Weekly Webzine Wrap-Up (2018-03-04)

Weekly Webzine Wrap-Up image

[Edit (2018-03-09): Okay, I’m updating this with the BCS stories (see end of post) Friday instead of “Wednesday or Thursday” but it is before the next Wrap-Up.]

BCS seems to be in a different timezone, producing yet another large “science fantasy” issue for the “science fantasy month” of February even though this came out on March 1st from my perspective [which still doesn’t explain anything as the first issue would have had to have come out on Jan.31, then]. It has three stories, including a short story, a novelette, and a longish novella. I was unable to get to those and need to try to cover some other things but I’ll get back to them and update this review, probably by Wednesday or Thursday and definitely before the next Wrap-Up, so check back soon if you’re interested. In the meantime, I’ll cover the other five stories of this week which, if you count BCS‘ science fantasy as SF, is remarkable for being all SF.

The very short stories include “WATCH: The Shocking Assassination of President Guy Fieri” which is another of Terraform‘s minor topical pieces about a “streaming” executive who deals with mystery algorithms while her fight for streaming ratings leads to rudderless shifting down to the lowest common denominator. “Lava Cake for the Apocalypse” is one of three stories of the five which deal with the humanity of earth being under threat or extinct. For the young year, this is at least the eighth of what I’ve suddenly started calling “listories” (stories written in list form, often proclaiming their listitude in their titles). This is another minor tale which has a New Worlder collecting ingredients for a recipe from Old Earth during a conflict between the two. Finally, “What Monsters Prowl Above the Waves” is one of those non-human first-person tales where strange things are taken for granted and normal things seem weird. In this, humanity is gone and a sea creature has made a gizmo which enables it to explore the surface where it makes an odd friend. I want to like this and it is likeable but the odd friend could only exist like that for a brief time after an apocalypse and this seems to be a long time after. Aside from that, neither critter behaves entirely believably. A nice idea, though.

Breakwater” is the third tale of humanity in peril and the second to deal with sea critters. This is a somewhat science fantasy-ish novelette of humanity polluting the sea until Things rise from the deep to smite us. We don’t know what they are but we fight each other with hydrosonic weapons and follow the protagonist scientist through a battle on a research facility she and her husband (killed in the war) built before the military took it over and weaponized it. The last two thirds are utterly predictable in general and are only surprising in detail because of the implausibility of some things. For instance, while the protagonist is fighting for survival, exhausted, and suffering from pneumonia, the story suddenly turns into a lesbian romance. If this had been a stream of consciousness narration you might have had something reasonable like “oh crap gonna die oh crap gonna die nice ass oh crap gonna die…” but to actually construct a narrative about seeing dead bodies here and there and trying to find an escape pod while a giant structure collapses on you and to spend a large chunk of it thinking about how hot the other woman is, hitting on each other, making dates, and so on, just seems ludicrous. This isn’t “must preserve the species” irrational non-verbal sex drive or fleeting instants of thought but an actual drawn out dating game. All that aside, it’s pretty crisply written and the action moves it along briskly so it’s not a bad read. Too reminiscent of the recent, much better Tor.com story “Sweetlings” in some ways, though.

The Independence Patch” deals with a child who is one of those who are miscalled “Andys” but has actually been a cyborg since birth, with a brain and consciousness as much mechanical as biological. It does a really nice job of two difficult things at once: making this protagonist convincing as a cyborg and convincing as a teenage boy. Given that, it’s easy to be interested in the human angle and the technologically extrapolated angle. Since many people are already lobotomized without their phones, it’s a clearly relevant extrapolation but manages to feel substantial and to avoid any feeling of “trendiness.” There are only really a couple of problems with this: first, it lacks a hipbone-legbone plot that actually moves in a necessary way but is just a few scenes pasted into a scrapbook, though those scenes are important and work to convey the character; second, while the protagonist is nicely drawn, he doesn’t grow up so much as he counts down. Things happen to him and have their effects which change him but the focus is on his internal timer. Otherwise, the scenes which depict him dealing with teachers and their unwanted distaste or pity, finding and losing love, while impatiently awaiting his “independence patch,” which can free him from certain parental controls and privacy invasions (and what that actually means), is all a very enjoyable read with good voice, good phrasing, good insights, and I recommend it.

