sickening and the building starts breaking, there’s a simple struggle between the compassionate ones and the mercenary ones and then between Saga’s conflicting desires.

January’s almost wombatting a thousand as this is yet another ineffective conflation of SF and fantasy (almost entirely fantasy, yet billed as SF by Tor.com) and is slow and uninvolving, besides. It includes phrases like “only assumed her as a ‘she'” and “though they seemed gossamer” and uses the ol’ “You Can’t Fire Me, I Quit” when the ship “improbably” does something (when probability, in this kind of story, isn’t even relevant). Some may respond to this tale’s dark whimsy or appreciate its message but it will likely leave most others cold.

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[1] I was intending to cover BCS and Tor.com in these weekly reviews and, if neither published anything in a given week, I would review some classic stories (and had one ready for today). However, Tor.com promised (and now seems to not be fulfilling the promise of) bi-monthly issues and, on top of that, has published a story on a Monday instead of a Wednesday. If the bi-monthly thing happens, then I would review that, review all the BCS issues of a given month near the end of the month when possible, and perhaps keep doing an “all classic” “Weekly Review.” If not, and Tor.com keeps publishing on Mondays instead of Wednesdays, I’ll have to drop a week behind instead of trying to post a review the same day as every Tor.com release. Sorry I can’t give you more definite plans; we’ll just have to see how it goes.

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Weekly Review: 2019-01-07 (BCS)

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Original Fiction:

Beneath Ceaseless Skies #268, January 3, 2019

While I prefer my SF to be SF and my fantasy to be fantasy, the middle section of my “Year’s Best” post clearly demonstrates that I don’t have any problem with stories which play with genre or incorporate elements from other genres in an effective way but January 2019’s wombat is “the unfortunate mishmash of heterogeneous elements” with at least a fourth such story in three separate magazines. In “Godling,” a sort of steampunk science fantasy, a company is going out of business since an armistice has ruined the interstellar arms manufacturing trade. In turn, the “godling” who runs a company town is witnessing the ruin of it and her people, culminating with someone from HQ arriving to Unmake the town. Fortunately, though her iron icons which magically guard the town have been broken, she has plenty of paper and a few remaining people to help her make a lot of paper icons to do battle with the threat. The whole is utterly discordant and unconvincing. The much more conventional (almost too conventional) “Beast” also features a matriarch striving to save her people. The surviving members of her tribe have been chased into an unfamiliar land by attacking birds and it turns out they’ve basically been herded there by an old dethroned and imprisoned godling who is seeking escape by extorting three sacrifices of sorrow from the matriarch and her tribe. She, too, is ultimately driven to try to make a stand. The opportunity for a more complex and even sympathetic godling is there for the taking but largely ignored in order to get to the familiar and facile ending. Still, this tale was coherent and vigorous.

Review: Clarkesworld #148, January 2019

Clarkesworld #148, January 2019

Original Fiction:

  • “Eater of Worlds” by Jamie Wahls (science fiction short story)
  • “One’s Burden, Again” by Natalia Theodoridou (science fictional short story)
  • “Fire in the Bone” by Ray Nayler (science fiction short story)
  • “The Ghosts of Ganymede” by Derek Kunsken (science fictional novelette)
  • “Venus in Bloom” by Lavie Tidhar (science fiction short story)

None of the original stories in this meaty issue of Clarkesworld entirely worked for me but most had merits which some may appreciate. (The reprints are quite good, though. I honorably mentioned Marissa Lingen’s 2018 Analog story “Left to Take the Lead” and recommended Karl Bunker’s 2016 Asimov’s story “They Have All One Breath.” It’s also worth noting that there is no translation this time.)

