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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Collated Contents of the Big Year’s Bests (2017 Stories, with Links!)

Last year, I collated and linked to the webzine stories picked by Clarke, Dozois, Horton, and Strahan for their annuals. This year, I’ll collate all the selections. (I’ll also note whether I’ve read them and, if so, whether they got an honorable mention, a recommendation, or were recommendations which made my Web’s Best Science Fiction or Web’s Best Fantasy.) So check back as the editors make their announcements and I continue to update this post.

On December 15, Jonathan Strahan announced the contents of The Best Science Fiction & Fantasy Volume 12. (Thanks to dolphintornsea at the F&SF forums.)

One Annual: Strahan

  • “The Mocking Tower”, Daniel Abraham (The Book of Swords) [unread]
  • “Don’t Press Charges and I Won’t Sue”, Charlie Jane Anders (Boston Review) [unread]
  • Probably Still the Chosen One”, Kelly Barnhill (Lightspeed) [honorable mention]
  • “My English Name”, R. S. Benedict (The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction) [unread]
  • “Zen and the Art of Starship Maintenance”, Tobias Buckell (Cosmic Powers) [unread]
  • Though She Be But Little”, C.S.E. Cooney (Uncanny) [Web’s Best Fantasy]
  • “The Moon is Not a Battlefield”, Indrapramit Das (Infinity Wars) [read]
  • “The Hermit of Houston”, Samuel R. Delany (The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction) [read]
  • “The Discrete Charm of the Turing Machine”, Greg Egan (Asimov’s Science Fiction) [unread]
  • Crispin’s Model”, Max Gladstone (Tor.com) [honorable mention]
  • Come See the Living Dryad”, Theodora Goss (Tor.com) [recommended]
  • “Bring Your Own Spoon”, Saad Z. Hossain (The Djinn Falls in Love) [unread]
  • “Babylon”, Dave Hutchison, 2084 [unread]
  • The Faerie Tree”, Kathleen Kayembe (Lightspeed) [honorable mention]
  • “Fairy Tale of Wood Street”, Caitlin R Kiernan (Sirenia Digest) [unread]
  • The Worshipful Society of Glovers”, Mary Robinette Kowal (Uncanny) [read]
  • “An Evening with Severyn Grimes”, Rich Larson (Asimov’s Science Fiction) [unread]
  • “The Chameleon’s Gloves”, Yoon Ha Lee (Cosmic Powers) [unread]
  • “The Smoke of Gold is Glory”, Scott Lynch (The Book of Swords) [unread]
  • “Sidewalks”, Maureen McHugh (Omni) [unread]
  • Concessions”, Khaalidah Muhammad-Ali (Strange Horizons) [read]
  • The Martian Obelisk”, Linda Nagata (Tor.com) [Web’s Best Science Fiction]
  • The Secret Life of Bots”, Suzanne Palmer (Clarkesworld) [read]
  • A Series of Steaks”, Vina Jie-Min Prasad (Clarkesworld) [Web’s Best Science Fiction]
  • “Belladonna Nights”, Alastair Reynolds (The Weight of Words) [unread]
  • “Eminence”, Karl Schroeder (Chasing Shadows) [unread]
  • The Lamentation of their Women”, Kai Ashante Wilson (Tor.com) [read]
  • “Confessions of a Con Girl”, Nick Wolven (Asimov’s Science Fiction) [unread]
  • Carnival Nine”, Caroline M. Yoachim (Beneath Ceaseless Skies) [read]

Other 2017 Recommendations

The only things eligible for the Web’s Best science fiction and fantasy lists were, naturally, those science fiction and fantasy pieces first published on the generally accessible web. That doesn’t cover all the 2017 (or so) short fiction I read and enjoyed, though, and I wanted to round those up. Some would have made the “Best of 2017” and some wouldn’t but they’re all at least the “Very Good of 2017.”

Two excellent stories I read which were billed as fantasy but struck me as “mainstream with a speculative sensibility” were “The Living Dryad” by Theodora Goss (Tor.com, March 9, 2017 – as science fictional as it was fantastic, incidentally) and “Claire Weinraub’s Top Five Sea Monster Stories (For Allie)” by Evan Berkow (Flash Fiction Online, October 2017).