As an odd aside, since part of this cyborg’s internet connectivity mechanism manifests as silvery tendrils amidst his hair, I can’t help but think of A. E. van Vogt’s Slan, which is also about a young person coming to terms with his world, in which he has certain (in this case, mutant) advantages over “mostpeople” and certain disadvantages from being in a new minority. In those ways, this is an almost identical story. In virtually every other way of melodrama, scope, action, writing style, etc., this is almost completely different, for better and worse.

Edit (2018-03-09): here’s the BCS stuff:

BCS #246’s short story is “Gennesaret,” which is a broken-backed tale whose first part is about a minority figure struggling desperately to preserve her life, child, and culture from those who would assimilate and those forcing them to do so and whose second part shifts abruptly into an apparent satire of patronizing liberals. Both halves are naked and simplistic and add up to less than the sum of the parts. The novella is “The Emotionless, in Love,” which is a sequel to “Blood Grains Speak Through Memories.” I didn’t like the earlier tale of eco-fascist nanotech (“grains”) being used to keep humanity socially and technologically stagnant for, so far, thousands of years. This one deals with the same milieu and an even crazier and deadlier “anchor” (nanotech-driven human enforcer of the status quo), who is also broken to the point of disrupting that status quo, and the son of the previous story’s main character whose capacity for emotion was broken by his mother. Literally. It’s marginally better in ways, though worse in others. This one’s 28,000+ words are way too many and give us the joy of reading the words “grain” or “anchor” once for every forty-eight other words. It is full of simplistic psychology, unconvincing character interactions, and comic-book ultra-violence but at least the latter gives it a little pep. If you liked the last, you may like this; if not, not; if you’re unfamiliar with it, it’s safe to skip.

The most interesting story of the issue was “Do As I Do, Sing As I Sing,” which deals with “cropsingers” who go into months’ long magical trances singing to the crops, without which the plants won’t grow and the people will die. In Guerre’s village, the current cropsinger is ailing and visitors arrive to tell the villagers the replacement they were training hasn’t survived that process. Guerre is chosen as the next cropsinger, much to the outrage of her brother, Acco. Sometime after she goes off for training, he leaves for the big city and, almost immediately after her return as a successful cropsinger, he returns, with an invention to replace cropsingers. The remaining third of the story details this sibling rivalry.

The earlier part of the story which introduces Guerre and her situation is very well-written and interesting. While there is a latent problem or two, the first noticeable one is the lack of any sense of mortality in Guerre’s fairly cursorily covered training. Her predecessor died and one of the fellow trainees dies but there’s never any fear she will. Much more significantly, this is the second story in this issue with two parts strung together: seven-year-old Guerre’s childhood and training, and fourteen-year-old Guerre’s “maturity” and return. In that second half, the convenient plotting/timing rears its head and the story descends to stereotypical gender roles in which Acco is male, urban, scientific, transformative and almost evil while Guerre is female, rural, magical, traditional and supposedly good. This also raises some of the latent problems: while people can certainly behave like Acco, why he does so is under-motivated, reducing him to a prop. Further, it becomes obvious that he is fundamentally sadistic throughout but also that she is masochistic, which the story never addresses. On the plus side, there are some interesting subtleties, especially socially and holistically, in the critique of Acco’s science and Guerre perhaps muddies her virtuous waters in an arrogant and stealthily controlling way but, again, science is more a prop than something treated fairly and Guerre’s actions aren’t addressed as negative. The early strengths of this story are worth a recommendation but the whole is not. That said, many readers will have no problem with the characters and thematic issues (and may not agree with me on even the structural issues) and they will likely enjoy it.

And, now, because I can’t get it out of my head: a musical moment, because Guerre “never wanted to be no cropsinger; never wanted to write no cropsong.”


