Weekly Webzine Wrap-Up (2018-08-17)

Weekly Webzine Wrap-Up image

Original Fiction:

This week’s stories were a weird bunch with little, if anything, that could be taken seriously as science fiction and little, if anything, that was pure fantasy.

The least unsuccessful stories were science fiction satires. “Vegan” was a clever bit of ironic propaganda in which McFleshy’s tells us the truth (the McFacts!) about the vegan/Vegan conspiracy and how the company took over what was left of the world for the sake of humanity. As a guy whose “food pyramid” practically has meat as the base, this naturally doesn’t resonate with me, but it was smart and funny. Unfortunately, aside from the comico-historical infodump there was no plot and, aside from the Voice of the Narrator, there were no characters and it’s all just a bit silly. Less silly, but still going for humor, “The Preprint” tells us about the “machine at the centre of the Universe, the sole function of which is to create more time.” When the protagonist’s colleagues don’t believe him, he invents a space machine to travel to the time machine but the time machine is an AI and doesn’t like this, so sends him back to the past, where he’ll just be considered (even more of) a crackpot. It’s a little too contrived and the machine moves conveniently nearer or further from omniscience as needed but it’s an amusing gimmick. Finally, “The Treatment” is not amusing at all, but perhaps should have aimed for it, as it comes off as “Reefer Madness for the Opioid Age” with the only “SF” elements being a fictionalized drug and an extrapolation into bathetic dystopia with a nakedly emotionally manipulative ending.

Moving to fantasy, it’s possible “Tsunami” was intended as SF, dealing as it does with climate change (specifically sea level rise) but has people spontaneously sprouting gills and webbing and becoming vampiric merfolk who sometimes stick straws into people’s necks to feed. The conflicted protagonist meets a boy but her friends’ urge to make her feed complicates the relationship, turns things toward horror, and makes everyone repellent. In “Flight,” Earth’s climate has been ravaged even further and magic animals educate the last surviving human, a young girl, before flying in their shadowship to heaven. The novelette-length sermon could have easily been boiled down to flash.

The science-fantasy-like BCS stories open with another novelette, “Wyvern,” which does have more than a short’s worth of milieu but this milieu is not gracefully exposed. An unclearly articulated entity usually has four souls in one except that one has been stolen by the machaenists (mechanists or machinists, obviously) who uphold the remnant tech of the Ancients. Then there’s the girl and her dragon who are similarly symbiotic and similarly entangled with the machaenists. It all ends in a big fight. The story is violently technophobic and the ending action sequence is pure hand-waving authorial fiat. The milieu is more complicated than it needs to be but it won’t be wasted as this story doesn’t end but clearly leads to a sequel. I will give the story the one credit of having a good cinematic scene of a steampunk airships, old mechanical metallic plane-like vehicles, and a dragon all engaged in combat. Finally, “Shattered” also deals with symbiotic characters in combat when a large beetle-like creature (the narrator) and a woman fight the Evil Overlord. Again, this one had a scene of what must have been one heck of a fight but the action was hard to follow and the motivations were too generic to produce much interest.

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Review: Apex #111

Apex #111, August 2018

Original Fiction:

  • “For Southern Girls When the Zodiac Ain’t Near Enough” by Eden Royce
  • “Prism” by Stefanie Elrick
  • “La Ciguapa, For the Reeds, For Herself” by J. M. Guzman
  • “Gasping” by Brandon O’Brien
  • “Jewel of the Vashwa” by Jordan Kurella
  • “The Barnum Effect” by Celia Neri

This Zodiac-themed “special issue” is guest-edited by Sheree Renee Thomas. All stories are short and all are fantasies (the last is a technofantasy). All but the first and last are in the first person. The first is in the second person and is one of three consecutive stories which refer to “you” heavily throughout the story. The first three are in the present tense while the next two are not purely, plainly, in the past. The second, third, and last are not entirely in English. The second is sprinkled with a sort of Spanglish, the third is is what I assume is a Dominican dialect, and the last is filled with minor ESL-isms and/or typos an editor and/or proofreader should have fixed.

Southern Girls” involves a woman, who seems like a placeholder more than a specific individual, getting a Tarot reading with an odd deck which speaks from and to a Southern nature. There is a magic voice doing most of the reading which could be stage magic and otherwise nothing fantastic occurs. “Prism” (Gemini) is a tale of twins (sort of) which tries to blend music, mirrors, and the occult into a revelation of self but is initially dull and consistently overwritten. (It also has an impressively dead metaphor: “The music is deafening, but now I can’t hear it.”). “La Ciguapa” (Libra) treats of the Dominican succubus but, like “Southern Girls,” seems to have stick figure characters in search of a plot as it more or less conveys that men are scum and “a Black woman” will judge at an apocalypse. “Gasping” (Aquarius?) describes “white people” finding a superficially human sea creature in Ireland and raising it in Tobago. The style did not make for an easy read. “Jewel” has a half-scorpion storyteller open with two lies before (possibly) telling the truth about her jealousy breaking a truce between the Scorpion Men and soft people who procreate with each other when they aren’t killing each other. “Barnum” (the protagonist is a Pisces) is about people developing an AI to write horoscopes but, when one of the developers survives a terrorist attack after following the advice of hers, she decides its sentient. The story’s biggest problems are its underlying silliness and its problematic English, though the protagonist seemed like an individual experiencing a bit of trauma and allowing need to collapse ambiguity.

