Review: Compelling #13, Summer 2019

Compelling #13, Summer 2019

compelling13

Original Fiction:

  • “Steps in the Other Room” by LA Staley
  • “Sasha Red” by Tyler A. Young
  • “Bodybit” by Mark Parlette-Cariño
  • “What We Remember” by Mark Salzwedel
  • “Love and Brooding” by M. J. Pettit
  • “Steadies” by Robert Dawson

This issue marks the beginning of Compelling‘s incarnation as a purchase-only e-zine after having been a freely available webzine for its first twelve issues.

All six of its offerings are science fiction short stories. Three of them are fairly adventurous. “Sasha Red” is set in a solar system where refugees fleeing Mars are desperate to reach Earth. The title comes from a background element which is paid off later: Sasha Red was a “pirate” who aided refugees by “attacking” their ships, forcing their rescues. In the foreground, we follow a rescue team made up of Tom the Right-Winger, Becca the Left, and Alex the Centrist Narrator. I was initially put off by the idea of another “refugee in space” story but the ideological spread of the characters and the action-plot, involving the effort to rescue forty children before their vessel explodes, engaged me. The only real problems are that some foreshadowing regarding Tom doesn’t seem to pan out and the climax is a little too early with too much “where are they now?” in the ending.

What We Remember” is somewhat reminiscent of Michael Adam Robson’s “The Ambassador” (from Constellary Tales #2, Feb. 2019) and others in that humans make contact with a sentient fungus and some go crazy. I liked the sort of “Darmok at Tanagra” communication by means of triggered or sent memories but the tale doesn’t seem long enough or fleshed out enough and part of the ending comes off like a joke which is out of place.

Finally, “Love and Brooding” describes the life cycle of fish-like creatures who are raised by paternal mouthbrooders from the point of view of one of the fry. Like other tales of this sort, the cognitive dissonance and generalized weirdness are good, while the largely predetermined plot and difficulty of connecting with the characters are less so. I was also confused by the background milieu. It would seem that the land was once, but is no longer, habitable and that these creatures were engineered to survive in the water (perhaps these are ex-humans on a future Earth?) but, if so, I’d have to wonder why they were engineered this way.

While I prefer “far-out” stories in the abstract and that group wasn’t bad, this issue’s most interesting group of stories are the focused, near-future extrapolations which make up the other half of the issue. “Steps in the Other Room” is set in a 2064 of smart houses and more, and involves a woman calling the cops, represented by one man and one Autonomous Car named Ace, to report that her husband’s ghost has gone missing. This is a minor but decent tale in which things aren’t as they seem and ends up touching on family and loss.

Steadies” has a very interesting idea which is insufficiently explored though it has a good framework to do so. A doctor who has some expertise in statistics is shown a paper under a non-disclosure agreement which shows, via deep data-mining, that a cholesterol drug has the bizarre side-effect of reducing divorce, especially if both partners take it. Becoming jealous at a party, she guiltily decides to get her husband on it and starts taking it herself. Some of her internal conflict is shown and these conflicts broaden when the paper is released, the drug becomes very popular, and it produces some social and familial side-effects. My immediate question was the mechanism – is this some slave drug which makes people satisfied with unpleasant conditions or a love drug which heightens interpersonal relations or what? One character eventually asks, “I don’t even know how it’s supposed to work. Have you read the article?” and the narrator replies, “They don’t say. Maybe it causes an irresistible compulsion to put the toilet seat down?” So I would have liked to have seen much more serious development of this intriguing idea.

The story which most impressed me in this issue, despite being as philosophically opposed to it as can be, was “Bodybit,” which also addresses coupling and effectively takes us through a large chunk of the protagonist’s life. It takes the notion of people putting all kinds of private information online (for example, “fitbits” and dating apps) and takes it one small/huge step further: what if a device monitored your sexual performance and statistics and put that online? The story gives us a protagonist who doesn’t do so well the first time and suffers shame but perseveres until things get better for him (and his partners). It takes him through his satiety with this new dating scene before focusing on a lasting relationship he develops. The “add-ons” to the bodybit keep surprising and keep the story moving and the dramatic lines of the tale generally work. The only thing that stops me from giving it a full recommendation (and it may be my own bias against social media) is that I can’t persuade myself that this story seriously addresses the consequences in a complete way, considering the possible negatives anywhere near as thoroughly as the positives. Regardless, it is definitely, at the least, a “compelling” and notable tale.

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Review of Compelling #12 for Tangent

Compelling‘s second issue from its current semi-annual schedule brings us five more science fiction short stories, most of which deal with varieties of economics and/or forms of biotech and most of which have some interest, including one recommended story.

