Weekly Webzine Wrap-Up (2018-07-21)

Weekly Webzine Wrap-Up image

Original Fiction:

  • Jesus and Dave” by Jennifer Lee Rossman, Diabolical Plots #41B, July 16, 2018 (fantasy short story)
  • The Trees of My Youth Grew Tall” by Mimi Mondal, Strange Horizons, July 16, 2018 (slipstream short story)
  • Papa Bear” by Kurt Pankau, Nature, July 18, 2018 (science fiction short story)
  • Drawing the Barriers” by Tamara Vardomskaya, Beneath Ceaseless Skies #256, July 19, 2018 (fantasy short story)
  • Flesh and Stone” by Kathryn Yelinek, Beneath Ceaseless Skies #256, July 19, 2018 (fantasy short story)
  • The Nearest” by Greg Egan, Tor.com, July 19, 2018 (science fiction novelette)
  • Next Door” by Ryan Harris, Terraform, July 20, 2018 (science fiction short story)

Beneath Ceaseless Skies brings us half the week’s fantasy stories and they are about artists with cramped styles. “Drawing the Barriers” sketches an almost modern society which oppresses its magical people, resulting in a trio of rebels (the artistic mage, the lesbian mage, and the incognito mage) starting to strike their blows against it. “Flesh and Stone” is a vaguely Pygmalion-like tale about a sculptor making, falling in love with, and bringing to life, a statue for himself and one for his medieval nobility but lacking Aphrodite’s touch. For the other half, “Trees” has the oddity of tree-dwelling people but is otherwise not fantastic as it describes them having their habitats taken from them by evil white people and follows an old woman who loses and looks for her son while making her way in the city. The week’s best fantasy is the lightly amusing “Jesus and Dave” which describes how hard it is for Dave to maintain his atheism in the days after Jesus’ return but also describes how useful that might be.

The week’s science fiction is quite imbalanced, being made up of two minor flash pieces and a novelette (near-novella) that is the week’s best story. “Next Door” is about keeping up with the Joneses even in a nearly uninhabitable future of nukes and pollution while “Papa Bear” drops a confusing mainstream bit about dementia into an irrelevant dystopia. Even “The Nearest” isn’t free of a bit of “mainstreamism,” as it deals with a real condition with only a slight, but important, science fictional twist and is set in an interesting technological near-future which isn’t especially vital to the story but it’s so detailed, concrete, engrossing, and downright scary that it works. A cop is dealing with a batch of missing persons cases when she’s assigned the case of a missing mother and the woman’s murdered husband and two children. With drones, black boxes in cars, and other such mechanical aids to her investigation, she tries to figure out what happened and why. Things kick into overdrive when she wakes to find a stranger in her bed and a mechanism in place of her son. The tale becomes a neatly balanced descent into the paranoia of “The Invasion of the Soul Snatchers,” causing the reader to wonder who is crazy and who is sane. There are some acronyms (SOCO, CSF) I had to look up that should have been properly introduced and I don’t think the cop’s final approach was wise or would have worked out the way it’s depicted but these are relatively minor blemishes in an otherwise tautly executed tale that doesn’t play around with narrative or stylistic gimmicks and doesn’t need to. Good stuff.

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Review of Recently Read “Year’s Best” Stories

At this point, fourteen stories listed in the collated contents of the big “year’s bests” have annotations saying the evaluation was “late.” This was because the stories were initially unavailable on the web or came from odd venues. I’m reviewing them now, expanding on the brief “read,” “honorable mention,” or “recommended” labels.

For reviews of the Visions, Ventures, Escape Velocities stories, please see this post.

I read “Charges,” “Hunger,” and “Sidewalks” in mid-/late-December without thinking to actually review them, but simply jotted down my usual notes, so what follows on them are just belated restatements of those notes.

I felt that “Charges” (about an attempt to “cure” transgender people in the near future by torturing them and transferring them into non-transgender corpses) was extremely dated (transposing past treatment of homosexuals into an exaggerated future) and plain silly “science” fiction. It had a sort of horror movie intensity but that’s about all that could be said for it. “Hunger” addresses the potential ennui of (relative) wealth which, while not completely invalid in some nuances, is suitable for 1% propaganda generally. More importantly in fictional terms, the protagonist talks about “the romance of death by adventure” and notes that “I faced a less newsworthy ordeal.” Which made for a less interesting story as this was a boring grocery list of “actions” and, as said, largely unconvincing thoughts. In “Sidewalks,” a speech pathologist meets a woman from an alternate reality who speaks a form of Old English and comes from California, though she’s initially taken to be a gibberish-speaking nut. The details of this make little sense and, generally, this sort of story has been done many times before and much better.