Review: Clarkesworld #143

Clarkesworld #143, August 2018

Original Fiction:

  • “The Veilonaut’s Dream” by Henry Szabranski (science fiction short story)
  • “The Anchorite Wakes” by R.S.A. Garcia (science fiction short story)
  • “Kingfisher” by Robert Reed (science fiction novelette)
  • “The Privilege of the Happy Ending” by Kij Johnson (fantasy novelette)

In “Privilege,” Ada and her talking chicken (and a damned fierce talking chicken it is) are driven from their home by the ravening horde of little monsters that periodically ravage the English countryside in the 12th century. Will they survive? Can anything be done about the nasty critters?

If someone were to intentionally write a story that would appeal to me less, they’d have their work cut out for them. This is a near-novella of a medieval fairy tale fantasy with an intrusive narrator  who constantly addresses the reader to talk about the storyness of the story while the sometimes archaic main narration uses a dozen words when one would do. However, none of this is unintentional and this sort of story does appeal to some so, if the meandering middle and handwaving ending doesn’t interfere, they might enjoy it. (Weird note: the start of the final action scene put me in mind of Aliens with a Chicken Ripley.)

Moving to the other novelette without escaping a fantasy feel, “Kingfisher” is a similar “short story in long story’s wordage,” so to speak. This takes the fun out of everything: a 700-word infodump a third into the story establishes that it’s set on a hyperfiber Beltrami pseudosphere starship which uses the cosmos for fuel (in the widest sense) in a striking way but this great setting is used to wander about with a feeble post-human sub who is slowly chasing after his repugnant “post-er-human” dom after they got separated a few zillion years ago. The whole thing feels like a middle with even less of an end than a beginning and with no characters to care about.

Anchorite” is a pseudo-Catholic science fantasy in which Sister Nadine is doing her hallucinatory religious things when she meets the Magic Child who is suffering domestic abuse before things absurdly transform into cosmic AI war. Though it has a science fictional kernel, the withholding of the nature of what’s going on, coupled with its muddy, unrealistic narrative approach makes it feel like fantasy and it essentially is.

Madeleine is a “Veilonaut,” or one who explores a veil-like rift in space beyond Pluto. Machines effectively fail to enter this veil (presumably because it’s dependent on a possibly naive version of the QM observer effect, which plays into the conclusion) so humans must explore it (fruitlessly so far) at great risk to themselves with people regularly “cut” or “lost” when the veil shifts: if they are partly in and partly out, they are chopped in two and, if all in, never return to the solar system. She’s a lucky one, being a veteran of many trips, but knows her luck may run out, especially when one of her two companions makes inauspicious comments before this story’s trip.

At first, I was thinking this was going to have to be really great to have any merit compared to Rogue Moon or even “Diamond Dogs” or any number of other contrived semi-magical “death machine stories” or Gateway with its similar lottery-like exploratory aspect but, even though it wasn’t great, it did end up seeming at least noteworthy for its clean, realistic narrative approach to its fuzzy subject matter and for effectively conveying the emotions involved in what happens with this trip’s complications.

Weekly Webzine Wrap-Up (2018-08-10)

Weekly Webzine Wrap-Up image

Original Fiction:

  • Copy Cat” by Alex Shvartsman & K. A. Teryna, Strange Horizons, August 6, 2018 (fantasy short story)
  • Home Cygnus” by S. R. Algernon, Nature, August 8, 2018 (science fiction short story)
  • Redlining at the End of the World” by Blake Montgomery, Terraform, August 10, 2018 (science fiction short story)

This week produced only three pieces, each of only one to two thousand words.