The depressed and depressing “Burden” of dealing with death would have fit nicely into this month’s Lightspeed as it conflates a “crash landing on an asteroid” story with the myth of Sisyphus rather than, say, cleverly transposing Philoctetes into The Man in the Maze as Robert Silverberg did. Similarly, “Ghosts” may not be a quantum magician story but certainly has ruinous quantum magic along with the inexplicable premise of putting the survivors of a nuclear war between Eritrea and Ethiopia together on Ganymede to mine helium-3 from Jupiter. If readers could swallow both these things and appreciate the message, they might be able to enjoy the story. Similarly, “Eater” is a story about not being able to put the toothpaste back in the tube but possibly being able to brush your teeth. After a far-future interstellar war, a missile/ship blows up the moon on its way to try to eat the Earth, with a mission complicated by its own sentiences and Earth’s now-primitive resistance. The serious SF (even horror) elements are constantly undercut by the facetious tone which serves to give the story some energy and may work for some but hurt the fairly interesting story for me. (It’s also quite the ship which isn’t dented by a relativistic collision with a moon.)

Fire” flips the script on the theme of “Ghosts” and “Eater” but is also one of two stories in this issue to feature robots. If readers aren’t sick beyond words of the “robot as slave” metaphor, have never experienced anything like a Twilight Zone reversal episode, and can accept implausible economics, then they might enjoy this otherwise powerfully written tale. “Bloom” is similar to “Burden” in having a granddaughter dealing with the death of a grandfather (who loved growing flowers in a Venusian cloud city) but it’s also the other robot story. It makes me think of Longfellow’s “The Tide Rises, the Tide Falls,” somehow, though in this story it has individuals being backlit by Society rather than Nature.

Review: Lightspeed #104, January 2019

Lightspeed #104, January 2019

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Original Fiction:

  • “With Teeth Unmake the Sun” by A. Merc Rustad (fantasy novelette)
  • “Midway” by Tony Ballantyne (science fiction short story)
  • “Son of Water and Fire” by Ashok K. Banker (fantasy novelette)
  • “Endor House” by Meg Elison (fantasy short story)

A man traveling the galaxy has reached the “Midway” point on his life’s journey and is having second thoughts about the wisdom of his path. Then he meets a human for the first time in a long time and she helps him come to a decision. Though I think it’s the right decision, this is talky, didactic, and the milieu is not believable. “Endor” is one of two “tabloid weird” stories and delivers a double shot as it’s actually told by a time-traveling tabloid-like reporter who’s interviewing a son taking over a conservative father’s business and boldly moving to market magic to scientific worlds. “Teeth” is the more severe case of conflation and is one of two “series” novelettes in this issue (“Sun Lords of the Principality”). In this tale of lupine bondage, a wolf plays the good soldier and eats worlds to screw with the Sun Lords at the behest of Thousand-Star-Eyed Wolf and texts with his/her human lover before coming to a belated understanding. “Water” is the other series tale (“Legends of the Burnt Empire”) in which Lightspeed gets rather Tor-like in using “short fiction” to advertise books. This picks up with the previous installment’s surviving son playing in the river until he’s taken to Coldheart Mountain to learn some things off-stage before being deposited near his father to be the next Super King though the long story, being just a middle, pauses before anything happens.

Review: F&SF, January/February 2019

The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction,
January/February 2019

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Original Fiction:

  • “To the Beautiful Shining Twilight” by Carrie Vaughn (fantasy short story)
  • “The Province of Saints” by Robert Reed (science fiction short story)
  • “The City of Lost Desire” by Phyllis Eisenstein (fantasy novella)
  • “The Right Number of Cats” by Jenn Reese (fantasy short story)
  • “Survey” by Adam-Troy Castro (short story)
  • “Blue as Blood” by Leah Cypess (science fictional novelette)
  • “The Washer from the Ford” by Sean McMullen (fantasy short story)
  • Plumage From Pegasus: “A Walk on the Mild Side” by Paul Di Filippo (science fiction short story)
  • “Tactical Infantry Bot 37 Dreams of Trochees” by Marie Vibbert (science fiction short story)
  • “Fifteen Minutes from Now” by Erin Cashier (science fictional short story)
  • “The Fall from Griffin’s Peak” by Pip Coen (fantasy short story)

This issue also includes a reprint of “Joe Diabo’s Farewell” from Andy Duncan’s November 2018 collection, An Agent of Utopia. In terms of original fiction, this 2019 issue wasn’t up to 2018’s standards but had enough in it to be okay, overall.

