Weekly Webzine Wrap-Up (2018-04-28)

Weekly Webzine Wrap-Up image

Original Fiction:

  • The Witching Hour” by Ekpeki Oghenechovwe Donald, Cosmic Roots and Eldritch Shores, April 23, 2018 (fantasy short story)
  • My Favourite Sentience” by Marissa Lingen, Nature, April 25, 2018 (science fiction short story)
  • Into the Gray” by Margaret Killjoy, Tor.com, April 25, 2018 (fantasy short story)
  • The Thought That Counts” by K.J. Parker, Beneath Ceaseless Skies #250, April 26, 2018 (fantasy novelette)
  • Angry Kings” by Bonnie Jo Stufflebeam, Beneath Ceaseless Skies #250, April 26, 2018 (fantasy novelette)
  • Nitrate Nocturnes” by Ruth Joffre, Lightspeed #95, April [26], 2018 (fantasy novelette)
  • A Most Elegant Solution” by M. Darusha Wehm, Terraform, April 27, 2018 (science fiction short story)

Original Fiction, Special Edition:

  • The Minnesota Diet” by Charlie Jane Anders, Slate, January 17, 2018 (science fiction short story)
  • Mother of Invention” by Nnedi Okorafor, Slate, February 21, 2018 (science fiction short story)
  • Domestic Violence” by Madeline Ashby, Slate, March 26, 2018 (science fiction short story)

The last week of the month is nearly as strong as the first week of the month. Also, unlike last week, the stories tend to be long, though one of the best is the shortest.

In the future, several students write paragraphs about “My Favourite Sentience.” No, there’s no plot but, wedged into less than a thousand words, there are a great variety of voices and a flood of ideas (with a couple of brilliant touches) that some would use to fuel trilogies. I don’t know if the world we see through these tiny windows is delightful or terrifying but everyone should take a look.

Turning to BCS, “The Thought That Counts” is a variation on Faustian themes which opens with an innocent country girl chattering on, seen through the mordant eyes of the narrator/protagonist. She’s going to the city to become a painter and he’s glad to be rid of her once they arrive but he’s not so free as he thinks. When she’s arrested for, essentially, being a murderous witch, he finds himself compelled to get involved. This has everything needed to make an excellent story but depends a lot on the breezy, discursive narration of its brilliantly delineated protagonist, the “cleverest, wisest man who ever lived” (and a “thief” and “con man”). He could wear on some people, I suppose, but I enjoyed this story a lot.

The other BCS tale involves a princess complaining about her evil father while returning to the palace in order to try to fix him after having run away. Interspersed with her recollections are retellings of other stories of “Angry Kings,” at least some of which are traditional. I oscillated uneasily between sympathizing with her and finding her a bit maudlin and “self-insuffcient,” so to speak. It all ended up feeling like an inauthentic self-affirmation speech. That said, the prose was mostly decent and it may well resonate strongly with some readers.

The remaining stories from this week were similarly mixed. “The Witching Hour” involves an evil witch’s good disciple trying to counteract her malign influence. It’s too oblique at first and then gets too talky. Despite some “dark goodness,” it still operates in a “good and evil” mythos. The climax is way too easy. But it does an excellent job of creating a magic milieu and mood. “Into the Gray” is a reverse-variant retelling of “The Little Mermaid” folktale (in which a boy/girl wants to become a mermaid like the entity s/he is infatuated with) and read fairly well but there is misdirection and then there is not firing Chekhov’s gun. The theme was expressed through a botched drama, making it ultimately unsatisfactory. (Also, fantasies shouldn’t have pikes and swords and such and have the protagonists anachronistically refer to their “adrenaline.”) Finally, “Nitrate Nocturnes,” reads like a combination of “Strung” (Xinyi Wang, Diabolical Plots #31A, September 2017) and Lightspeed‘s own “The Independence Patch” (Bryan Camp) from the last issue, in that it’s about a timer (manifesting on people’s arms) counting down to the time they’ll meet their soulmates. A college student will apparently not meet hers for some forty years but then her timer starts acting funny. This is exactly the most significant problem with the tale. Even though fantasy is fantasy, it generally has its own rules and logic while this was capricious, twice changing the rules with no explanation beforehand and little or none after. This is a story of author fiat rather than one which feels like an organic sequence of events; a case of theme preempting plot. That said, the narrative voice and some of the speculations on lives and loves and time (and some authentic party scenes) made it an easy read.

