Weekly Webzine Wrap-Up (2017-12-16)

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Beneath Ceaseless Skies and Nightmare were off this week, Grievous Angel didn’t have anything, and Tor.com is still “only sleeping,” so we only get singles from Diabolical Plots, Lightspeed, Nature, Strange Horizons, and Terraform. Those five stories give us two second-person present tense biter-bits and two cli-fi dystopias. Coincidentally (and thankfully) the one which is neither of these things is superb.

The Leviathans Have Fled the Sea” by Jon Lasser, Diabolical Plots, December 15, 2017, fantasy short story

After a bunch of whaling men got stuck in the sea ice, a bunch of whaling women took to the air and hunted the whales to extinction. The crew of one particular ship turns to hunting sirens and, after a catch, the captain’s life changes and perhaps the world does, too.

This gets points for juxtaposing some tired elements in a fresh way which creates an aura of interest but the moral of the story (one of two “humans suck and are destroying the world” tales in just this week) is too clear and too clearly moralistic and the pacing of the second half (and the whole resolution) falters.

The House at the End of the Lane Is Dreaming” by A. Merc Rustad, Lightspeed #91, December 2017, fantasy short story

This is partly a Lovecraftian Can’t-Choose-Your-Own-Adventure tale about a mysterious house, a mysterious book, a couple of sisters, and an incursion from Beyond. As such, this is one of this week’s two second-person present tense tales. This one has multiple “Act One”s interspersed with “Prologues” before finally moving on to additional acts but never relinquishes the fitful starts and stops and lather-rinse-repeat structures which it embellishes with collage elements of newspaper clippings and emails.

The artifice of the telling and the vagueness of the milieu and characters is all to the point as the story becomes a “godgame” tale (which makes it even less interesting than it had been, though it turns out have been the whole point) but it precludes any possible engagement (from me) and so (in my opinion) the story fails utterly. (And then the conclusion seems morally bankrupt.) This is another “wouldn’t have finished it except for having to review it” story.

Fifteen Minutes” by Alex Shvartsman, Nature, December 13, 2017, science fiction flash

In 2117, an AI keeps us monkeys around for sadistic entertainment, making us perform on the web for better food. So one man delivers a brief monologue about all this.

It doesn’t sound like much, but this is what I get for posting my “Web’s Best” early. This would likely have been in it (and may be in next year’s), especially at a mere 750 words or so. I can’t review this without spoiling it – even a hint could ruin it. I’ll add some spoiler notes in a comment to this post. All I can say for now is that its dark tone and conventionality are good things. Just please check it out and stick with it.

Sasabonsam” by Tara Campbell, Strange Horizons, December 11, 2017, fantasy short story

A man-eating tree-thing eats something which disagrees with it and we learn about pain, regret, infidelity, vengeance, and other fun things in less than 1800 second-person present tense words which feel like more.

An Incomplete Timeline of What We Tried” by Debbie Urbanski, Terraform, December 15, 2017, science fiction flash

This is not a story.
It is a list.
Like many stories this week, it makes reviewing an unpleasant task.

Literally: it’s a long (over one hundred item) list of inconsistently articulated statements in reverse order which decries our current and future actions regarding the environment and, while presumably intending to be cautionary, basically conveys an impression of hopelessness.

(And I assume this is by Debbie Urbanski. At the time of reading, Terraform had it as “Urbansk.” And golfing would be year “round” rather than “around” as an internal example of more errors.)

 

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Web’s Best Fantasy #1 (2017 Stories)

Web’s Best Fantasy #1 (2017 Stories)

Introduction

As with Web’s Best Science Fiction, Web’s Best Fantasy is a 70,000 word “virtual anthology” selected from the fifteen webzines I’ve covered throughout the year, with the contents selected solely for their quality, allowing that some consideration is paid to having variety in the reading experience. The contents were sequenced as best I could with the same concern in mind.

Enjoy!