The titles are split pretty evenly between fantasy and things that might be considered science fiction but the science fiction is fairly weak, especially considered as science fiction. “Blue as Blood” was particularly hard to swallow, as a girl was born on an alien world where they sometimes apply their great medical skills to random humans and have a reputedly sometimes fatal aversion to the color blue which the girl somehow acquires. It’s a story which would seem to be about social tolerance but its theme, as presented, is probably less compelling than even its science fictional clothing. “Infantry Bot” is a fairly flat riff on Dickian “autofac” endless-war sorts of stories, with a “female”(?) bot spouting verse while her companions say “ours is not to reason why; ours is but to do or die” until the “god into the bot” ending. “Fifteen Minutes” is a nearly 3,000 word monologue in which a time-traveling torturer (and I’m not sure how the time travel is supposed to accomplish anything) threatens an alleged terrorist. Somewhat similarly, “Survey” is a 5,000 word dialog and thought-experiment on sadism rather than science fiction or even fiction. The flash of “Mild Side” takes the real Kate Hamill’s frenetic adaptations of classic novels and simply extends it (“if this goes on”) and then contemplates the backlash to that. Finally, the most interesting of the SF pieces is “The Province of Saints,” another sort of “love song for the very awful,” in which a family is destroyed and a cop is called in to figure out how by interviewing a surviving family member with strange powers. It’s a riff on better killing through brain chemistry which burns the motherhood statement regarding empathy.

The fantasy pieces are both more interesting and more fantastic except for “Cats” which is not so much a fantasy as a surrealist piece in which a woman with a dying or dead girlfriend must embrace the pain to come out the other side, with a razor-bladed spiky cat as a sleeping companion and symbol. Turning to more straightforwardly fantastic pieces, a thief confesses her “Fall” after being coerced by a dandy and a cop into stealing something for them, though nothing turns out to be as it seemed. Either the narrator is a pathological liar in addition to being a thief (in which case nothing in the story can mean much) or it’s all a case of misfortune more than her fault (in which case the story’s kind of pointless) and the tone was off-putting but some may appreciate the reversals.  “Twilight” has a lot of backstory (which stories can have without being sequels but this feels like it is and apparently isn’t) but little plot or action as it presents a woman with another visitation from fairyland which forces her to decide between it and the life she’s made for herself in Mundania. Despite its simplicity, it’s pleasant enough. “Washer” is a very strange story based on a real myth (so you can’t fault the author for that part) in which an ominous woman washes clothes for the dead. A man sees a murder and later sees that weird woman before finding that they and he are connected. He learns he has a curse and a power and has to skirmish with the washerwoman in an effort to maintain his power and do something with it. The theme is not burning any motherhood statements but the tale was interesting and some might find the modernization of the myth especially so.

I’m not sure why “City” needed to be a novella but it reads quickly and is probably the best of the issue. Extending the “Alaric the Minstrel” series, this is a sumptuous tale about a trading caravan arriving in a decayed city after a strange, magical interlude in the desert. It seems to be about a lot of things (including, especially, “drugs are bayud, m’kay?”) but turns out to be about the unraveling of a romantic knot (along with the revelation of some backstory). It’s well-constructed and effectively evokes an exotic “Arabian Nights” feeling.