Take Us To Your Chief” by Drew Hayden Taylor (reprinted in the January 30, 2017 Strange Horizons) was also excellent and even SF, but was originally from Take Us to Your Chief and Other Stories (2016).

Finally, I did twenty-one reviews for Tangent this year (and another in 2016 of a 2017 anthology) and twelve were not of webzines. The stories I recommended from those were:

  • “The Catastrophe of Cities” by Lisa Goldstein (Asimov’s, January/February 2017)
  • “Command and Control” by David D. Levine (Infinity Wars, September 2017)
  • “Down and Out” by Ken Wharton (Science Fiction by Scientists, January 2017; reprinted in Compelling #4, December 2016/January 2017)
  • “Fatherbond” by Tom Purdom (Asimov’s, January/February 2017)
  • “The Gatherer of Sorrows” by J. M. Sidorova (Science Fiction by Scientists, January 2017)
  • “Heavies” by Rich Larson (Infinity Wars, September 2017)
  • “Hollywood Squid” by Oliver Buckram (F&SF, September/October 2017)
  • “In Everlasting Wisdom” by Aliette de Bodard (Infinity Wars, September 2017)
  • “Pieces of Ourselves” by Robert R. Chase (Asimov’s, January/February 2017)
  • “The Speed of Belief” by Robert Reed (Asimov’s, January/February 2017)
  • “Starlight Express” by Michael Swanwick (F&SF, September/October 2017)
  • “Sunflower Junction” by Simon Avery (Black Static #57, March/April 2017)
  • “The Transmuted Child” by Michael Reid (Interzone #268, January/February 2017)
  • “Tree With Chalicotheres” by Vicki Saunders (Cosmic Roots and Eldritch Shores, July 2017)
  • “Weather Girl” by E. J. Swift (Infinity Wars, September 2017)
  • “ZeroS” by Peter Watts (Infinity Wars, September 2017)

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

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: F&SF, January/February 2018

 

The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, January/February 2018

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(On sale January 2, 2018)

“Widdam” by Vandana Singh (novelette)
“Aurelia” by Lisa Mason (short story)
“Neanderthals” by Gardner Dozois (short story)
“Jewel of the Heart” by Matthew Hughes (novella)
“A List of Forty-Nine Lies” by Steven Fisher (short story)
“An Equation of State” by Robert Reed (short story)
“Galatea in Utopia” by Nick Wolven (novelette)
Plumage from Pegasus: “Toy Sorry” by Paul di Filippo (short story)
“The Equationist” by J. D. Moyer (short story)
“A Feather in Her Cap” by Mary Robinette Kowal (short story)
“The Donner Party” by Dale Bailey (novelette)

F&SF begins the year with a generally solid, workmanlike issue in which most people will find something to like (and probably something to dislike). While I found only the Wolven to be particularly striking (with an honorable mention to the Fisher), the Singh, Mason, Moyer, and Bailey have powerful aspects and most of the others also have their points. Seven of the tales are some sort of SF and four are not (with a couple of the latter being horror).

“Widdam” by Vandana Singh (novelette)

In the first, third, and fifth sections of this dense novelette we learn how Dinesh views “the Monster, the World-Destroying World Machine, the WDWM. Widdam,” as he’s named the emergent socio-economic system that rules all. The most notable manifestation of this, besides the absence of winter due to climate change, is the development of “Saurs” and other “sentient megamachines” who are digging up the ocean, changing the Arctic, and even reshaping the Moon in pursuit of resources and profits for their corporate masters. Some people are fighting back and have enabled some of these megamachines to go rogue, with varying results. In contrast to the Indian Dinesh’s extremely negative viewpoint, the story shifts briefly to a second section focusing on another “Indian,” the Native American Val and her interaction with one of these rogues. In the fourth (and oddly melodramatic and implausible) section, we meet Jan, the son of Carl Johansson, who was the Swedish roboticist who made the sentient megamachine breakthrough and then fell off the map, and we learn what happened with him. All this serves to paint a picture of our vast “autofac” and our possibilities of dealing with it.