Copy Cat” bizarrely insists on all the things its cat protagonist can’t do (because it’s a real cat) in this fantasy about an impossibly intelligent cat doing impossible things. The significance of this contradiction, if it has any beyond a failed attempt at humor, escapes me. It also bizarrely suggests that we should enjoy a protagonist and his Leningrad cop friend singing “old Soviet songs” which goes beyond the bizarre and into bad taste at this time. “Home Cygnus” is a sequel to “In Cygnus and in Hell” which again stars Dorothy and carries the narrative to her choosing what to take with her on her interstellar voyage and deciding that some of the best things are not material. Unobjectionable, but unremarkable. “Redlining” is a very dull piece written as either an overlong news article from 2190 or an essay which lacks depth. It promotes the mistaken and divisive narratives which assume there are no poor white people (or rich black ones) and that racism is only a Southern issue. In this unimaginative piece, almost two hundred years from now, authorities in Texas, after Georgia’s example, will discriminate in favor of “wealthy white neighborhoods” and against “poor black ones” when it comes to protecting them from rising sea levels.

Review: Lightspeed #99

Lightspeed #99, August 2018

Original Fiction:

  • “A Bond as Deep as Starlit Seas” by Sarah Grey (science fiction short story)
  • “The Atonement Path” by Alex Irvine (science fiction short story)
  • “Scavenge, Rustic Hounds!” by Manuel Gonzales (fantasy short story)
  • “A Compendium of Architecture and the Science of Building” by Kate Elliott (fantasy short story)

All four stories deal with dystopian societies though I suspect the last isn’t supposed to be seen as such and is at least humanized by one of the Powers That Be. All four stories are readable and most have their strengths but none really stuck out for me. Each pair billed as SF and as fantasy contains a long short story (6-7K) and a shorter one (2.5K).

Bond” deals with a woman selling her semi-AI ship, which she’s named Cleo. The “middlewoman” is the Abbess who runs the Henza (whose name may be inspired by the c.1400 German “Hansa”) which is an unscrupulous, slave-driving politico-religious order whose deity is a goddess of trade. The woman is so sentimentally attached to her ship that she’s insisted on a clause against scrapping it and also insists on meeting the downstream buyer. Finally, after getting some wisdom from a barkeep, she goes back after her ship and things do not go well.

The protagonist, Jeri, is the main problem with this tale. Her sentimentality, which would be sympathy-inducing in small doses, is extreme (or the ship is not aesthetically sufficient for the story’s demands on it). She’s incredibly naive if not downright stupid as anyone can immediately see the problem with her clause to a middleman and she’s supposed to be an experienced merchant yet either has no idea who she’s dealing with or is insane for dealing with them. She’s hasty and a poor physical specimen as she’s easily and immediately incapacitated at one point. And she ultimately drags the plot down with her as it’s somewhat ridiculous that the Henza wouldn’t “indenture” Cleo with governors as well as doing a better job of restricting Jeri, making the supposed “suspense” of the ending moot. Aside from that, though, it does a good job of metamorphosing key elements of our own society into a science fantasy one.

The Atonement Path” is a relatively short Robert Browning-like monologue (though it does have a couple of inserts which break the monologue in fact, if not in feel) in which a lawyer describes his society’s juvenile justice system to a visitor. Some effect is achieved through the matter-of-fact approval of the lawyer calmly narrating awful things but I’m not sure I followed the ending line.

Also short and confusing, “Scavenge” describes a woman warning her husband that “the creatures” have arrived and are carting people away. Despite their best efforts, concentrated on saving the at-risk husband, both suffer in various ways. This is yet another “Lightmare” story in which Lightspeed‘s supposed “fantasy” is far more horrific than anything in the companion issue of Nightmare. The problem is that everything is either elliptical symbolism or doesn’t make sense at all and changes the rules of its own game once, if not again, with no (logical or discernibly aesthetic) rationale.

Finally, while “Compendium” is a hierarchical medievaloid tale in which wise old guys can build men out of boys if the boys are properly respectful, industrious, and driven, it comes as a relief from the other three tales in having a form of kindness within it. When the seemingly innocuous old architect’s fire goes out and he finds a boy hiding in a workshop, both their lives change. The architect is a sort of grand poobah and the boy is a commoner, yet a powerful cold mage. The old man adds his guidance to that of the nearby Hogwarts which has been misusing the boy. Not very dramatic or suspenseful and feels like a piece of a larger story or series, but done well enough, especially if you’re interested in exactly how many dabs of butter are alongside the porridge and other such details.

Review: Nightmare #71

Nightmare #71, August 2018

Original Fiction:

  • “Dead Air” by Nino Cipri (novelette)
  • “Crook’s Landing, by Scaffold” by G.V. Anderson (dark fantasy short story)

Dead Air” is listed at 10,204 words, but I only get 7,643. It’s a novelette, either way. It features Miss Nosy and Miss Dark Secret (basically the extent of the characterization) and details their romantic relationship and how Nosy talks Dark Secret into returning to her hometown of Garbled and re-visiting the scene of The Accident. Naturally, horror ensues. All this is told through the narrative gimmick of audio recordings and a third character giving really elaborate stage directions.