Weekly Webzine Wrap-Up (2018-01-13)

Weekly Webzine Wrap-Up image

I’m posting this with a gasp of relief. With this relatively light Wrap-Up, the busy year-end period and “holidays” and flood of January reviews is over and, as far as I know, in terms of zine reviews this month, there will just be another Tangent piece and a couple more of these Wrap-Ups. So, now, on with this one…

  • “Refugee; or, a nine-item representative inventory of a better world” by Iona Sharma, Strange Horizons, January 8, 2018 (science fictional short story)
  • “A Street but Half Made Up” by Anna Zumbro, Nature, January 10, 2018 (science fictional short story)
  • The Substance of My Lives, the Accidents of Our Births” by José Pablo Iriarte, Lightspeed #92, January [11], 2018 (fantasy novelette (officially, though I get 7482 words – either way, it’s within the category fuzz factor))
  • “The River” by Tori Cárdenas, Terraform, January 11, 2018 (science fictional short story)
  • “The Animator” by Adam Millard, Grievous Angel, January 11, 2018 (fantasy short story)

Except for one story which missed the memo, this was apparently Surreal Flash Week. First, as has been and will be the case with all Strange Horizons stories this month, I reviewed “Refugee” for Tangent. “The Animator” involves a guy waking up from a nightmare about a giant hand chasing him and segues into its bizarre conclusion. As Gardner Dozois said someone said: “One thing that never changes—the avant-garde.” It’s very disturbing when Grievous Angel is even a little more surreal than usual, yet the science magazine Nature tries to match it. In “A Street Half Made Up,” a robot is on “Fiction Street” where it is supposed to be shelving books at bus stops and stores but it insists on giving humans books while quoting the Mary Shelley it just read. Finally, “The River” involves the US kicking out every “foreign” person and follows one of these people “home” to an unfamiliar Amazon trickling through a city with albino crocodiles. None of these did much for me. Moving on…

I’ve read stories about past lives, complete with gender shifts from life to life, and I’ve read a few billion stories, mostly poor, about identity/orientation, but I don’t recall reading one which combines them like “The Substance of My Lives, the Accidents of Our Births.” Jamie is a young person who vaguely recalls having been female in some past lives and is biologically male in this lifetime. Jamie’s best friend, Alicia, is a girl who indicates she may be a lesbian and the story takes off when they are hanging out, observing a new neighbor move in. Jamie realizes s/he knows this guy and eventually figures out that he’s been released from prison for murder. Murdering her. In a past life, Janie was married to a man who was friends with the man now moving in. Understanding what happened then and deciding what to do about it now (and dealing with stray bullies, an insufficiently ferocious pet pit bull, and with feelings for Alicia) drives much of the rest of the story.

There are so many things to like about this story (even if you’re not interested in the gender issues – and more if you are) that it’s hard to know where to begin. The story is utterly mainstream except for Jamie’s awareness of past lives, but this is woven into and affects everything in the story. Jamie is a wonderfully crafted character whose mix of self-confidence and self-doubt feels very authentic. The first-person narration is superb, reading like a real individual without gimmicks. Alicia and the ex-con are also well done. Jamie’s initial impulse to “do to” is very human and natural and the later interest to “do for” rises above this. The story’s deadly serious subject matter doesn’t preclude some genuine humor. (The narration/dialog around Alicia getting Aunt Hilda’s dress for Jamie is very funny.) If I had to invent a criticism, I admit the climactic scene might conceivably be considered a little melodramatic but I actually think it works extremely well. All in all, this is one of those stories I don’t feel like I can do justice to because, along with the general soundness of concept, plot, and character, much of the excellence derives from subtle nuances from thought to thought and expression to expression. Go read it for yourself and experience all its richness.

Rec: “Crossing the Threshold” by Pat Murphy

Crossing the Threshold” by Pat Murphy, Lightspeed June 2017, short story

This is billed by Lightspeed as fantasy but it’s only fantasy if you want it to be. It also discusses the scientific concept of entropy but isn’t really SF unless you really want it to be. This is sort of indicated in the story itself when, after meeting an old man stuck on a fence and helping him over, the protagonist/narrator says,

I realized that I could think about that old guy in two different ways.

Here’s option number one. He was an ordinary old man….

Then there’s option number two, an option that might occur to you in the dark of night a couple of months after your father died when you’re drinking red wine and reading an article about the devil.

I’ll grant that this story may not have the tightest structure or the most climactic of climaxes and that I’ve had a weakness for Pat Murphy stories for many moons now. Still, it’s a good, quirky, San Francisco treat and I hope folks will read it and enjoy it as much as I did.