Contents

Remote Presence * Susan Palwick
Lightspeed #83, April 2017

Though She Be But Little * C. S. E. Cooney
Uncanny #18, September/October 2017

When We Go * Evan Dicken
Beneath Ceaseless Skies #223, April 13, 2017

The Black Clover Equation * Zach Shephard
Flash Fiction Online, April 2017

An Unexpected Boon * S. B. Divya
Apex #102, November 2017

Crossing the Threshold * Pat Murphy
Lightspeed #85, June 2017

The Dark Birds * Ursula Vernon
Apex #92, January 2017

The Garbage Doll * Jessica Amanda Salmonson
Nightmare #53, February 2017

The Dead Father Cookbook * Ashley Blooms
Strange Horizons, July 17, 2017

Marking the Witch * Lina Rather
Flash Fiction Online, February 2017

The Şiret Mask * Marie Brennan
Beneath Ceaseless Skies #238, November 9, 2017

The Library of Lost Things * Matthew Bright
Tor.com, August 23, 2017

The West Topeka Triangle * Jeremiah Tolbert
Lightspeed #80, January 2017

Web’s Best Science Fiction #1 (2017 Stories)

Web’s Best Science Fiction #1 (2017 Stories)

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Introduction

Web’s Best Science Fiction #1 is a “virtual anthology” of 70,000 words of the best science fiction the professional webzines published in 2017*. Web’s Best Fantasy will cover the fantasy stories. The stories for both “volumes” were chosen from fifteen markets: Apex Magazine, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Clarkesworld Magazine, Compelling Science Fiction, Diabolical Plots, Fantastic Stories of the Imagination, Flash Fiction Online, Grievous Angel, Lightspeed, Nature, Nightmare, Strange Horizons, Terraform, Tor.com, and Uncanny**.

When Gardner Dozois took over the editorship of Best Science Fiction Stories of the Year from Lester del Rey with the Sixth Annual Collection, he wrote an introduction to that volume which said “Best” volumes “should really be called ‘Gardner Dozois Picks the Stories He Liked Best This Year’ or ‘Terry Carr Really Enjoyed These Stories,’ or some such.” He went on to say that his principles include selecting “only those stories that honestly and forcibly struck me as being the best published during that year, with no consideration for log-rolling, friendship, fashion, politics, or any other kind of outside influence.” Similarly, these are the stories I liked best this year. I liked them for their science fictional qualities and tried to separate those as much as I could from any other consideration beyond that of attempting to create an actual reading experience with this virtual anthology. The main significance of that is that having variety also plays a small role in the selection process. For instance, I would not be likely to include two stories from the same author or too many stories with strikingly similar elements. In addition to the selection, the sequencing of the stories also aims to produce a good and varied reading experience if the reader chooses to read straight through.

While I would have liked to have found more great upbeat, science-focused, and/or space-based stories than I did, I think these stories (even at their darkest and loosest) show that the state of the art in the upper echelon of Sturgeon’s Law is good. I hope folks have enjoyed or will enjoy these as much as I did.

 Notes

* Most of the title of this “book” is a play on the title of Donald Wollheim and Terry Carr’s World’s Best Science Fiction series of annuals from 1965-71, along with Carr’s numbering practice from his own subsequent The Best Science Fiction of the Year series (though he didn’t number the first volume). The length is a homage to Isaac Asimov’s ideal length for a book, as explained in the introduction to his 70,000 word essay collection, Science, Numbers, and I. Akin to a “fiscal year,” this “fictional year” covers January 1st-December 10th. (The first ten days produced twenty-four stories and the remaining three weeks should produce fifteen at most. Those later stories will be considered for #2.)

** For clarity, while fifteen markets were covered, only eleven are represented in the Web’s Bests. Among the most significant happenings in the 2017 webzine market: Compelling Science Fiction became SFWA-qualified but dropped from bimonthly to biannual at the end of this year; Fantastic Stories of the Imagination died at the beginning of the year; Grievous Angel became SFWA-qualified; Terraform disappeared for awhile in the middle of the year but returned as an SFWA-qualified market; Tor.com has been faltering near the end of the year. The rest of the market was relatively stable.