Crook’s Landing” is much more appealing though I should disclaim that I’m a sucker for posthumous fantasies (this isn’t really a horror story or even as dark a fantasy as it might be). In this “Bill? Barry?” is hanged two days after his younger brother and, as a crook, ends up in the titular place. Most people suffer almost instantaneous amnesia but BillBarry holds fast to his brother’s memory and looks all over Crook’s Landing and other afterplaces trying to find him. Finally, the murderers from Cutthroat Cove arrive to offer a deal. It’s all a little pat and has some really sentimental murderers and some other issues, but it was a decent read.

Weekly Webzine Wrap-Up (2018-08-04)

Weekly Webzine Wrap-Up image

Original Fiction:

  • Where the Gods Went” by J. Drake, Cosmic Roots and Eldritch Shores, July 29, 2018 (science fiction novelette)
  • Medium Matters” by R.K. Duncan, Diabolical Plots, August 1 , 2018 (fantasy short story)
  • The Tail of Danny Whiskers” by Fawaz Al-Matrouk, Nature, August 1 , 2018 (science fiction short story)
  • Loss of Signal” by S.B. Divya, Tor.com, August 1 , 2018 (science fiction short story)
  • A Legacy of Shadows” by Christopher M. Cevasco, Beneath Ceaseless Skies #257, August 2, 2018 (fantasy short story)
  • Old No-Eyes” by Christopher Mahon, Beneath Ceaseless Skies #257, August 2, 2018 (fantasy short story)
  • 2157” by Grant Maierhofer, Terraform, August 3 , 2018 (science fiction short story)

With seven stories, it seems like something ought to stick out but this is one of those unfortunate weeks where nothing does.

Medium Matters” is 2300-words of a brief question about exorcising ghosts and a long answer written by a deranged paranormal advice columnist with relationship issues. The theme of BCS this issue is “6000 word stories written by people named Christopher.” “A Legacy of Shadows” is a really ham-handed Message in which a guy has spent his life killing members of the species who killed his parents. He’s hired by the villagers of a half-Weird Western/half-medieval town to kill the local half-breed but, when his attempt to kill him goes awry, he realizes he’s been “stuck in a rut” and Learns Better. Nice Message; unsuccessful story. “Old No-Eyes” is not such a nice message as the simple, pseudo-Asian tale set in a room tells us that even becoming a transcended immortal ego-less person still apparently leaves room to harbor grudges and be vicious and evil. Maybe this says something about the cosmos but the story isn’t striking for anything besides brutality.

Three of the SF tales range from 2600 words down to 900. “Loss of Signal” is another Message (and quite a contrived one) about a young man with mother-issues who had a degenerative disease. This caused him to have his consciousness loaded into a spaceship which will perhaps show that disabled people can circumnavigate the Moon just as well as others have. (Last year’s “An Unexpected Boon,” from the same author, carries a similar message in a much more appealing and straightforwardly fantastic piece.) “Danny Whiskers” is another Message involving a scientist who’s modified a cat to be intelligent (which apparently comes with the ability to speak through a cat’s throat and mouth for free) despite laws to the contrary and their attempt to escape from the US to Canada. The cop who holds their fates in his hands delivers the moral of the story. You might be interested in “2157” if you enjoyed “Flesh Moves” in the same magazine or want more violent dystopian logorrhea; otherwise, you won’t.

The story that kept me the most off-balance this week was the “quarantine world” science fiction novelette, “Where the Gods Went.” It opens in a virtually incoherent way and spends its first 4900 words coming to make a little sense before the main story is covered in the last 2900 words. So it went from seeming like a bad opening to seeming like a good, in media res, no-infodump, sink-or-swim opening, to clearly being a ridiculously long prologue that could have been exchanged for an opening paragraph or for a few judicious sentences of backstory interspersed through the main story. That main story is summarized by the narrator’s “close third-person” on the Captain of the sabotaged spaceship: “All he had to do was bring back fuel from a death-trap of a planet and induce seven cut-throats to help save the captors hauling them in to judicial death while keeping an eye on a possibly insane first mate who would pilot an ancient rust-bucket of a fueler, [and] guide them through nightmare land…” That nightmare land does indeed turn the story into an SF horror tale which carries its own Message about where the gods are and what the significance of that is, delivered through the foils of the skeptical, rationalist ship’s doctor (who is a sort of Cro-Magnon for some reason) and the “possibly insane first mate.” The conclusion is also unsatisfying, as it seems to have no concern that a saboteur selfishly endangered everyone and consigned spear carriers to far more hideous deaths than they would have received in their “judicial deaths.” Still, while this tale, which hovered between TV sci-fi awfulness and van Vogtian good craziness (which some people might see as a distinction without a difference), wasn’t successful, its type of lack of success was certainly more interesting than that of the others’ this week.