Full review at Tangent: Compelling #12, Winter 2018.

Recommended:

  • “The Forest Eats” by Santiago Belluco (science fiction short story)

Review of Compelling #11 for Tangent

On its new schedule as a semi-annual, this is Compelling‘s first issue after a six month break and it was worth the wait. In terms of quantity, with the help of a reprint, it has one more story than its ever had before, though the word count is not appreciably longer but, in terms of quality, I recommend two tales (almost three) and, while not quite on those levels, personally enjoyed a couple more.

Full review at Tangent: Compelling #11, Summer 2018.

Recommended:

  • “Targeted Behavior” by J.D. Moyer (science fiction short story)
  • “Redaction” by Adam R. Shannon (science fiction short story)

Honorable mention:

  • “Driving Force” by Tom Jolly (science fiction short story)

Review: Compelling #10

Compelling #10 (Winter 2017)

Cover of Compelling #10
“Inside-of-Body Experience” by Pip Coen (short story)
“The Virgin of Santos de la Tierra” by E E King (short story)
“Hostile Intent” by Mike Adamson (novelette)
“Museum Piece” by J. D. Popham (short story)
“Redo” by Larry Hodges (short story)

The tenth issue of Compelling (which ends the bi-monthly era and begins the semi-annual one) brings us five tales which include a couple of aliens, a robot, a future corporation, and a variety of religious experience. None are bad, and the last couple are the best.

“Inside-of-Body Experience” by Pip Coen (science fiction short story)

A woman and her crewmates must deal with her discovery that an alien (she says “parasite,” it says “symbiont”) has infiltrated her body and wishes to “share” the “vessel.” The opening first person narration of the paralyzed protagonist is initially confusing. The repeated “I did [something]… except I didn’t” which is meant to express her wish to talk, laugh, scream, whatever, and her inability to do so, gets tiresome. Finally, while the theme appears to be addressed by the end of the story, it feels like the plot is cut off abruptly. All that said, it’s readable and provides some things to think about.

“The Virgin of Santos de la Tierra” by E E King (science fiction short story)

This tale of a woman seeing the Virgin in the water stains on her building (and what happens to her city and beyond) initially had me wondering where the SF was but it finally appeared. This long flash/very short story is not especially related to Arthur C. Clarke’s “The Star” and not on par with it, of course, but it made me think of it in a way.

“Hostile Intent” by Mike Adamson (science fiction novelette)

Ruinous climate change is pushing corporations out into space while leaving the poor folks behind. A woman who lost her parents to a space mining accident has risen to a high position in one of those corporations when an attack is made on one of their space resources. Dealing with this attack is just the tip of the iceberg.

Despite the off-screen space action and the futuristic setting, this story doesn’t focus on its science fictional aspects and, partly because of something the author’s doing with the main character for plot purposes, she isn’t fully engaging, so the story’s basically about corporate shenanigans that have an interlocking puzzle-piece interest but not a lot beyond that. And ultimately, the theme, however worthy, seems kind of simple and labored. It’s not a bad story insofar as there are several points of interest to keep the reader going but it’s just not fully rewarding.

“Museum Piece” by J. D. Popham (science fiction short story)

After all its siblings have been destroyed as a threat to the human workforce (a second story partly concerned with future economics), an old robot makes its break for freedom against many obstacles. This action-adventure tale may not suit everyone but I liked it a lot. It was very exciting and the multiple stages of the robot’s efforts were very well conceived and described.

“Redo” by Larry Hodges (science fiction short story)

Mesen, the giant alien caterpillar, has been taking a census of the Earth as it was when he arrived through the magic of his redo device. With certain provisos, it resets the Earth back to how it was. Thus people on Earth have passed over 80,000 years into the galactic future in ten minute increments without ever knowing it. So it happens that he meets a woman who seems to be his best interview until the interview quickly turns into his worst. An alien invasion fleet is just one of the many issues. But with the magic of the redo device and a lot of ingenuity, he and his new human friend can try to save the day.

There is a loopy part in the late-middle of the story which isn’t a lot of fun to read and something I can’t put my finger on isn’t entirely satisfactory but this is a heck of an idea which is generally executed well and the story is pretty amusing, not least due to a very charmingly conceived alien. I kept having the feeling that there was an internal logic failure or other flaw and then kept rethinking it and realizing the story had it right, as far as I could tell. So, again, not actual hard SF (or “plausible”) but with a lot of the mental fun of it. Good stuff.

Edit (2017-12-01): add semi-annual note, modify markup.