Moving on to recent reads, “Persephone” is an initially interesting slipstream/dark fantasy which has quite a few strong images and ideas and an interestingly shifty narrative technique as it describes a pseudo-orphaned lost girl but seems underwhelming given the wind-up. “Confessions” describes the perfect storm of higher education, corporate rule, and social media, through a narrator who’s modded down from a “Pro” member of society to a “Con.” Unfortunately, most of this is already here and isn’t science fictional at all. It’s also unfortunate that it doesn’t make for the perfect story as it’s rather dull and unpleasant but not in a compelling, effective way. Perhaps it’s to the point but the narrator protagonist was hard to engage with and, while it did go for an emotional ending, it didn’t quite work for me. It’s not bad, but not remarkable. “Wind“—in which a fiddle player and history teacher on a generation starship tries to explain to her resistant kids why even broken history (and music and tradition and creation) is necessary—is a story with nice ideas and decent characters and most everything else needed for an excellent story but basically forgot the plot or, more specifically, the drama. It’s a mostly good but dull story and I’m someone who loves starships and history and music so I imagine it’d be worse for those who don’t. The zestier “Monkey” is somewhat clever with its structure of a fragment of history interlarded with scholarly notes which depict some gorilla warfare, so to speak, in which the meek will inherit the earth if they jujitsu for it and the most striking thing was the very isolated elements of humor or discordant notes delivered with a perfectly straight face in the course of a generally serious tale. This story doesn’t do much wrong aside from the contrivance of not having the religious order’s noncombatants expelled along with the royal family and I think it merits an honorable mention (I’ve waffled a bit) but it didn’t overwhelm me.

Buckell has two stories in the annuals, both of which seem more like honorable mentions to me. “Shoggoths” is a reasonably clever science fantasy about GPS and automated vehicles being used to try to summon monster monsters. The vehicle for conveying this concept is a tale of a couple of tow truck operators stealing a drug dealer’s stolen car in order to return it to the original drug dealer for a reward. This is a fun read but doesn’t strike me as especially significant. The more problematic “Zen” has a cardboard villain representing tradition and inflexibility start and lose a starship fight with the modern, flexible good guys. When he survives and sneaks aboard the victorious starship, he and a mind uploaded into the form of a maintenance bot vie for supremacy, with the bot’s programmed lack of freewill complicating the struggle. This has a gosh-wow-sensawunda suitable for both old and new space opera and homages several things from previous SF but its simplistic ethos is discordant in a new space opera. Further, the wondrous setting being mostly a clever plot contrivance is bothersome. Still, the story’s pace and imagery are noteworthy.

The Discrete Charm of the Turing Machine” is an unusually funny story for Egan (not saying that it’s an outright comedy, but it definitely has its lighter, stranger moments). When the protagonist unceremoniously loses his job and he and both his immediate and extended family go through some financial troubles, some discussion with a tin-hat brother-in-law and an attempt to debunk his theories lead to pondering the nature of economies and emergent systems. This description doesn’t do it justice as it doesn’t convey the calm, confidently unhurried but efficient pacing, the tangibility of the characters and their plight, or Egan’s usual thoughtful angle on things. While I still prefer “Uncanny Valley,” both novelettes are great reads.

And wow: “An Evening with Severyn Grimes” is a date you don’t want to miss. The idea of mind uploads placed in borrowed bodies and the religious/ideological people who oppose this is a bit familiar (and not completely dissimilar from “Zen”) and the hackery of one of the characters is a bit magical, but this tale—of a woman, for reasons of her own, infiltrating a cult which wants to seize a rich guy currently in such a borrowed body so they can kill him painfully and publicly—is sheer brilliance. The old mind in the young body is constantly seeking thrills to make him feel alive again and that’s just what this short story does for the reader. This needs to be the basis for a slightly expanded movie or something. Further, it does something “Zen” does not do in that it has complex characters working at complex cross-purposes who can sometimes align just enough to make things really interesting. Very enthusiastically recommended.