Incidentally, Lightspeed‘s reprint this week is “Mozart on the Kalahari.” I liked it (next best after “Death on Mars”) when I read it in Visions, Ventures, Escape Velocities (where it’s still available). That takes us nicely to today’s special feature. The same Arizona State University Center for Science and the Imagination which helped bring us that anthology, is also helping to bring us a monthly series of short fiction (each with companion non-fiction articles) published at Slate for their “Future Tense Fiction” department which I’ll begin covering here, going back to this run’s start in January. The theme of the first quarter of the year is “home” and the three stories universally take that to mean terrestrial “smart” homes and cities.

The Minnesota Diet” follows a group of young urban professionals living in New Lincoln, which is a smart city. However, when the food supply trucks start being diverted from the city and extreme governmental gridlock prevents any relief, two of the three million inhabitants are unable to leave, so face starvation. While most of us are dependent on our current technological society for survival and many things do get replaced without a suitable backup being retained, truth is stranger than fiction and this particular situation strained credibility and seemed contrived. Also, the characters, despite blue pompadours and the like, didn’t really come alive for me. Points for grappling with several important motifs, though.

In “Mother of Invention,” the father of a pregnant woman’s child turns out to have been married, leading to the woman being shunned. She lives in the father’s third smarthome and has developed a fatal allergy to the pollen from the genetically modified plants which surround her when that pollen goes into overdrive as it will shortly do. However, she refuses to leave because she fears that will mean the father will reclaim his house. The crisis arrives when she goes into labor and the storm comes but she’s not quite as alone as she thinks. The story resolves too obviously and easily (but in such a way that begs the question why the end didn’t come at the beginning and solve most of the problems presented in the story in the first place) and I question a mother who, rather than losing an ego battle with an estranged lover (and his wife) and becoming homeless, would risk the life of her forthcoming child, as well as her own. (In trivial but aggravating terms, there was a reference to a thing which “sprung” back.) Still, it did evoke feelings of hopelessness effectively and the portrayal of the home (which was more of a character than many in the previous story) was interesting.

The last, coincidentally best, story on the theme is “Domestic Violence.” Kristine, a company’s “chief of staff,” is dealing with an employee who literally had trouble “getting out of the house.” Kristine eventually deduces that the employee is in an abusive relationship in which the couple’s smart home is being used against her, such as sometimes briefly imprisoning her. It turns out that Kristine has a particular interest in this sort of thing and takes drastic steps to address the problem. I can’t reveal why but one of the best things and the worst thing about this story is Kristine herself, who helps make the story involving but also holds it back for me. Otherwise, barring an infodump paragraph, the technology is cleverly interwoven both structurally in the believable society and verbally in the story. The characters feel real and mostly sensible, if very odd. As with the other stories, this addresses genuine, serious concerns with present and near-future technology and feels even more tangible and compelling.

Edit (2018-04-28): Terraform didn’t have a story Thursday and, since they’d posted two last week, I thought they were taking a break, but they did publish another story yesterday which I didn’t see until just now. Ironically, it starts by talking about “Deaths on Mars” and has a “home” motif (with habitat-building) such that it connects in a couple of ways to the ASU/Slate stories.

