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.

Weekly Webzine Wrap-Up (2018-08-10)

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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.

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.

Summation: July 2018

Here are the fifteen noted stories (four recommended) from the 92 stories of 503 Kwds I read from the July issues along with links to all their reviews and the other July posts on Featured Futures. This month’s wombat was a remarkable number of mostly print SF honorable mentions while all the few other items (except an excellent F&SF dark fantasy) came from the web.

Noted Stories

Recommended

Science Fiction

  • Chasing the Start” by Evan Marcroft, Strange Horizons, July 9, 2018 (novelette)
  • The Nearest” by Greg Egan, Tor.com, July 19, 2018 (novelette)

Fantasy

  • “Hainted” by Ashley Blooms, F&SF, July/August 2018 (short story)
  • A Song of Home, the Organ Grinds” by James Beamon, Lightspeed #98, July 2018 (short story)

Honorable Mentions

Science Fiction

  • “Broken Wings” by William Ledbetter, F&SF, July/August 2018 (novelette)
  • “A Crystal Dipped in Dreams” by Auston Habershaw, Analog, July/August 2018 (novelette)
  • “Left to Take the Lead” by Marissa Lingen, Analog, July/August 2018 (novelette)
  • Resigned” by Floris M. Kleijne, Galaxy’s Edge #33, July/August 2018 (short story)
  • “Starship Mountain” by Allen M. Steele, Asimov’s, July/August 2018 (novella)
  • “True Jing” by Zack Be, Asimov’s, July/August 2018 (novelette)
  • “Until We Are Utterly Destroyed” by Frank Wu, Analog, July/August 2018 (novelette)
  • Your Face” by Grace Tang, Nature, July 11, 2018 (short story)

Fantasy

Reviews

Magazines

News

SF Miscellany: Magazines/Books, WorldCon Kerfuffle, Grand Masters

Over the past month or so, I was struck by the discrepancy between magazine and book content, aspects of book marketing, the latest in the interminable line of WorldCon fights, and the deaths of great and honored SF luminaries which prompted thoughts on who remains to be honored. I thought these might become detailed and considered posts but, as usual, I just went with a hodge-podge. I am sure about the last section, though.

Where the Readers Aren’t

With “How Do You Buy Your Science Fiction in 2018?Auxiliary Memory brought us another fascinating post, this time about the science fiction market. I was also most struck by slide 35, though for my own reasons.

Slide35-1024x768

(Before I even start, I have to note that there are several problems with the slide. First, I have no idea how temporal/qualitative descriptions like “Classics,” subject genres like “Military,” source categories like “TV… Adaptations,” structural categories like “Anthologies,” and formal genres like “Short Stories” are treated as equivalent. Second, I have no idea why “Anthologies” and “Short Stories” appear twice, the second time combined with each other. I also have no idea what the difference between “Alternate History” and “Alternative History” could be. So the slide has to be taken with a grain of salt but I still think it demonstrates some general truth.)

Here’s the question prompted by the slide which should occur to all SF magazine editors and lovers of short fiction: if LGBT, Alternate History, Steampunk, “Metaphysical & Visionary” and Time Travel sell so little and Military, Adventure, Space Opera, First Contact, Genetic Engineering, Galactic Empire, Hard Science Fiction, Colonization, and Space Exploration sell more, why does the vast majority of magazine (especially webzine) science fiction I read deal with the former categories (or similar) more than the latter and might this be a contributing factor in the increasing irrelevance of short fiction? (The sole reach for a wide readership I see in magazine SF is the negative and probably incidental one of Post-Apocalyptic/Dystopian.)

There are probably many answers of various kinds but one that occurs to me is that, in these days of low overhead and a market of dozens and dozens of magazines, all that’s needed is a fanatically loyal niche readership, much like a cable TV show vs. the shared culture of the pre-cable era. But if people want short SF to compete in the general marketplace and get it something like the honor it had and deserves (which is admittedly tough for several reasons), it might be better to go where the general SF reader’s hearts and minds are.