Top Ten Most-Read “Recent” Authors

Two weeks ago, inspired by another blogger’s post, I posted my Top Ten Most-Read Authors. That list was heavily weighted to older authors with the only post-New Waver being C. J. Cherryh, who broke into print in 1976. I was curious what newer authors were being eclipsed by the older so I compiled a second “top 10” list just like the first except limited to authors who broke into print no earlier than 1976. (Ties are broken by giving the higher place to people who haven’t been in print as long.)

10. Rudy Rucker (8)

Rucker is a gonzo math freak who writes like Lewis Padgett smoked Lewis Carroll’s ashes. My favorite Rucker is probaby Master of Space and Time, though White Light, Spacetime Donuts, and Software are all quite good. The last of those became the first volume of his most famous series but the Ware series suffers from an extreme case of diminishing returns. I haven’t kept up with him beyond the occasional story which he can still knock out of the park, especially in collaboration.

09. Alastair Reynolds (8)

Reynolds writes mostly gothic noir neo-space opera. He’s a funny case for me. He got a 10-year contract for 10 novels for 10 million bucks or something but I like his short fiction. I love Zima Blue as well as the Revelation Space collections Diamond Dogs, Turquoise Days and Galactic North. I read three of the first four novels in that universe and they’re okay but the last one’s been sitting unread for years. (Someday!) Also read Pushing Ice and I love all of it but the two main characters whom I hate. (I’m counting Slow Bullets as a book, though it’s just a novella. If I didn’t, there’d be a three-way tie at tenth place with seven books by him, Stephen Baxter and Lisa Goldstein.)

08. Greg Egan (9)

Greg Egan writes the hardest of hard SF – so hard he comes out the other side, sometimes inventing entire universes which have nothing to do with this one and can thus be seen as a species of incredibly rigorous fantasy. But, seriously, when he operates in this universe, he’s incredible. He excels at short fiction and long. My favorites are probably Axiomatic for short fiction and Diaspora for novels. He ranks much, much higher than his eighth place showing here. More like in the top handful of all time.

07. Neal Asher (9)

Neal Asher is another New Space Opera guy, with a particularly action-packed and violent style. I’m crazy about Prador Moon and he’s also rightly famous for the core quintet of “Agent Cormac” Polity books, of which The Line of Polity (#2) is my favorite. Not shabby at the stories, either. “Alien Archaeology” turned me into a fan.

06. Timothy Zahn (10)

And, believe it or not, none of the ten are media-ties. My favorite is probably his novel Spinneret but he’s a perhaps surprisingly good story writer, too. Aside from Star Wars books, he’s probably most famous for the Cobra books. I’ve read the original trilogy and it’s a mixture of mostly good with a trace of silly. I think his Blackcollar books (read the original two) are actually better, but they haven’t had as much success. He’s basically just a good old-fashioned story-teller of mostly space/military tales. Kind of surprised it turns out I’ve read so many, especially given that there are still more in the To-Be-Read Pile.

05. Jack McDevitt (10)

McDevitt is another story-teller. I very nearly read only one McDevitt, starting and ending with The Engines of God, which is a book in the Academy series which didn’t do anything for me. But I had A Talent for War, also, and read it and liked it. I went ahead with the belated sequel to it and it turned into a sort of comfy, cozy SF-archaeological-mystery series which seems to have run its course but was really enjoyable, overall. I also was surprised to enjoy Eternity Road. I’m not usually a fan of post-apocalyptic tales but that one was captivating. His first novel (of first contact), The Hercules Text, is even better. I’ve only read that in its revised version but the original is now in the Pile.

04. Allen Steele (10)

Another space-based story-teller. His debut novel, Orbital Decay, is probably still his masterpiece, along with Sex and Violence in Zero-G. The latter is a collection of stories set in the same Near Space universe as that debut novel and its sequels. Steele is now probably most famous for his Coyote series but, other than reading the start of it in the magazines and some later stories in various places and diving into Hex (glorious BDO but unfortunately with small dumb characters) I haven’t read it (it’s in the Pile).

03. Charles Sheffield (11)

An English science guy who came to America, took up SF writing, and married fellow SF writer Nancy Kress. Between the Strokes of Night (original version; haven’t read the revised one) is a “cosmogony opera” and one of my all-time favorite books and The Compleat McAndrew (sequence of stories about a brilliant scientist zipping through the solar system) is right near it. He’s written many books only slightly above or below “okay” but when he’s good, he’s among the best.

