Weekly Webzine Wrap-Up (2017-12-23)


All the weekly(ish) zines had stories this week except Diabolical Plots and Tor.com. which makes for a somewhat heavy holiday Wrap-Up (nine stories, 37,000 words). While not everyone participates in Christmas, of course, anyone looking for holiday-themed stories would find only one (a dystopia, of course), though one of the non-holiday stories at least had the Christmas spirit and is coincidentally one of this week’s two recommendations.

There are a couple of accidental commonalities to several of this week’s offerings. One is especially tired themes. There are three apocalypses, a dispute between religion and science and/or colonialism and nativism, and a first contact, none of which do anything better than all their predecessors. Secondly, some of those stories hold back the specific details of a tired generality to presumably create suspense, which does not work. While puzzle stories or those exploring cognitive dissonance can make great use of unfolding mysteries, conventional apocalypse stories and the like only betray their lack of confidence in their milieu and characters or their naivete in thinking readers will be intrigued by their novel “mysteries.”

Trette’s Bones” by Grace Seybold, Beneath Ceaseless Skies #241, December 21, 2017, fantasy novelette

In a city where the populace ordinarily sacrifices various bones of their bodies, the flute-playing narrator give up a finger joint but her sister sacrifices an ear bone and, ultimately, her entire skull, with epochal effect.

The narrator records this just two or three days after the event and it opens with a tone that, while professing to be angry, sounds almost like humorous snark to me. Even if it is anger, it still seems unlikely that a narrator of these events at this time would narrate in this way. Aside from that, it’s technically adequate but is the sort of “makes no damn sense and seems completely bizarre but it’s all ‘symbolical of something'” story that I don’t generally care for, though some do.

Forever Night” by Dana Beehr, Beneath Ceaseless Skies #241, December 21,  2017, fantasy short story

In a previous generation, a woman had come to a town and, with the special help of a townsman, saved it from a vague evil incursion, being cursed in the process. Now descendants of each must go fight a recurrence of the incursion. The man incessantly wonders if he can do what it takes (“what” being obvious but unspecified) when the time comes.

I don’t mean to be mean, but have to call it like I see it. The characters aren’t likable (though there is a trace of Cherryh’s Morgaine and Vanye in them – or ought to be), the journey is tiresome, the male lead’s self-doubt is repetitive and overdone, the ending is ludicrous but partially obvious all the same, and the whole seems faintly puerile.

The Button Box” by Jamie Lackey, Grievous Angel, December 16, 2017, fantasy flash
The Boy in the Picture” by Morgan Crooks, Grievous Angel, December 16, 2017, fantasy flash

(Both links go to the same post which contains both stories.)

What odds? I didn’t recommend anything from GA‘s first ten months of 2017 and am now recommending three of five stories from the last two months and two from a single post. The first reminds me of an Amal El-Mohtar story (unspecified to avoid spoilers) but this one isn’t even entirely, exactly fantasy. Certainly unusual and unusually touching, though. The second is very much fantasy and even more powerful. And all in less than seven hundred words. Combined.

A Third of the Stars of Heaven” by Cadwell Turnbull, Lightspeed #91, December 2017, science fiction short story

Henrietta is a devout St. Thomian who doesn’t want to compromise her religion with alien medicine, even to save her life.

The story is very dull with almost no conflict – Henrietta’s just going to do what Henrietta’s going to do. It opens with a boring, uncontextualized visit with a doctor before finally giving it context and a word to show it’s SF. Then it goes back to an unpleasant (understatement) childhood memory. And, eventually, it wanders on to its self-satisfied end.

The Coupon” by Judy Helfrich, Nature, December 20, 2017, science fiction flash

Along with a problem related to “the coupon,” this is specifically another in a spate of recent stories of a certain kind (unspecified to avoid spoilers) and generally another “make fun of locals while talking to them about their supposed alien contact until it’s proven in a way that surprises someone in the story” story.