Contents

Uncanny Valley * Greg Egan
Tor.com, August 9, 2017

Little /^^^\&- * Eric Schwitzgebel
Clarkesworld #132, September 2017

Rising Star * Stephen Graham Jones
Uncanny #15, March/April 2017

Tav * Dustin Kennedy
Compelling #5, February/March 2017

Seven Permutations of My Daughter * Lina Rather
Lightspeed #83, April 2017

Cease and Desist * Tyler Young
Nature, January 18, 2017

Sweetlings * Lucy Taylor
Tor.com, May 3, 2017

Legale * Vernor Vinge
Nature, August 9, 2017

Penelope Waits * Dennis Danvers
Apex #101, October 2017

Fool’s Cap * Andy Dudak
Clarkesworld #129, June 2017

This Is for You * Bruce McAllister
Lightspeed #84, May 2017

The Martian Obelisk * Linda Nagata
Tor.com, July 19, 2017

A Series of Steaks * Vina Jie-Min Prasad
Clarkesworld #124, January 2017

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”).

Review: Apex #103

 

Apex #103, December 2017

Cover of Apex #103

“Behind Her, Trailing Like Butterfly Wings” by Daniela Tomova (short story)
“The Edge of Things” by Katharine E. K. Duckett (short story)

At least in terms of the two original stories, Apex #103 could be the “quantum mechanics will get you in the end” literary science fantasy issue and that sort of pessimism and fuzziness isn’t often to my taste but both are readable and have their points.

“Behind Her, Trailing Like Butterfly Wings” by Daniela Tomova (short story)

A reporter from the “oasis people” is interviewing an electricity vendor of the “road people” in a time when “mouths” or “irregularities” open up, sometimes even in oases and often on the sides of the “road,” which is a path walked by the semi-mythical Wandering Woman. Her followers believe “mouths cannot open up where she walks.” These mouths are extremely unpleasant. The vendor describes the aftermath of a collapse of an oasis as:

“Nothing left but crumbs from houses and streets going places you don’t want to be. People half-glued to the asphalt, half inside a hole stretched in time. That second half still not having realized what happened to them. No government left to clean out the bodies, you see.

[Refugees] said some of those people have started screaming now and they will be screaming long after what’s left outside is bones. To the inside only a few minutes, or maybe at most a couple of days if they are really unlucky, will pass before they die but a few minutes of watching your body decay and disintegrate, that is…”

He shudders.

Most of the story is just the conversation of the two people, though there is a harrowing scene of a real-time seizure of a couple of people by a mouth. The conversation does eventually reveal something of the reporter’s history and motivation and results in a revelation about the Wandering Woman.

The tale’s foreground or surface is mostly simple and vivid while its background or foundation is complex and surreal. There are moments of interest but not a lot of action or even much to firmly engage with conceptually. This was the more interesting of the issue’s stories and may appeal to some but still didn’t really work for me.

“The Edge of Things” by Katharine E. K. Duckett (short story)

The nameless protagonist is wandering through a surreal hallucinatory existence, sometimes tinged with horror, which resembles a party of strange people in a strange house. (At one point, a guest offers, “LSD?” and the protagonist laughs and says, “I don’t think I need any.”) Over the course of the story, she eventually makes some progress toward “going sane,” or “going mad backwards.”

This genre bender seems almost to say “idle minds are the devil’s universe” but I’m sure you can make it say any number of things. While I didn’t entirely, some may enjoy this trip.

Review: Clarkesworld #135

Clarkesworld #135, December 2017

Cover of Clarkesworld #135

“The Rains on Mars” by Natalia Theodoridou (science fiction short story)
“Crossing LaSalle” by Lettie Prell (science fiction short story)
“Falling in Love with Martians and Machines” by Josh Pearce (science fiction novelette)
“Darkness, Our Mother” by Eleanna Castroianni (science fiction short story)
“Landmark” by Cassandra Khaw (science fiction short story)

I’d had it in my head that Clarkesworld was one of my favorite zines or at least in the upper half but this has been a weird year. A handful of stories have been superb to me and some of those are among the year’s best but the vast majority have been anything but. Alas, this issue is more of the vast majority, though your mileage may vary. In this particular issue, every single story is very dark (and not in the fun way), most are heavily overwritten, and most are fantasy or mainstream in SF’s clothing.

“The Rains on Mars” by Natalia Theodoridou (science fiction short story)

A miner whose brother was killed due to the miner’s debts has become an insane wreck and gotten another mining job far away to try to escape his past. “Far away” is “Mars,” which is all the SF you’re gonna get out of this. Might as well be mining in Arizona. In that “faux SF” regard, it is similar to “The Nightingales in Platres” by the same author in an earlier issue of the same magazine.