Review: Analog, January/February 2019

Analog,
January/February 2019

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Original Fiction:

  • “Ring Wave” by Tom Jolly (science fiction novelette)
  • “Love in the Time of Immuno-Sharing” by Andy Dudak (science fiction short story)
  • “A Message from Our Sponsor” by J.T. Sharrah (science fiction short story)
  • “The Last Squirrel Keeper” by Shane Halbach (science fictional short story)
  • “All the Smells in the World” by Julie Novakova (science fiction short story)
  • “The Umwelt of the Shark” by John Alfred Taylor (science fiction short story)
  • “Forever” by Mary Soon Lee (science fiction short story)
  • “Clockwork Cataclysm” by Edward M. Lerner (short story)
  • “The Narrowest Eye” by Howard V. Hendrix (science fiction short story)
  • “Applied Linguistics” by Auston Habershaw (science fiction short story)
  • “A Civilization Dreams of Absolutely Nothing” by Thoraiya Dyer (science fiction novelette)
  • “Lulu’s Friends” by Aimee Ogden (short story)
  • “Temple of Children” by Jennifer R. Povey (science fiction short story)
  • “Reboot” by Robert Reed (science fiction short story)
  • “Soft We Wake” by S. B. Divya (science fiction short story)
  • “Fingers” by Frederick Gero Heimbach (science fiction short story)
  • “The Fading Pages of a Short Story” by Bud Sparhawk (science fiction short story)
  • “A Place to Stand On” by Marie Vibbert (science fiction short story)
  • “The View from Proxima Centauri” by Susan Pieters (science fiction novelette)
  • “The Savannah Problem” by Adam-Troy Castro (science fiction novella)

I don’t recall ever seeing the listing of novellas, novelettes, and short stories in an issue of Analog fail to fit on the verso page but this issue achieves the feat by including sixteen short stories ranging down to 226 words. (A pain in the recto, you might say.) There is also a novelette about eight words longer than a short story along with two others and a novella.

(Note: This is probably the last time I will discuss all the short stories in an issue of Analog. In future issues, I’ll highlight anything worthwhile, balancing that with an assessment of the average.)

None of the half-dozen 226-2000 word stories are considerable and some fail to be science fiction or even fiction. “Cataclysm” describes a recent actual event in metaphorical terms; other than needing to get consent, I don’t see anything particularly speculative in “Lulu,” in which an orangutan signs up to help her friends with medical conditions. “Temple” is a non-story, much like another recent one I can’t remember, in which five-gendered aliens arrogate to themselves the raising of human children in an unbelievable way which concludes simplistically; “Reboot” is another non-story dialogue about AI, human aggression, and survival. A man deals with his ex-husband, a rich capitalist who wants to live “Forever.” Finally, one story has an interesting idea about people becoming illegally addicted to VR experiences of the “Umwelt” of animals (though why a good English word like “weltanschauung” wouldn’t do, I don’t know) but “rookie cop does the right thing despite superiors” isn’t enough of a story to exploit it.

Most of the four 2,000-4,000 word stories are a little better. Humans crash-landed on an alien world years ago and the “Squirrel Keeper” is the “last human” in a story with bad science which depends on an extreme obtuseness in its protagonist for its sentiment. “Wake” is an under-dramatic but reasonably interesting tale about a bunch of people who have been frozen near our time and have awakened in the post-human future. All but a handful have “graduated” to the world outside but a couple of people hang back, having difficulty adapting to their brave new world. “Place to Stand” is a lot like “Persephone Descending” (Derek Kunsken, November 2014 Analog) except with Mexicans instead of Quebecois. It’s a basically competent “woman against nature (and technical failure)” story about a worker risking her life to save a habitat she’s been helping to construct in the clouds of Venus but using this as a vehicle for her to work through her mommy issues doesn’t do it a lot of favors. When a company starts trying to add “Smells” to VR and an employee suffers an accident, she scents the sharp tang of lemons being turned into lemonade. This is a pretty solid story which, remarkably, is the right length for its focus on its central idea and, speaking of lemons, actually adds a little twist to the overdone VR motif.

