Review: Tor.com, May/June 2019

Tor.com, May/June 2019

tor-wkly

Original Fiction:

  • “Murder in the Spook House” by Michael Swanwick (fantasy short story)
  • “Any Way the Wind Blows” by Seanan McGuire (fantasy short story)
  • “Skinner Box” by Carole Johnstone (science fiction novelette)
  • “The New Prometheus” by Michael Swanwick (fantasy short story)
  • “A Forest, or A Tree” by Tegan Moore (horror novelette)

Tor.com doesn’t seem to have been able to produce the May/June issue of Tor.com Short Fiction but five stories (plus a shared-world story) appeared on the site in those months. This “issue” is not as good as the last, but does have some interesting stories or elements within them.

Apparently, Tor.com is changing its physical corporate HQ. “Any Way the Wind Blows” is a vanity piece published to mark this event, borrowing aspects of Heinlein’s The Number of the Beast (in the sense of being set in a ship traveling through a metafictional omniverse) but replaces the four bantering geniuses with a cranky timeserving captain.

A Forest, or A Tree” probably has some symbolic sense that I’m missing. As is, half the short novelette involves four women hiking in the woods and talking… a lot… and it’s not exactly Tarantino-esque dialog. Then the horror finally kicks in as one of the hikers gets sick, another starts seeing things, and so on.

Skinner Box” is a tale that purports to be about a spaceship crew made up of an abusive husband, his wife, and the other crewman (who is the wife’s lover) and the plans of the latter two to kill the former. Readers will not be surprised that this isn’t entirely what’s going on. Examples of the several problems are that there are too many infodumps, neither the surface nor deeper premises make much sense, and the protagonist (the woman) is not an appealing lead character. (Reflecting on the many locked doors of the ship, she says, “I’ve never tried them more than once. I’ve never wondered what’s behind them more than once. Which, if I cared, is probably the most palpable metaphor for my entire life. Sad and bad and indifferent.”) There is some effectively portrayed claustrophobia and desperation, though.

Michael Swanwick contributes the best stuff with two tales in his “Mongolian Wizard” series. I’m barely familiar with the series but found a nice write-up to help me find my bearings in a world of combined magic and technology in which a sort of Napoleonic War is on the verge of turning into a sort of WWII via higgledy-piggledy timeline-mingling. “Murder in the Spook House” involves the main character, Ritter, investigating the murder of a major character. It doesn’t seem to be an especially weighty murder mystery, but it moves the war along and was brief, clever, and entertaining. “The New Prometheus,” as the title indicates, is a variation on Frankenstein, involving a superbeing created by the Mongolian Wizard. Ritter is tasked to deal with him and (despite not actually doing much, which is a problem) is treated to a strangely effective autobiography from the creature in which he describes how lonely it is to be a god.

Advertisements

Review: Tor.com, March/April 2019

Tor.com, March/April 2019

Original Fiction:

  • “Knowledgeable Creatures” by Christopher Rowe (fantasy short story)
  • “One/Zero” by Kathleen Ann Goonan (science fictional novelette)
  • “Blue Morphos in the Garden” by Lis Mitchell (fantasy short story)
  • “Painless” by Rich Larson (science fictional short story)
  • “Mama Bruise” by Jonathan Carroll (horror short story)

The March/April edition of Tor.com Short Fiction contains three stories which fall on the positive side of the ledger to varying degrees and two clean misses. It also contains a lot of dogs and in-laws (with one story including both and only one including neither).

One/Zero” theorizes that all the current technological invasions of the privacy of citizens by multinational corporations is good for us and will eventually enable an “SI” to save refugee children and initiate an era of whirled peas. Unless it’s intended ironically, it’s an unconvincing story of simple idealism and is handwavingly plotted, not just with a deus ex ending, but a deus ex beginning, middle, and end. At one point, one of the two focal characters says, “I can’t imagine why I have custody of [a] superintelligence, but I don’t have time to worry about it, either.” And so it all goes.

The other miss, “Mama Bruise,” involves a woman’s dad, who ruined his life via drug addiction, being reincarnated as a magical dog set on making amends until things begin going wrong. This is a real mongrel of a tale. The idea strikes me as silly and there is some humor. But darkness is also intended. And something that goes beyond dark and seems unmerited. Meanwhile, there are marital issues and in-law issues and lots of anecdotes about the dog’s antics which just don’t seem especially focused and don’t drive the tale. It’s possible to create a funny, scary, personal/public mix of a fantasy/horror (see Buffy the Vampire Slayer) but this just seemed incoherent and ineffective.