Rec: “This Is for You” by Bruce McAllister

This Is for You” by Bruce McAllister, Lightspeed May 2017, SF short story

Another short-short (~1200 words). This one involves a boy, who has recently returned from an alien world, giving an extraordinary painting to the girl he has a crush on. Some people may grok it immediately but I don’t want to say more and risk spoiling it for others. While not the most unique tale in some ways and not exactly to my taste in every way, I thought it was very well done and I especially liked the understatement and indirection.

Rec: “Seven Permutations of My Daughter” by Lina Rather

Seven Permutations of My Daughter” by Lina Rather, Lightspeed April 2017, SF short story

Still pouring. (Coincidentally, it’s literally pouring where I am, with flood warnings and everything.) Lightspeed achieves the remarkable feat that BCS just achieved of impressing me twice in the same month. And Lina Rather has now impressed me twice in three months. I first noticed her February FFO story, “Marking the Witch” and I was wondering if she could do it again without doing it again, so to speak.

Rather than a fantasy about a romantic connection, this is a sort of SF story about a familial connection. Something horrible is going on with a woman’s daughter (Elena) and that woman (Sarah) happens to be a mathematician/physicist who has been and is exploring the worlds of the multiverse in order to find a pattern in which the daughter and family are happy. She hopes to see that it’s possible, understand it, and perhaps apply it.

The structure of the “permutations on a theme” is very familiar and even the “scientist uses special knowledge to pursue a personal goal fervently” is familiar. But, somewhat as the virtues in “I Have Been Drowned in Rain” compensated for the familiarity of some of its elements, so the emotional freight of this story (which it shares with “Marking the Witch” but even exceeds) serves to make this story special. It’s so easy for stories aiming for passion and emotion to fall flat on the one hand or to seem overwrought on the other. It’s so easy for stories about pain to be aesthetically painful for the reader. But this story excels at finding that emotional pitch where the character feels genuine and she really, really wants something and it’s easy for the reader to sympathize.

Also, somewhat akin to “When We Go,” it has a strong, direct style which I appreciate. For a sample of that and the emotional pitch, I like lines like, “I will tear space and time apart for you, Elena. I will remake the world for you,” placed in stories in which they seem appropriate and credible. Further, the last line is superb.

Rec: “Remote Presence” by Susan Palwick

Remote Presence” by Susan Palwick, Lightspeed April 2017, fantasy novelette

Win is a chaplain charged with providing spiritual care as mandated by the JCAHO (Joint Commission on Accreditation of Healthcare Organizations) which is sending an inspection team to Win’s hospital. The problem, as his boss and her boss both inform him, is that they’ve found out about the skeleton in his closet – or, more accurately, the ghost. Most people die and move on, either pushed with enough love from those on earth or pulled by those who have already gone before. Maisie, however, is one of those who’s gotten stuck between planes and is lingering around the hospital, talking with and comforting patients and even employees. This will cause significant problems according to the JCAHO rules but does a lot of good as well – breaking the letter of the rules but not their “spirit.” There is a further complication in that Win has to question both his motives for not having helped Maisie across and his thoughtlessness in certain regards. The main plot tension revolves around the inspection and possible closure of the hospital and Maisie’s status, particularly as it involves a recently arrived homeless patient.

This story includes a mainstream feel with the hospital, an SF feel with the telepresence, and a fantasy feel with the spiritualism. Some stories do such things and feel like “mash-ups” or ostentatiously “genre-bending” stories (or just bad SF) and often don’t work at all, but there’s a harmony to this fantasy that doesn’t feel “mashed” at all. It is also a nominally Christian tale, but is ecumenical in the broadest sense, dealing with love and compassion. Further, it has a genuine plot, is directly told, and shows all the professionalism one might expect from a writer with over thirty years of publications. For instance, the emotions are neither suppressed nor mawkish but are simply appropriate to the depicted people and situations. My only quibble is that, while some of the backstory anecdotes exemplify why some people have a hard time crossing, Maisie’s inability to cross didn’t seem adequately explained. On the other hand, I’d recently complained about telepresence technology constantly being used in SF as a “distancing” trope and I particularly appreciate it being used in this fantasy to facilitate connection. I enjoyed this well-told, fairly novel, and touching story.