This story is so monotonously mawkish and the protagonist is such a passive puddle of nothing and the story is so simple that there’s really nothing to get out of this.

I’m to be sent back to Earth. On my own dime, too. Only fair. To do what? Ray can’t answer that, and neither can I, because who knows, and who cares.

Indeed.

“Crossing LaSalle” by Lettie Prell (science fiction short story)

This is a border crossing story (equal parts Chicago, Korea, and Styx) where the protagonist makes her way through the “Love Life”rs (who hate those they see as anti-life) to the “Newbody” folks (who seem to be personalities uploaded into robots). She delivers a big revelation at the end.

This is an oddly confusing story considering that the gist is easy to get because it’s so conventional. The twist at the end actually makes the story worse, leading to a kind of emotionally and practically vacuous conclusion. This tale is also a lot like the author’s earlier “The Three Lives of Sonata James” in a different magazine, except not as good.

“Falling in Love with Martians and Machines” by Josh Pearce (science fiction novelette)

The protagonist of this story reminds me of Sondra Locke’s Lynn Halsey-Taylor from Every Which Way but Loose. And instead of good-hearted brawler Philo Beddoe, you get a version of her “pimp”ly guy who is a cyborg racer as the male lead. And instead of any efforts at humor, you get more malaise. But the pointlessness of the plot remains. Basically, there’s a war of some kind on and the world is made up of military cyborgs and racer cyborgs who, for whatever reason, couldn’t cut it as military. So this pseudo-hooker with a heart of stone and her guy du jour are cruising around making money from races so they can go to more races and make more money, with loftier goals someday. And then the Martian ladies arrive and things take a right turn, Clyde.

There’s no one to like here and no plot to get involved in and the milieu and tech are so obliquely revealed and inexplicably motivated as to be meaningless in any literal sense. At least the word-by-word prose is fairly direct (which is true of only this and “Crossing LaSalle” in this issue).

(I can’t find the original Neo Tokyo/“Running Man” anime of a futuristic, nihilistic car race but it would be better to watch it (adapted here into the video to a song) than to read this. To be fair, only a key scene and some of the theme in this story seem almost identical to the animation but the anime is much better done and more interesting. And shorter.)

“Darkness, Our Mother” by Eleanna Castroianni (science fiction short story)

A woman lays a trap for a man in a labyrinth but things don’t go as planned.

I don’t know which is less likely: that Minoans had starflight or that Minoan society was accidentally recreated on an alien world, but those seem to be the options. The landscape (“planet”) of this tale is called “Cemar,” the Labyrinth is called the “Womb” and is a relic of a spaceship, and the casting of magic spells is described as “I have woven a thread of hypercomplex numbers that can copy the prince’s likeness…”) which are the only reasons I can see for this being in Clarkesworld rather than BCS. It’s ultimately a rhapsody on vengeance and is about as appealing as that sounds. No Aeschylean ascension to a concept of the Eumenides here.

“Landmark” by Cassandra Khaw (science fiction short story)

This uses some confusingly presented form of proxy bodies and space travel as metaphors for depressing romantic relationships in a painfully overwritten 1600 words which feel like 16,000 but would only require 160 if not for the logorrhea.

“But—”

The word hangs between us, a dead satellite in the nothing, its belly gravid with stillborn dialogue. I want to ask you what I’d missed, the minutiae of simply existing, each day in sequence, no variegation in their consumption. Already, I’ve forgotten if it’s been a week, a day, a year since we’ve spoken, if this conversation is prior to the last, if it is years after. The cartography of your features remain unchanged. It cannot have been that long.

Review: Flash Fiction Online, December 2017

 

Flash Fiction Online, December 2017

Cover of Flash Fiction Online, December 2017

This is a quickie. For whatever reason, two stories in this issue are billed as “literary” while one is the usual reprint, leaving only one to review. That is

“The First Stop Is Always the Last” by John Wiswell (fantasy short story)

This is a Groundhog’s Day with a woman who drives a bus and a woman coming from a very important funeral. The movie is, among other things, about a guy pursuing a girl and becoming a better person in the process while this is about a girl dealing with loss, worrying about her new job, and pursuing a girl almost incidentally. Adequately executed but the movie’s much better.