Blue Morphos” also deals with marital problems and in-laws, but more directly. A woman has fallen in love with and has a child with a man but refuses to marry him because doing so would make her one of the family. And that family’s members do not die but give a whole new meaning to the notion that “we shall be changed.” They turn into parts of the family home or furniture or, in the case of the story’s opening death, into butterflies. The woman has problems with the in-laws and wants to die her way, a wish given more urgency because she has a terminal disease. It’s quite possible that I’m not responding to this story properly because I’m very tired of reading about women metamorphosing (usually into sea creatures or flying things) and this led with that, though it’s not specifically about that. It does a decent job of most of what it’s aiming at and the antagonistic relation between the woman and one in-law is done very well.

On the flipside, I may be responding too favorably to “Knowledgeable Creatures” despite its underwhelming ending because I greatly enjoyed most of the tale. A private eye (who also happens to be a dog) relates the story of the woman who came to him with the belief that she’d committed a murder. Via heavy foreshadowing which builds great anticipation and generally expert revelations of milieu, we come to understand that this is an alternate fantasy world in which the alchemist Newton and his mouse uplifted many animals. Or was it the mouse and his Newton? This is the crux of the conspiracy theory in this almost theocratic milieu which resulted in the heretic historian woman and another orthodox professor having their incident. The dog has already been fired from the police force due to his interest in the issue and is drawn into it again, despite himself.

It’s probably exactly the foreshadowing which is both a virtue and a vice of this story as it inflates the expectations for the ending. There’s nothing exactly “wrong” with that ending in the sense of being discordant but it’s too quick, predictable, and underwhelming. With a little tweaking, it might be an excellent opening to a novel but it’s not an entirely satisfactory story. It’s still worth noting for its initial delight and obvious skills, though.

Finally, I’ve previously reviewed and recommended Painless” at Tangent.

Review: Lightspeed #109, June 2019

Lightspeed #109, June 2019

Original Fiction:

  • “Between the Dark and the Dark” by Deji Bryce Olukotun (science fiction novelette)
  • “The Harvest of a Half-Known Life” by G.V. Anderson (science fiction short story)
  • “The Weight of a Thousand Needles” by Isabel Canas (fantasy short story)
  • “Unpublished Gay Cancer Survivor Memoir” by Caspian Gray (fantasy short story)

The June Lightspeed shares some of the inconsistency of the June Clarkesworld but also contains a recommended story.

(“Between the Dark and the Dark” isn’t it.) Mysterious things appear which make the Earth less and less habitable. “The only solution was to leave the planet as quickly as possible.” (Easy come, easy go – bye, now.) Lots of starships of various kinds are sent out and, because the survival of the human race is at stake, they are equipped with remote destruct mechanisms which can be triggered by the folks remaining in the solar system when the crew of the ships transgress Earthly morals, such as when they commit cannibalism. One “steward” hastily decides to terminate one ship while another steward argues for more time to understand the situation.

As if this premise weren’t bad enough (and leaving aside innumerable other relatively minor problems which would be major in most other stories), what it argues for in lieu of cannibalism seems a lot like to-may-to/to-mah-to and the plot hinges on a scientific impossibility.

Harvest” takes place after we’ve wrecked the planet and people scrabble about in the “sunseared” ruins. Almost everything is put to use, including all the parts of those who die. One woman “harvests” her mother’s friend and reflects on the past before eventually setting off to complete the journey her mother and mother’s friend had begun, which provides the climax to the bildungsroman.

This second example of “waste not, want not” is a spectacularly disgusting story which reads like splatterpunk horror but it’s just the way they thriftily live so, if you can get past that and the painfully cliched post-apocalyptic ending, the tale of the Determined Girl Who Could may appeal, as she’s well-drawn and the depiction of the horrible future has its power.

Needles” is a sort of Scheherazade/Cinderella combo, in which Soraya, a crow, a jinni, and the god of night do a romantic/spiritual dance with much manipulation and deceit from some of the parties.

This is thickly written and the heroine is sweet enough but rather dull and bloodless. It may suit those looking for a sort of Scheherazade/Cinderella combo, though.

The unpromisingly titled “Unpublished Gay Cancer Survivor Memoir” is the issue’s recommended tale. Sydney is a woman who has survived colon cancer and written a book about it but doesn’t know what to do with the life’s she’s won, especially when her book fails to find a publisher. When her old flame Michaela re-establishes contact while looking for her strange boyfriend Edik, Sydney’s situation changes.

