- “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 , 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.