Summation of Online Fiction: June 2017

The twelve prozines of June produced thirty-eight stories and I read thirty-five of them at about 165K words. (Tor.com should have posted a fourth story on the 28th but didn’t. If it comes out today or tomorrow, I’ll update this post accordingly.)[1] The random flukes of this month were a large number of honorable mentions (with not so many recommendations) which were mostly SF, half of which came from almost the entire issue of Compelling Science Fiction. Given that, I’ll basically do a mini-review of the whole issue after the lists.

Recommended:

Science Fiction

Fantasy (billed as):

Honorable Mentions:

Science Fiction

Fantasy

In “What’s a Few Years When You Get Money and Friends in High Places?” I couldn’t buy the “Head/Off” premise (a body builder and a rich guy whack their bodies and heads apart and trade pieces) and the ending was pretty trite but, in between, it was well done, interesting, entertaining, and didn’t always do the expected. “Integration” features a constituent of an AI collective loading itself into a robot body to learn how the other half lives and seemed quite fresh though a little too cute and slightly constructed, especially for its heavily theme-centered thrust. “Fathom the Ocean, Deep and Still” gets major points for taking a can-do approach to climate change where we don’t solve the climate change problem but do work around it in an amazing way. As someone who takes climate change extremely seriously, I don’t think this “when life hands you lemons” approach is ideal, obviously, but have to admire its boldness. On the other hand, the plot is extremely predictable, though executed well enough, given that.

The one story I didn’t single out as noteworthy was “Cogito Ergo Sum” which takes the very tired approach of using a robot (here questionably called an android because of a flesh surface) to question “what makes us human?” and is one giant “as you know, Bob” with some unconvincing emotions tossed in, but even it is readable.

In sum, I thought this was a good issue of Compelling and I’m rapidly becoming a fan of the zine. I love that I can’t detect any right-wing or left-wing agenda but only an agenda of idea-centered sci/tech-centered fiction which, to me, is what science fiction is really about. Incidentally, the recommended story, “Thinking Inside the Box,” while not being explicitly “retro” or derivative,  does remind me of science fiction of the sort which played a part in first making me a fan, in which humans and aliens and their psychological issues weren’t taken directly from current, transitory socio-political issues or made to be thinly veiled symbols but seemed like fresh, individual constructs rooted in genuine thought experiments and which, nevertheless, did make you walk a mile in some alien shoes and question your own preconceptions and which did have a genuine positive mental and social effect without being plain propaganda. (If there was any propagandizing, this sort of classic SF was preaching just the virtues of open and rational thought and scientific accomplishment.)

Of the other honorable mentions aside from Compelling‘s, “Bourbon, Sugar, Grace” has thirty-four confusing uses of “moms” and a somewhat implausible premise (likely cost-ineffective, among other things) and deus ex ending but is otherwise interesting and unusual and its milieu of a hardscrabble colony being shafted by the corporation felt tangible and plausible once the premise was granted. “Marcel Proust, Incorporated” is an infodump of unconvincing melodrama but had a fairly fresh idea of brain-stimulated learning and was interesting despite its problems. “Utopia, LOL?” is severely flawed by its choice to project yesterday’s webspeak into the far future but, if you can get past that, this almost Futurama-esque tale of thawing out the cryogenically-preserved primitive is reasonably funny and entertaining and with a serious undertone. Finally, “Owning the Dragon” is a wacky (symbolic) take on a woman and her dragon and juggles a surface (and much more individual) whimsy with its own serious intent.

[1] Edit (2017-07-04): Well, Tor.com didn’t publish another story but I did notice I’d missed Diabolical Plots‘ “B” story again, so read it, which brought the totals up to 36 stories of about 171K words.

Rec: “Thinking Inside the Box” by Michèle Laframboise

Thinking Inside the Box” by Michèle Laframboise, Compelling Science Fiction June/July 2017, SF short story

It’s a familiar setup when we see two human diplomats through the cognitive estrangement of alien perception but angels (so to speak) are in the details just as much as the devil. The aliens’ love of constant, arbitrary change is interesting and they are generally nicely judged, not being “bumpy forehead” aliens nor incomprehensibly bizarre for its own sake but merely comprehensibly strange. When things go haywire and the shapeshifting ability of the alien spaceship is damaged, the psychological and mathematical elements of the tale come even more to the fore and they are quite interesting. In a way, this is a very old-school tale—one might wonder why the alien engineers haven’t foreseen this potential problem and developed some kind of “VR” solution or something—but I like the “beings and ships” sort of flesh-and-steel pre-cyberpunk sensibility. And I’m not sure it’s not a flaw for a part of the ending to be dependent on insider information but at least very few SF fans will fail to get it. I enjoyed this one.