This is a tough and quirkily funny tale full of irony and ambiguity. While Sydney’s not exactly the most pro-active character and there is some unresolved darkness to it all, she’s understandable and sympathetic, the tone of the tale and its idiosyncrasies, and some of the well-delivered plot elements and fantasy elements (in a modern, largely mainstream story) all worked for me.

Review: Clarkesworld #153, June 2019

Clarkesworld #153, June 2019

Original Fiction:

  • “The Painter of Trees” by Suzanne Palmer (science fiction short story)
  • “Erdenweh” by Bo Balder (science fiction short story)
  • “Said of Angels” by Eric Del Carlo (science fiction novelette)
  • “Bonobo” by Robert Reed (science fiction short story)
  • “Field Mice” by Andy Dudak (science fiction short story)

It was the best of issues, it was the worst of issues. It feels like two entirely different magazines collided.

The Painter of Trees” is ideologically impeccable and is hereby stamped with the Party’s approval. An evil imperialist running dog goes out to the word-for-world-is-forest in an effort to understand the art of one of the last natives. This is done from an attitude of towering arrogance and fails. The imperialists believe they are Forward Thinking in their genocide of the pathetic natives and this succeeds. The narrative is bifurcated (with one from first person (semi-second) and another from third) which meets the required element of Narrative Deconstruction and also sets up the Big Surprise Ending. Alas, what this will be is obvious for miles but such technical imperfections are irrelevant when the message is so pure.

The patient of a psychiatrist on a colonial world has suffered from “Erdenweh” and joined a wave of suicides, so the psychiatrist sets out to find out why. This might produce something like a heart-wrenching and/or exciting detective tale but the victim is a non-entity, the protagonist is little more, and the “plot” involves her wandering around asking questions of various experts, databases, and misnamed “AIs.” It’s frustrating because, while not original, it deals with an actual science fictional situation (what issues might be encountered when decanting test-tube babies to populate a new world?) but is fictionally deficient (and not a little off-putting). Does this sound like an adult psychiatrist who is having difficulty sleeping?

Finally, she padded to her closet and dug up her last resort, an old teddy bear from the Creche, vacuum sealed so it wouldn’t lose any of its powerful scent. She zipped the seal open and inhaled the smells rising from Teddy’s filthy fur. Sweat, snot, tears, general dirt, struck matches, maybe a hint of vomit.

In the “Bonobo” episode of Future Family, one of the three kids decides to change her species which is used as the jumping-off point to cover a little back-story and a lot of succeeding events in the lives of the family members with an ironic, almost punk “love comes in spurts” acknowledgement, if not endorsement, that things will keep on keeping on.

Said of Angels” takes us to what is likely the far future, in which a galaxy-wide Cooperation, made up of five Mights and lesser groups, has arisen. The most influential spiritual leader in the galaxy is the Arch Hierophant, Brophtoc Mmurn Dol. The crux of the story is that there is a prophecy about, and signs pointing to, the arrival of Redmarch, an apocalyptic galactic war. The key to this involves the Hierophant’s decision about whether Valduk Tyn, a prophet from a since-defunct backwater planet who preached a familiar and unsophisticated version of a common message, was divine. After meeting an ambassador from a newly contacted Earth, the Hierophant feels he has a way forward.

The color and detail of the backdrop of this tale is reminiscent of good ol’ science fiction such as the Foundation series and others (“others,” especially, with its multiplicity of aliens not found in the Foundation universe). This was delightful to me and will likely blow newer readers’ minds though it was arguably over-emphasized. The ecumenical spirituality was interesting and the character of Dol is well-drawn. The nuance and twists of the plot were also well-done. Alas, the plot and scale (both internally and in wordage) is part of why I can’t fully recommend it. A story like this feels like it ought to be a meditative tale of few words or an action-packed, elaborately-plotted long story. Instead, this is a meditative novelette with little action and, despite an elaborate back-story “plot,” little foreground plot. It’s still definitely an ambitious story with excellent elements and worth noting.