Unfortunately, aside from one recommendation, the quality of the other half-dozen stories in the nearly-5,000 to nearly-7,000 word range is akin to the short-shorts. “Fading Pages“is an initially interesting story about medical aids which could help with a father’s memory loss but, among other problems, an event later in the story makes that all irrelevant and it ends in an overly sentimental way. “Narrowest Eye” is less a story and more a collection of phrases, most of the form “none who desire to be free of desire ever achieve their desire” which, to use other phrases, asks “for what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul” for “it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a subsistent man to enter the kingdom of God.” It is another strange SF attack on “basic income” as well as sour-grapes anti-utopianism. If the phantasmagorical “Eye” would fit into some straight-laced inversion of underground comix, then “Message” is a story about advertising run amok which could slip into a 1950s issue of Galaxy without comment, but for its bizarre strawman attack on the “obstruction” of the First Amendment. Like “Pages,” it has a back-half which undercuts its front-half and, like many, has a very weak ending/last line. “Fingers” is a survivalist-tinged post-apocalyptic gray goo story narrated by its special protagonist in initially opaque horror-story terms. In “Love,” Earth has been ravaged by plagues, including one that is a defense against other plagues – the “immuno-sharing” which has taken the place, for all but a few perverts, of “repro-sex.” From a peregrinating sensualist society, a quartet arrives on a mainland riven by revolution and the survivors of that band experience a reawakening.

Finally, the protagonist of “Applied Linguistics” is a mimetic blob which can swallow almost anything. If you can swallow that it is a conscious, intelligent entity which can learn to use language and don’t mind a late bit of minor convenience and an unnecessary twist, then this should be a great read. It takes place on a prison moon with some amazing biotech and paints a gigantic interstellar empire into the background almost casually, but the whole is tangible and effective. The blob finds itself drawn, despite itself, into a strange relationship with a prisoner who teaches him to speak and, ultimately, into a sadly less strange relationship with the universe at large, partially conditioned by that conceptual framework. This is a very tough and often wonderfully bizarre story (the eyeball part and the bones part were particularly blobby) with a disciplined imagination which hit me like Real Science Fiction™.

Turning to the longer stories, “View” barely qualifies as a novelette and is an uneventful and essentially anti-space exploration tale with an unconvincingly amateurish mission sending two people to Proxima Centauri to investigate the complex signals emanating from there. The longest story, “Problem,” is another middle in the Draiken saga in which every single step is narrated in exhaustive and exhausting detail, producing the effect of it all being in slow motion, as Draiken recruits a knifeman for a twist at the end, interrupted by an “irritating delay” which opens another threat to all humanity in addition to (or in variation of) the one that Draiken is fighting. Fans of this series still wanting more may be satisfied; others likely won’t.

The two long novelettes both deal with the ends of worlds. Some may respond favorably to the imaginatively conceived group-minded memory-manipulating marsupial aliens of “Nothing” and will be caught up in the existential threat to them and their wandering planet but, despite the extremes of their sibling rivalries, the aliens struck me as all-too human under their funny suits and the milieu’s overcomplicated structure was mostly unexploited. I could never visualize this as anything but an animated cartoon and it had a huge windup for a very short pitch. “Ring Wave” has a neat idea for a story. When an extinction-level asteroid hits Earth there is a region where material will be ejected forcefully enough to achieve escape velocity but not too forcefully to survive. Many pods of varying sizes and capabilities are produced and Aleja rides one such into space where she must battle pod pirates and make alliances with decent folk in an attempt continue surviving. The story, itself, though, has a questionable POV-switch almost halfway through, has a semi-incompetent hero and a cardboard villain (because piracy and and murderous activities aren’t enough, he’s also apparently a pedophile), has too many conveniences (and convenient inconveniences) and, most importantly, while I understand that the debris is still expanding, space is still too small in this story. Still, between the good idea and the crisp telling, this was a decent read.