A Most Elegant Solution” comes so close to being not only a recommendation, but a “year’s best”-type story, but ends up being an honorable mention. It opens with a nanotech programmer being engulfed by her “gray goo” creations as her colonizing teammates already have been, while she recaps what led her to that position. The ending combines a couple of my favorite books and would really be “goshwowsensawunda” but I saw it coming from pretty early on (partly because of past experience but partly because of the way an early element was handled in the story) and, not only that, but the ending wasn’t a clean revelation that would have really sparked poetic awe but was a bit labored and, even if you hadn’t seen it coming, would have made it like you saw it coming. (It also depends on some problematic programming.) Still, a mostly well executed tale with a great idea.

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Weekly Webzine Wrap-Up (2018-03-18)

Weekly Webzine Wrap-Up image
Original Fiction:

Issue #247 of BCS could be called the “swords into ploughshares” issue. “Braving the Morrow Candle’s Wane” is not a fantasy but simply vaguely medieval. The story itself is of an old lady trying to distract a soldier, who is hunting for the girl she’s hiding, with a tale of her own gain and loss of one faith during a war and the different faith she replaced it with. The climax hinges on how the soldier reacts.

I’m not often privileged to read a masterpiece but, at least in the heat of the moment, I feel that “The War of Light and Shadow, in Five Dishes” is. It’s the tale of a war and the supremely devoted chef who, by being just what he was, changed the world. A very unusual take on the maxim that an army travels on its stomach. The story of that chef is told by a master chef to an apprentice in five segments which makes it both metafictional and a listory, which are often fatal things to attempt, but this story’s metafictional aspects serve the story, heightening, rather than distracting from or being snide about, its storyness. And the list is more in the way of section headers in a normal, full-bodied narrative but serve to keep the story’s proportions and pace perfect. This story’s tone is another thing that’s handled perfectly and the tale could be placed in that section of a textbook. It’s lightly told, yet with full seriousness, feeling the pains of war while softening them to bearable levels, feeling very much like the narrator is a full character but isn’t a metafictional (in a bad way) stand-in for the author. The style is generally a significant part of this and it’s amazing how beautiful the prose is, to be basically so plain and devoid of any “preciousness.” It also does a wonderful job of managing its dimensions, with a foreground story given depth and scope by casual but ominous background references to, for example, blood mages and harvests. Another of the strongest features can be described by the story itself: “From time to time one bites through one of the tiny pockets of parsley and garlic, and their unexpected flavors burst in your mouth.” This story is full of such pockets, from the soldiers being especially happy due to not having died, to artists being a little crazy, to what people often do when puzzled, to the significance of the belief in one’s insignificance, to the soldier’s collecting seasoning leaves, to the value of desire to an almost hopeless prisoner, to infinity. I don’t even think a main character’s name (Eres) is an accident (a blend of Ares and Eros?) Finally, as is often the case when I’m reading a story I’m thrilled by, I’m afraid it’ll fall on the dismount. I’ll grant that some could find a little too much of one thing or a little too much of another but, for me, this manages a perfect blend of light and shadow.

Lest this all sound like a mere technical tour de force, I’ll say that it’s a story about war and memory and food (and you don’t need to be a gourmand to appreciate it – I was eating a Hot Pocket® during part of it) which is to say, it’s about things that matter. And you will care about the characters’ fates. Wonderful. I don’t see how this won’t be in multiple year’s bests and up for awards.

Perhaps my story circuits were blown by that story because the next one I read was “Cosmic Spring” which I can’t quite fully recommend. (I don’t ordinarily cover reprints/translations but I made an exception, not least because this was “translated” by the bilingual author and originally published this year.) It’s a far-far future eschatological tale about an AI piloting Earth to the last star in the universe. It may blow some readers’ minds and it accomplishes a great deal in a short space but, perhaps by having only an AI character and only that short space, there’s something faintly clinical about it despite all its cosmic-scale concerns about consciousness and history. Still, it’s very likely worth a look for most readers.