The story I do recommend, despite some reservations, is “Field Mice.” The environment has grown worse and familiar political structures have collapsed. Technology continues apace, however. Metropotamia is a Soviet-like state which believes in Discontinuity and is partly run by uploaded minds which believe that they have always been discontinuous and so, somewhat paradoxically, will be no different after having their minds destructively scanned and uploaded. In a cold war with them are the Sylvanians who have a theocratic form of population control and believe in the continuity of the soul and the irrelevance of the uploaded “copies.” The plot involves a Sylvanian spy, who has become a double agent, dealing with the capture of a true Sylvanian agent who may or may not know his secret. The sort of backwater cop in charge is threatening the agent with an “I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream” sort of computer hell as the tale opens and a philosophically charged, paranoia-laden spy thriller follows.

A lot of this is very familiar but it is so deftly exposed and deeply thought and felt that it seems fresh. The combination of thought and action is perfect for this reader and very, very hard to find in contemporary SF. My only problems with the tale are that yet a third spy is way too talkative in an almost “Bond-villain” sense and that the concluding sequence is perhaps too fragmented but these are basically quibbles about an exciting and engaging story.

–Almost forgot: I again wanted to note Carrie Sessarego’s non-fiction contribution. “Love at Stake” deals with Buffy the Vampire Slayer and, improbably, I again dislike the penultimate paragraph and think Buffy is far more than a romance, but thought the article was stimulating. I don’t especially agree that, in later seasons, “the show becomes less obviously metaphorical and more about its own mythology” but absolutely agree that the series “is at its best when her connections to people are strongest and at its worst when she starts to actually believe that maybe she is really alone (see: Season Six).” Ugh. Season six. But, as a maniacal fan of seasons 1-3 (and even 4-5), I commend this article to everyone’s attention.

Review: Clarkesworld #152, May 2019

Clarkesworld #152, May 2019

Original Fiction:

  • “Move Forward, Disappear, Transcend” by A. T. Greenblatt (science fiction short story)
  • “Empress in Glass” by Cory Skerry (science fiction short story)
  • “Insaan Hain, Farishte Nahin” by Arula Ratnakar (science fiction novelette)
  • “The Sun from Both Sides” by R.S.A. Garcia (science fiction novelette)

I read the first two shorter stories in this issue over a month ago and only jotted down some notes, so the reviews will be brief. While I just read the last two longer stories, I’ll also try to be brief with them for consistency.

Forward” is yet another post-human “left behind/move on” story about one of the first semi-transcended women being left behind by all the fully transcending beings. It reads like a middling/lesser Terraform story. Like “Forward,” “Empress” is another amputee story and yet another “social media star” story and is even specifically like “The Streaming Man” but is a simile-laden tale about a woman who artistically skins herself after her crazy “uncle” passed his insanity on to her, which generally reads something like an Apex story. “Insaan Hain” contains what might have been a good piece of flash fiction about the road not taken in this novelette filled with all the current and past SF cliches of an intermittently second-person narrative with shuffled segments, lesbian couples, religious people opposed to change, current coastal towns being underwater in its future, and its whole “memory shtick” (so to speak). Perhaps the biggest flaw is its constant infodumping, sometimes using the couple’s young son as an excuse. The story is that a woman uploads her consciousness into a sort of starwisp craft but, when things go wrong here, they go even more wrong there. Finally, “Sun” opens with a fairy tale feel which never completely goes away even when it morphs into science fantasy/space opera/romance, is very loosely and handwavingly structured in a way that made me unable to engage with it, and is ultimately a vehicle for a simple social message of heart over vicious, murderous head but the Herbert/Banks/Leckie sort of vibe may appeal to some readers, especially fans of similar recent short works commonly found in Lightspeed.

While I rarely read anything in these zines but the original fiction, the best things in this issue were the interview with Jack McDevitt and the piece on Emily Bronte and Wuthering Heights. I certainly don’t agree completely with the last one, but still appreciated it.

Review: Grimdark #19, July 2019 (at Tangent)

(In my last post, I said, “I promise the next review will be directly on this very blog.” Sorry. I seem to have lied. Next time, for sure!)

The nineteenth issue of Grimdark would have come in April but the editor was busy getting married. Now that it’s arrived in July, it brings us a half-dozen non-fiction pieces and five stories, two of which are original. The first has a nice set-up but needs an ending with greater intensity and the second, while intense enough, needs a better set-up for it…

Continue reading at Tangent.

 

Review: Nightmare #81, June 2019 (at Tangent)

Neglected to include an issue-wide introduction to quote as a teaser but it’d have been something like “This month’s issue of Nightmare brings us two original stories whose possibly interesting cores are marred in part by their narrative strategies.”

Continue reading at Tangent.

(Incidentally, I promise the next review will be directly on this very blog.)