Will You Meet Me There, Out Beyond the Bend?” by Matthew Kressel, Nightmare #63, December 2017, fantasy short story

Kate is standing by the road with several others, desperately wanting a car to stop and take her away. Turns out, she’s died here in a car crash, which she had as a result of mishandling a personal trauma. That backstory is narrated, along with aspects of her afterlife, while we wonder if she’ll ever rest in peace.

This is told with phrasal refrains which may strike you as stylish or annoy you, depending on your taste and temperament, but the foreground story of the ghosts is (quite appropriately) haunting and effective. Unfortunately, the backstory is fine but conventional and doesn’t really compare well. Perhaps most significantly, I wasn’t thrilled by the ending which seemed more interested in conveying implicit advice to the reader than in being internally satisfying. Still, not bad.

The Birding: A Fairy Tale” by Natalia Theodoridou, Strange Horizons, December 18, 2017, fantasy novelette

This is a largely misanthropic (and partly, um, “eugynic”) tale of the end (or change) of the world. This would be a science fictional apocalypse if most humans were infected by an avian flu which killed us. But this is really an avian flu: it turns us into birds. We explore this milieu through the eyes of a pregnant woman making her way through the changed land.

For what it is, this is competently executed (if long and generally uneventful) and fans of such things will probably like it though it doesn’t stand out from the innumerable other tales basically just like it and is unlikely to appeal to a general audience.

Last Christmas” by Tim Maughan, Terraform, December 21, 2017, science fiction short story

A girl wakes up her hungover dad on Christmas. The glass walls show snow and she wants to go out and play but dad distracts her with presents. Then the distraught dad goes off to argue with the distraught mother. And eventually the story gets around to telling us specifically what we’ve been impatiently waiting for because we already knew generally.

Given that, these mere two thousand words are too long. Matters aren’t improved by severe pronoun dysfunction: the woman is never called anything but “she/her,” leading to lines like, “He… watches Astrid happy on the floor… Mariah Carey seeps from… speakers.¶She sits opposite him, fresh and showered from the gym…” where the last phrase is our only clue that Mariah Carey hasn’t seeped opposite him or that he doesn’t have a bilocational daughter. But the most important thing is just the tiredness of the concept and vagueness of the milieu and “characters.”


Rec: “Odd Hours” by Tony Pisculli

In July, the SFWA added a webzine called Grievous Angel to its list of qualifying markets but I somehow didn’t notice it until a few days ago. Since it’s nearly a microfiction site (700 words or less) and has published only 25 pieces of fiction this year, I was able to catch up in a day or two. It’s mostly not my sort of thing but I did encounter a couple of noteworthy items with the most recent serendipitously being the best. (It’s the second story in a single post.)

Odd Hours” by Tony Pisculli, Grievous Angel 2017-11-14, SF/F short story

The editor calls this a foray into “cyberpunk,” indicating the whole thing occurs in a VR but, even so, it didn’t strike me as having anything to do with cyberpunk. I started with the January stories and had taken to reading the blurbs last because they were often spoilery or otherwise conditioned the reader’s approach to the stories so I just took this as a modern/urban fantasy with the changes occurring by magic. The issue here is the nature of the imaginative element: a club or bar which metamorphoses from one time period or style to another and stands for chaos. The narrator is waiting for his girlfriend to show up, giving us elegant flashes of character like:

Update from Ani. She’s around the corner. Which means everything, and nothing. The more specific her location, the more uncertain her momentum. Still, the simple fact that she’s nearby thrills me.

So it has a genuinely imaginative element (and perhaps the Heisenberg reference does indicate SF more than F) and it’s “literary” but not preciously, showily so. It’s got a little character and, while it’s, of course, lacking in plot, it does have a plot-like arc. It worked for me.

The other noteworthy story (“Candont” by Deborah L. Davitt, 2017-05-29) is more in honorable mention territory. It uses quantum mechanics to look into whether the characters’ world is the worst of all possible worlds. It appeals to my streak of whimsical pessimism and I like its sly ending, though it’s a fairly simple story and such inversions don’t hold up if read too critically or literally.