All stories this week aside from “War of Light and Shadow” were three thousand words or less (most significantly less) and, aside from it and “Cosmic Spring,” were much less striking. “Data” involves a guy being confronted by his BDSM (Big Data Special Manager) for not behaving as his statistics say he should but has no story. That problem similarly afflicts “A Very Large Number of Moons” which is an otherwise appealing and surreal tale of a collector of moons in conversation with someone who tracked the former down wanting a particular moon of importance to the latter. Ditto the also oddly passionless “The Last Rites of Quotient Lorenzo-Lochbaum” in which a mother, who is about to benefit from her daughter’s self-sacrifice in a “cap and trade” system of (im)mortality), answers her child’s dying question about whether she would do anything differently if she had her life to live over. The mother’s answer tells us about their current society and the personalities of both women, painting an odd picture which does not flatter anyone, especially not the mother herself, or her society. Or ours. Finally, “Soft Clay” is yet another underplotted story which is mostly a fantasy and which involves a shapeshifter, who had been created by a mad (from grief) scientist, drifting from person to person and being defined by them. This has disturbingly incestuous and infantilizing elements that don’t seem entirely intentional or addressed. Aside from that, it’s reminiscent of things like van Vogt’s “Vault of the Beast” and, especially, Spinrad’s “Child of Mind” but from the object’s POV.

Weekly Webzine Wrap-Up (2018-01-05)

Weekly Webzine Wrap-Up image
Original Fiction:

  • “Big Mother” by Anya Ow, Strange Horizons, January 1, 2018 (fantasy short story)
  • “Six Hundred Universes of Jenny Zars” by Wendy Nikel, Diabolical Plots #35A, January 1, 2018 (science fiction short story)
  • “Universal Parking, Inc.” by James Anderson, Nature, January 3, 2018 (science fiction short story)
  • “A Head in a Box, or, Implications of Consciousness after Decapitation” by Lori Selke, Nightmare #64, January [3], 2018 (fantasy short story)
  • “The Streets of Babel” by Adam-Troy Castro, Lightspeed #92, January [4], 2018 (fantasy short story)
  • “Suite for Accompanied Cello” by Tamara Vardomskaya, Beneath Ceaseless Skies #242, January 4, 2018 (fantasy short story)
  • An Aria for the Bloodlords” by Hannah Strom-Martin, Beneath Ceaseless Skies #242, January 4, 2018 (fantasy novelette)
  • “Matches” by James S. Dorr, Grievous Angel, January 5, 2018 (fantasy short story)
  • “Open and Shut” by Alastair Reynolds, Gollancz, January 5, 2018 (science fiction short story)

This was another fairly heavy week due to Nightmare and BCS coinciding with each other and everyone else, and even Grievous Angel and the Gollancz website put out stories.

First, I’ll gloss over the stories which fell short of special note to varying degrees. I’m not sure if “Open and Shut” is a story or an excerpt but it takes a retrospective conversational approach to the dramatic meat of the story which blunts its effect and seems too reliant on being part of the larger Prefect/Revelation Space space opera milieu to really stand alone. I reviewed “Big Mother” for Tangent.

In one of a pair of multiverse flash stories, the protagonist of “Six Hundred Universes of Jenny Zars” is trying to escape from an unfortunate incident in her past. The story is quite funny in places (especially universes #088 and #185) but has an anticlimactically un-funny ending. “Universal Parking, Inc.” is a tale of multiversal fraud involving parking lots which was extremely stiffly told with unnatural dialog and a weak and similarly stiff conclusion. In the third flash story of the week, “Matches” is a tale of the ordinary sibling of a vampire and a werewolf who decides to set the world on fire with really big matches which suffers most from a weak ending.

The scattershot mockery of The Beautiful Ones in “A Head in a Box, or, Implications of Consciousness after Decapitation” isn’t horror so much as initially implausible SF and finally fantasy, with intermittent bursts of disgusting elements. Not my cup of tea. Even less for me, “The Streets of Babel” is a fantasy-billed-as-SF which is not even quite metaphorical but simply homologous, taking almost seven thousand words to belabor the instantly understood concept of a tribesman being captured by a city and morphing into enslaved Modern Man, depicting his incessant torture in a way that inflicts greater torture on the reader.

