Summation of Online Fiction: November 2017

As I mention in the relevant recommendation, I belatedly discovered that the SFWA had added the flash zine Grievous Angel to its list of pro markets, so I caught up on it. Even with its intermittent microfiction help, this was a light month in which I read about 135K words from thirty-five of thirty-seven November stories. This month’s recommendations and honorable mentions, especially for science fiction, are also fairly light. There were still several good stories, though, and the 238th number of Beneath Ceaseless Skies was especially noteworthy.

Recommended:

Science Fiction

  • Odd Hours” by Tony Pisculli, Grievous Angel, SF/F short story (rec)

Fantasy

Honorable Mentions:

Science Fiction

Fantasy

From the backlog of Grievous Angel stories, “Candont” stuck out, which I discussed in the “Odd Hours” rec. I don’t ordinarily read reprints but Flash Fiction Online had the Lina Rather, who’s impressed me before and it was a quick flash from 2017, so I gave it a try and it’s worth a mention. (She also had a story published in The Arcanist which was fine, too, but a shade below “Night.”) “Night” is about a starship survey mission becoming a colonization mission when Earth wipes itself out but they don’t have much of a chance until an astronomical coincidence occurs. This story works on a symbolic level much more than a literal one but is evocative. “Fire” is an “if this goes on” which takes us to the ultimate conclusion of asteroid mining and is nicely bittersweet. “Arsia Mons” starts with the spectacularly unpromising premise of battlebots on Mars and makes a story of it which reads very quickly despite its length.

“Faerie” is the second Kayembe story I’ve read this year which is very good in many ways yet has a very damaging hole in it. The protagonist calls on supernatural aid but what ultimately occurs could have been done more cheaply without it. As a horror story, it’s also better suited for Nightmare than Lightspeed. All that said, it has compelling characters and situations and is well-written, much like her earlier “idiot-plot” “You Will Always Have Family: A Triptych” (which was published in Nightmare). This one also deals with a family: a little girl, her parents, her sister, and the sister’s very disturbing new husband. As “The Siret Mask,” recommended from the same BCS issue, had thievery and identity revelations, so “Serpent” has scam artists and revelations of motivation. The characters aren’t as appealing, the plot is somewhat simpler, and the style is a bit more Victorian but it’s a solid read.

(Postscript: Tor.com would have ordinarily released a story today but apparently ended its year, if not its life, about three weeks ago. Terraform may release a story tomorrow but hasn’t for a couple of weeks, so I’m not holding my breath, or this post.)

Edit (2017-12-01): update number/word count of stories read to reflect that Terraform did release that story.

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Summation of Online Fiction: October 2017

September was the scary month with few great or even particularly good stories but October rebounded resoundingly with several remarkable tales (out of only thirty-five read of 158K words), and from relatively unusual venues. Flash Fiction Online produced an excellent Valloween issue combining Valentine relationships with Halloween darkness. Uncanny and Apex also had stories above the usual fare. While Nature produced no recs this month, it produced a double-honorable-mention and got into the Halloween spirit with both, one of which would have fit into the FFO issue and one of which was outright horror. Plus there was a trio of quite remarkable near-misses of fantasy from a trio of other sources, at least a couple of which also fit the season and one of which was a rare webzine novella. For those not in the Halloween mood, there were still a few good tales that weren’t so dark. Speaking of scary, though, Tor.com published only one story in September and posted only two original ones in October. Here’s hoping they get back on track.

Recommended:

Science Fiction

Fantasy

Honorable Mentions:

Science Fiction

Fantasy

Much like last month’s “Ugo,” “Crispin’s Model” was a story on the edge of true greatness which just seemed to come apart at the end. One sort of ending could have been great and even the ending it had could have worked if it had been made to seem more earned and fitting and less like a squeamish cop-out. Still, the first part of the tale takes the “weird artist and his weirder relationship with his muse” motif and gives it the nice twist of having the model/muse be the narrator and has her be inspired (and weird) at least as much as he. The initial narration is superb, the atmosphere is creepy, it’s quite suspenseful and thought- and emotion-provoking. For those readers who like the ending, it’ll probably be a masterpiece.

“The Dragon of Dread Peak” is actually a recommendation for those in the market for a D&D-like YA fantasy of a rather conventional, if creatively underpinned, sort but may not appeal all that much to others. Also be warned that this “quest, with dragons” story is a sequel and ends in a way that makes it clear another sequel will be forthcoming.