However accurate Dinesh’s perspective may be, in aesthetic terms I was initially put off by its unrelenting negativity. However, the story grew on me and became quite interesting, especially in Val’s much more varied and less pessimistic section. Ultimately, the story didn’t have enough of a plot or drama (except in its largest “We’re all gonna die!” sense) to work for me, but it definitely had its points of interest.

“Aurelia” by Lisa Mason (short story)

Robert is a lawyer who receives a very strange client one day. They fall in love and get married and life is strange but wonderful until the strangeness grows and bad things happen. But, after Robert gets a divorce, worse is yet to come.

If you read and enjoyed “Riddle” by the same author in the September/October issue, you’ll probably enjoy this similar neo-gothic tale with a very unusually conceived femme monstrueuse; if not, not. This one leaves me with the same slightly nauseous feeling (which some people may go for). I also have a problem with the uneasy, implausible mixture of the mundane and weird worlds and the minimization of the latter by the former: incurious cops and medical examiners, people seeing plainly “impossible” things and writing it off as another person’s insanity, etc.

“Neanderthals” by Gardner Dozois (short story)

Using the avowedly very familiar gimmick of changewars, this short (c.2200 word) story describes a time traveling cyborg assassin landing in a place and time in which neanderthals have either been transported in from the past or recreated by geneticists. Two of these guard the assassin’s target: a drug dealer who works for the Other Side. The job goes oddly and the story tells us a bit about human nature.

If the neanderthal felt as he did, I’m not sure why he didn’t try to recruit his fellow neanderthal rather than biding his time until a human assassin happened to show up, but it does allow the two to have their conversation. And that’s fundamentally all the story is, but it has a somewhat neo-noir tone and style, with SF concepts flying around, and an implicit deep backstory.

“Jewel of the Heart” by Matthew Hughes (novella)

In this third installment of Baldemar’s adventures, that wizard’s henchman is sent on a quest for the “Jewel of the Heart” by a magic Helm at about the same time a pair of wizards are attacking his master. He and the Helm come to an agreement about handling the conflict (the Helm likes him) and he heads off into a fantasy metafiction adventure which has scenes reminiscent of Jack and the Beanstalk with a hint of the Wizard of Oz, a Wild West scene, and even a biker scene. All that is prelude to a gray mist scene which resolves into a new world and a new adventure (where “dream” and “story” are contrasted) and around we go before finally reaching a conclusion which partakes of the Ouroboros and the Cheshire Cat.

People who like fantasy stories which are self-consciously, explicitly about Story and who don’t mind picaresque fantasias of plots (driven mostly by the protagonist’s convenient “instinct”) may enjoy this tale which seems stylistically sound and has moments of weirdness and humor. However, at one point the protagonist

…itemized on his gloved fingers: “A giant’s heart, a jewel, a key, and things that come in threes — it’s all mysteries and fables. I’ve had enough.”

and, long before the more than 22,000 words are up, some readers may agree with him.

“A List of Forty-Nine Lies” by Steven Fisher (short story)

When you strip this tiny 525-word story of its telling, it’s “my wife and kid were killed by a dictatorship which has taken over the planet and I’m preparing to detonate a bomb to signal the Revolt.” The telling might even be dismissed as a gimmick. I don’t think it should be, though, as it quickly, effectively, and powerfully evokes pain, paranoia, and desperation. That’s not quite enough to fully recommend it, but it’s certainly noteworthy.

“An Equation of State” by Robert Reed (short story)

An alien diplomat and army arrive in a system significant only as a battlefield but, when the battle doesn’t seem to occur, the diplomat successfully lobbies for a side-mission and travels to a world in the system to investigate the natives. After being a horse in the Civil War and then a rat and other creatures (including hairless apes) in other wars, it’s achieved a strange relationship with those natives. When its superiors decide that, after two centuries, its time is up, it does not act according to plan.

It’s sort of remarkable how much this story feels like a darker, more bilious version of “Jewel of the Heart” in that it has a sort of surreal, meandering progress from one thing to another. It moves with much greater speed and force, however. This meditation on strife may have its fans.