By far the most interesting stories of this bunch were the duet of BCS stories which actually form a trio if “Symphony to a city under the stars” (reviewed just yesterday from another magazine) is considered. “Suite for Accompanied Cello” is a feminist tale of a fantasy world of a late-Baroque/early-Classical sensibility featuring a musician-narrator and automaton-musician and the former’s attempt to liberate the latter. The pace is a little slow and the theme (and partly the structure, particularly in the climax) is quite tired, but it is nicely written for the most part and maintains interest until a slightly flat ending. While some may prefer the “Suite,” I preferred An Aria for the Bloodlords which, while slightly (and presumably pointedly) French-flavored, creates a vividly colored world of a demon aristocracy and its mixed and human subjects and the artistic and magical rebellion of the latter against the former. There are a couple of grammatical or stylistic problems but, unlike some stories recently, they are infrequent distractions rather than truly damaging (though it includes a third example of “sunk” instead of “sank“!). More significantly, I may be giving it too much credit for ambiguity and it’s just another simplistic revenge fantasy but it seemed more nuanced than that.

Edit (2018-01-06): Added the Grievous Angel story I’d missed and specified the milieu of “Open and Shut.”

Weekly Webzine Wrap-Up (2017-12-09)

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(While no acknowledgement was required, thanks to comfreak for the great art.)

So far in December, Grievous AngelStrange Horizons, and Tor.com have produced no original fiction in English. The rest of the (semi-)weekly venues I cover were active and here are (mostly) brief reviews of their stories.

Low Bridge! or, The Dark Obstructions” by M. Bennardo, Beneath Ceaseless Skies #240, December 7, 2017 (novelette)

A newly married couple take a boat ride on their honeymoon where they are annoyed by a boorish author of ghost stories. This opens (and, indeed, closes) with nothing necessarily fantastic, is narrated in a mannered, Victorian way, and has unappealing characters, so is hard to get into. There is a dinner scene of somewhat spirited conversation and an exciting moment of a low bridge but a prophecy is given which leads to expectations which are disappointed. The culmination is trivial.

The Wind’s Departure” by Stephen Case, Beneath Ceaseless Skies #240, December 7, 2017 (fantasy novelette)

Not having read any Patrick Rothfuss, I don’t know if or how this is related but, when the protagonist is reading The Book of the Names of the Winds, even I couldn’t help but think of the title The Name of the Wind.

What this is related to is at least three other stories about a new god in the world and the wizard(s) who resist it. I’ve only read half of them and I recommended an earlier one (“The Wizard’s House“) in 2015. This one seems to suffer more from sequelitis, being more of a middle and relying more on past stories. These references can add to a larger, numinous effect from ominous vagueness or, being robbed of their context, can simply fall flat. I suspect this could be read in isolation but wouldn’t be a good starting place.

In this installment, Diogenes, the new wizard, is trying to honor his promise to restore the persistent wind, Sylva, to her body, which had been unmade by the previous wizard’s brother. He realizes that the only way to do this is to risk re-awakening the quiescent god. Adding to the difficulties is that there’s an Emperor waiting to be served. The ending wraps up only the most interior thread and sets the stage for further adventures.

This is a slow tale, with little happening in the first half, and never really becoming all that thrilling, but certainly becoming interesting in places due to wonderfully imaginative fantastic elements. Early on, there is another nice depiction of “the wizard’s house” and the second half, with encounters with gods, ascents to the top of the house, and various other things (along with references to the amazing flying jellyfish (that you need to have read a previous installment to appreciate)) keeps things spellbinding. The prose is clean and effective and the cross-bindings of the various characters and their promises and the costs of same is well-handled. If you’ve enjoyed any of the other tales in the series, don’t miss this one and, if not, try one of the earlier tales.