02. Bruce Sterling (14)

Another one of my very favorites and the greatest cyberpunk. His debut novel is still(!) in the Pile and I lost track of him after 2009 as he’s become relatively scarce but every novel and collection from 1980 to 1999 (with one caveat) is essential. From the next decade, I only really enjoyed The Zenith Angle, though Zeitgeist has its points and Visionary in Residence might be a great collection except in comparison with the first three. The caveat is The Difference Engine. This was a hugely important book in the history of steampunk and unites the biggest names in cyberpunk but I was very unimpressed (and haven’t enjoyed the steampunk movement either). But enough of that – for some highlights of the early period, his 80s neo-space-operatic Shaper/Mechanist stories (found in Crystal Express) and his novel in that universe (Schismatrix, which can also be found together with the stories in Schismatrix Plus) are fantastic. His first three collections (Crystal Express, Globalhead, and A Good Old-Fashioned Future) are indispensable, up there with early Zelazny, Tiptree, and Varley collections. He not only engages with high-tech near-future reality as his forte but he’s a stylist of the finest sort – everything is stamped with Sterling qualities but reads with Crystalline clarity and Express speed.

01. Jack Campbell (15)

Mmm…kay. This is weird. Jack Campbell (whom I first met as John G. Hemry in the pages of Analog) shows at #1 because he wrote a fifteen-book series (the Lost Fleet/Stars series, built out of two and a half sub-series of Lost Fleet, Lost Fleet: Beyond the Frontier, and Lost Stars) and I bought and devoured the whole thing. Gigantic series of best-selling military space opera are not generally my thing but Campbell’s mixing of hard SF elements into wild-eyed space opera and his solidly centrist and sensible military, political, and social textures (which address 9/11, infinite war, becoming one’s own enemy, etc.) really sold me, along with his meticulously described space battles. Granted, it starts shaky and has some awkwardness in character interactions throughout but the things were just compulsively readable. He’s the only author on this list with nothing in the Pile, as I read everything the minute I bought it. He’s not up there with the likes of Egan and Sterling, but he delivers good clean honest entertainment that I enjoyed a lot.

Rec: “Uncanny Valley” by Greg Egan

Uncanny Valley” by Greg Egan, Tor.com 2017-08-09, SF novelette

Adam Morris struggled up from nothing to become a big-time writer/creator in Hollywood before dying. This story’s protagonist is the new Adam: about 70% of the original’s consciousness sideloaded into a humanoid robot. The missing material is partly due to technological limitations and partly due to what the new Adam discovers were intentional “targeted occlusions.” Between a legal system that doesn’t recognize the new Adam as a person, angry descendants of the original Adam contesting the will, difficulty making a life on his own, and a sense that the original may have created a “director’s cut” of his life because of a very nasty skeleton in his closet, the new Adam is having a hard time. Full of questions, he becomes a sort of detective, investigating himself to find out what’s missing and why.

This novelette’s eleven sections, which are full of fresh, clever metaphors and expressions, keep the tale moving, seamlessly weaving in new information and complications and backstory. The main character is very well drawn, as are his loved ones and even the minor characters such as Sandra, the tech/handler. The only thing I could think to say against it, without risking spoilers, are that sideloads and edits have been covered frequently (though rarely as well). It’s a very skillful exploration of people through technology and possibly the best story so far this year.

(Digression: what odds? The flux of the web and my game of catch-up has resulted in reading consecutive stories by Vernor Vinge (from Nature), Stephen Baxter, and Greg Egan (both from Tor.com). All are pretty big guns in my book and most live up to that here. I’ve already recommended the Vinge and now the Egan. This particular Baxter is more in the ballpark of an Honorable Mention, though. He might be given points for cleverly weaving together Mythago Wood (by Robert Holdstock, to whom the story is dedicated) and Wells’ The Time Machine and “The Crystal Egg” but it’s hard to find much in there that doesn’t seem to derive from the unlikely pair of Holdstock or Wells. And he might be given points for making such an interesting middle of a story but the opening runs in place for too long and the close is pretty predictable. Still, people who, unlike me, are fans of retro-pseudo-AltHist “SF” may like it a lot. And given all that, for me to like it as much as I did means the story’s strengths are very strong.)