“Galatea in Utopia” by Nick Wolven (novelette)

Rick lives in a world of “chambers” where, given prior implants and mods, almost everyone’s bodies can be reshaped into any gender or race they want. Rick is an inveterate changer and, before a night on the town, decides to go 100% female sex bomb. This has interesting results when s/he meets Alan, who informs Rick he’s a “permanent”: a person who had a condition in childhood which has prevented him from ever changing at all aside from the effects of aging. What follows is a whirlwind tour through their highly charged and difficult sexual relationship, with revelations in store.

This story may have something to offend every one in these days of offensensitivity. On the one hand, people at odds with today’s social preoccupations may take a dislike to this and, on the other, people looking to be outraged might find traces of old stereotypes. But, really, this is a story that shouldn’t be all that shocking, in that it reads a lot like Varley’s sex change future from the 1970s or even some of Heinlein’s experiments. It’s a very active story which, while lacking a crime/spy/etc.-type plot of interlocking logical pieces, does have a tight flow of action based on emotional beats. The protagonist has a clear and funny narrative voice. And the story is thought-provoking. It does have what might be seen as flaws (what would probably be anachronistic references to baseball cards and other pop culture phenomena; a lack of extrapolation – seems like a world where everyone can become everyone else would be ripe for crime/spy/etc. stories even more than relationship stories but there’s no hint of these issues) but none of the problems detract significantly from the story’s main interests. I recommend it.

Plumage from Pegasus: “Toy Sorry” by Paul di Filippo (short story)

In this long flash piece, some kids in 2036 receive interactive books complete with AI author dolls and learn what makes authors tick. Extremely “meta” but readable.

“The Equationist” by J. D. Moyer (short story)

This minimally science fictional story is the biography of a math savant who sees the life patterns of people and societies as being analogous to mathematical functions but has trouble identifying his own and deciding whether and how to change those of others.

This story, despite what a synopsis might lead one to expect, is initially very quirky and funny and creates a sympathy with the protagonist. Unfortunately, towards the end, it started to lose me, being a little too leisurely and extended when the basic ideas had already been established and the humor had been humored. The declining curve of engagement eventually rose again, but without all the early magic. However, it may constantly ascend for some.

“A Feather in Her Cap” by Mary Robinette Kowal (short story)

Biantera is a down-on-her-luck ex-heiress who’s taken up hat-making for a career, supplementing that income with assassination. When a client learns her identity and refuses to pay, she recruits a thief-friend to help with her revenge. Turns out sneaking into a rich guy’s house and trying to rob and poison him is even more exciting than they’d imagined.

This minimally fantastic story is adequate though underwhelming, given that the protagonist isn’t particularly engaging and it’s pretty pat with a natural, but not rousing, end. I also don’t follow the logic of her plan, which is to only sicken her adversary. If his knowing her identity is a problem in addition to his lack of payment and if he might seek re-revenge for her revenge, wouldn’t it be wiser to plan to kill him after robbing him? Plus there seems to be a contradiction between wanting and not wanting him to know who visited him. Be that as it may, this was entertaining enough.

“The Donner Party” by Dale Bailey (novelette)

Another angle on the widdam. Mrs. Breen is a social climber in an alternate Victorian England where the eating of “ensouled flesh” (cannibalism) is a treasured right and rite of the titled class and their friends. After making friends with the powerful Lady Donner and then rashly making an enemy of her after a perceived slight, we learn just how far Mrs. Breen and her husband are willing to go to advance themselves.

A relatively trivial issue is that a section of the story begins “The Breens began the Season that followed with the highest of hopes.¶They were borne out.” Yet what follows is anything but their hopes being borne out. Far more importantly, this story attempts a Victorian English style which seems awkward and sluggish. In more ambiguous terms, while the outre social habit is handled in a very believable way, generally, I have to wonder if there aren’t at least some laws regarding it (or at least a mention that some are immune to them) and I have to wonder when the practice originated because the religious conversation about “the body of Christ” would seem to give the practice even more social weight than it has (which is a lot). I also have to wonder how the finale was prepared so quickly. Aside from those quibbles, it is remarkable how well the literal and metaphorical parts of this “modest proposal” fit. Compared to so many stories in which the literal foreground of a story is nonsensical or contradictory because it’s driven by thematic concerns, this story’s literal and symbolic elements dovetail nicely. This story isn’t to my taste but some may savor it.