Hakim vs. The Sweater Curse” by Rachael K. Jones, Diabolical Plots #34A, December 1, 2017 (fantasy flash)

A guy cries a lot and vomits Lovecraftian sweaters for his boyfriend. Words fail me.

The Greatest One-Star Restaurant in the Whole Quadrant” by Rachael K. Jones, Lightspeed #91, December [7], 2017 (science fiction short story)

This peculiar tale involves escaped cyborgs finding themselves having to run a restaurant in order to hide in plain sight, with little material to work with and less knowledge of what their fully biological human customers like to eat. When one of them becomes fixated on getting more “stars” in reviews, things go off the rails.

The premise doesn’t grab me, much of the story is extremely unpleasant (with traces of bizarre humor to compensate), and the ending would have been much more effective if the main character had actually been appealing.

Please Consider My Science-Fiction Story” by David G. Blake, Nature, December 6, 2017 (science fiction flash)

This is a meta-story about an author having a meta-conversation with his imaginary/real AI writing assistant. It’s inconsiderable.

Which Super Little Dead Girl™ Are You? Take Our Quiz and Find Out!” by Nino Cipri, Nightmare #63, December [6], 2017 (horror short story)

This very short (c.2,000 word) piece is just what it says: a quiz. Given that, it does a remarkable job sketching the lives and deaths of four murdered girls but still doesn’t result in much of a story.

SWARM” by Sean Patrick Hazlett, Terraform, December 8, 2017 (science fiction flash)

An American/NATO soldier (who’s lost his daughter) is fighting, among others, a mobile minefield in the Russo-Ukrainian war (with children in the area). This is a little too caught up in its acronyms and tech and a little too conventional in its character/emotional efforts to make for successful fiction but it does paint an interesting picture of near-future combat and it’s good to see a story that recognizes the fact of Cold War II (even if it calls it the “Neo-Cold War”).

Rec: “The Şiret Mask” by Marie Brennan

The Şiret Mask” by Marie Brennan, Beneath Ceaseless Skies #238 2017-11-09, fantasy short story

This is a tricky story to discuss without ruining and a tricky recommendation. Viorica is narrating the story of how she came to be dangling from a rope while facing her death which involves telling us of her friendship with Oana and the latter’s relationships with a mysterious nobleman and her childhood friend. Meanwhile, a famous thief is in town and threatening to steal a famous and desired (but not especially beautiful or valuable) mask from Oana’s unpleasant brother. It’s basically a heist story.

Viorica is a brisk, wry, and entertaining narrator/protagonist and the story moves quickly with many reversals, complications, and identity revelations in a brief span. It’s really little like a Lankhmar tale, I suppose, but something about it did make me think of that fantastic city and the thief just seems like someone the Grey Mouser would have known. Over the course of reading it, I was initially involved enough but didn’t have the feeling it would end up as a rec but, by the end, I found I’d enjoyed it immensely.

It does have two (or three) problems, however. The narrative framing device is very effective for an opening hook and serves the purpose of foreshadowing, creating tension, and establishing the tone. However, it really makes little sense – she’s not telling this while hanging from a rope and so it’s clearly artificial. Secondly, there is something that occurs in the closing sequence of the story which would seem to have significant effects outside the frame of the story which no one in it (and perhaps not even the author) seems cognizant of. (A third issue, if not a problem, is that, despite being a secondary world and mentioning wizards, there’s nothing actually magical/supernatural in it.) Still, the blemishes don’t really affect the exciting, twisting tale, itself, and I recommend it.

(The other story in this issue (“His Wife and Serpent Mistress” by Gillian Daniels) has some obvious similarities with this one and is also noteworthy. It lacks the particular problems but also lacks the particular excellences, so I’m just giving it an honorable mention but some may prefer it.)