Variety Is the Spice

If all is not ideal in short fiction, there are issues at book length, too. As always, I was struck by the nature of the books listed in Locus’ “New Books” posts. Saying that I’m looking for a non-YA SF singleton doesn’t sound too restrictive. According to the last two posts from the 17th and 24th (which are very typical in these matters) this is what I have to choose from:

  • Satirical fantasy novel…series
  • Steampunk fantasy novel…third in a series
  • Epic fantasy novel, second in a series
  • Fantasy novel, first in a series
  • Fantasy novel, first in a series
  • Fantasy novel, second in a series
  • Fantasy novel, second in a series
  • Fantasy novel, third in a trilogy
  • Alternate history fantasy novel
  • Contemporary fantasy novel
  • Horror novel, first in a series
  • [YA] SF novel… first in a series
  • [YA] Short SF novel
  • [YA] SF novel
  • Young adult SF novel
  • Young adult SF novel
  • Young adult sf novel
  • Humorous space opera novel, third in a series
  • Military SF novel, third in a series
  • SF novel, second in a series
  • SF thriller
  • Collection of [a series of] 18 stories…about a giant mountain man in the Old West
  • Collection of [a series of] five stories about a post-apocalypse ex-government assassin turned bounty-hunter
  • Collection of 16 stories

If I get a little more restrictive and say I’m not interested in a “thriller” or the Old West or a post-apocalypse, I’m down to one book. If I want it to be a novel and/or in mass-market paperback, the counter hits zero. And so it goes…

WorldCondemnation

I’m not involved in fandom in any way except, y’know, being a fanatic about SF and reading and writing about it constantly. I’m sympathetic to some of the Sad Puppies’ desires for more “fun” in SF and a broader reach for it. I’m not sympathetic to some of their non-literary excesses, though (nor those of their opponents). Either way, it turns out the Sad Puppies were right about one thing, at least. Now that they’re not there to kick around any more, the Worldcon folks have turned on each other (as they used to do before the Puppies). Currently, a lot of people are complaining about the vast evil right-wing straight white male conspiracy which is keeping them from their entitlement of being on important panels and I was reminded of a video of a panel I’d seen while mourning Gardner Dozois. So I thought I’d point out how people like Dozois, George R. R. Martin, and Howard Waldrop were treated. I hope the video goes straight to 19:41 or so but, if not, you can fast forward there. The relevant segment ends at 24:55 or so. (Note that, at one place, Martin says “1985” and “1986” when he meant “1975” and “1976.”)

Grrr. Since it turns out the site owner has inexplicably disabled playback on other sites, you can either click the youtube button on the “unembed” above or this link.

Help Me, SFWA Prez, You’re My Only Hope

From one award to another.

As the last section relates to Gardner Dozois’ recent death, so this one was specifically triggered by Ellison’s (and there were a couple of Ellison anecdotes in the clip above). I got to wondering which of my favorite authors from earlier decades were still alive. I have several (overflowing) cases of SF books which contain an “era” per case. People who started in the 30s and 40s are in one case. They are all dead now. People who started in the 50s and 60s (with maybe three who started in the 40s but really started in the 50s) are in the next case. With Harlan Ellison’s death, they are now all dead except the Grand Masters Larry Niven and Robert Silverberg, the Author Emeritus Katherine MacLean, and… Ben Bova (b.1932), Carol Emshwiller (b.1921), and Norman Spinrad (b.1940). This leads me to again make a plea I’ve made several times before in various ways.

Please, SFWA prez’s, make Ben Bova and Norman Spinrad (two peas in a pod, there) Grand Masters next year and the next! Please, SF fans, pester the SFWA board to make this happen! (Carol Emshwiller may win a Nobel for Literature someday but doesn’t seem to have made quite the impact on the field that might be expected. If anyone wanted to give her a Grand Master, I’d be delighted. Surprised, but delighted.)

As a life-achievement award given to authors who must be living, seniority should be and usually is a major factor. The last time someone older than Emshwiller was given the award was Phil Farmer (b.1918) in 2001. For Bova, it was Wolfe (b.1931) in 2013. For Spinrad, it was just this year but Delany, Cherryh, Haldeman, and Willis are all younger and have already received it. Time’s a-wastin’!