Terraform presented us with an atypical fantasy story (perhaps taken by the spirit of October) but planted its ghost in the usual Terraformed world of social networking and reality TV. The positive aspect of this one, for me, was the sympathetic ghost (as well as the other swift, deft, characterizations).

As far as the Nature short-shorts, “Daughter” makes me wonder if it cleared legal because it’s basically Alien fanfic (though that’s arguably just van Vogt fanfic in turn), but telling a story from the chestburster’s point of view was disturbing and effective in a heavy-handed way, while “Runes” is an interesting time travel/relationship story that would have fit right into FFO‘s issue (though, aside from the time travel, it’s more interested in scientific facts and details than most FFO stories).

Edit (2017-11-03): Updated numbers to include the belated Apex story.

Summation of Online Fiction: September 2017

With Compelling off, Apex doing a lot of reprints, and Tor.com worryingly publishing a single story, September would have been an extremely light month, but a double issue of Beneath Ceaseless Skies and the return of a lost zine helped compensate, resulting in thirty-seven stories of 149K words (plus one I skipped). Regardless, it was a very light month in terms of the proportion of the good stuff (though there was plenty of readable stuff). I’m not sure what happened beyond it being one of those freaky streaky webzine things. Speaking of, the returning lost zine is Terraform. Ralan.com declared it defunct a few months ago and, after waiting awhile to “make sure,” I declared it dead on April 27th and stopped looking at it. Recently, I happened to take another look and, naturally, they’d published another story on April 29th. But, other than excerpts, interviews, graphic stuff, etc., they did quit producing anything after that until August 24th. Since then, they have managed to publish a story coupled with an article every seven or eight days (two in August and three in September though, to keep the irony ironing, they don’t seem to be doing anything but another excerpt this week). So perhaps they’re back. Only one story was at all noteworthy but, since I gave Terraform‘s death an explicit notice, I feel like I ought to do the same for its rebirth. Now, on with the very short (or “little”) list…

Recommended:

Science Fiction

Fantasy

Honorable Mentions:

Science Fiction

Fantasy (both billed as SF)

The Fischer involves a precog who knows a nuclear war is coming, which can be seen as SF but the precog motif and style seem like fantasy to me. Not that we won’t have a nuclear war any minute but something about the specifics of this felt like an 80s story (aside from the 50s/60s psi thing). That said, it was well-executed and effective. The De Feo is this close to being a truly amazing story but its second half, despite dovetailing almost perfectly with its first half, is a completely different and much less interesting story. The first half is about a magical time traveler, with that and its style making it fantasy, while the second half is a species of mainstream or an obfuscation of the fantasy. Basically, it’s squeamish about embracing its true, tawdry genre. The thematic motifs of Ugo’s story should have been developed further and the final theme of the second half (and thus the whole) could have been embedded in that first half as a lesser motif or discarded. That would have the side effect of making the too-long c.7,200 word story a just-right c.5,000. Or perhaps I’m blathering nonsense. Point is that, for me, it was an initially captivating and ultimately unsatisfactory story.

The belated Terraform story is about a future in which dolphins are mayors of underwater big cities while a starship, crewed by humans and other animals, is catching up with Voyager to change its golden record. This can be interpreted a few ways but one which entertains me is the idea that the most enlightened, beneficial, and correct members of today’s society (who are vilifying people of the past) will one day find themselves vilified for their immoral anthropocentrism or whatever other failing the future may find in them. Either way, it’s a weird story.

Summation of Online Fiction: August 2017

The last of the dog days caused Clarkesworld‘s recent hot streak of good issues in June and July (rivaling the January issue) to come to an end (apparently because August doesn’t begin with a “J”). Tor.com compensated by going on a torrid streak of their own. Nature was also perhaps above average and, while Apex didn’t produce anything particularly noteworthy, the whole issue, guest edited by Amy H. Sturgis, was better than usual. All in all, this month’s forty-six stories (of which I read 44 of 218K words)[1] produced plenty of decent reading. What follows are links to the stories I thought were the best and to the notes posted throughout the month which explain why I thought that.

(As usual, links are split into Recs and HMs, then into SF and F, and then alphabetized by title. Honorable mentions, not having full recs, are summarized briefly at the end of this post.)

Recommended:

Science Fiction

Fantasy

Honorable Mentions:

Science Fiction

Fantasy

“First Date” is a tough sell to me, being a post-modern first-contact short-short. It has a conceptual problem (telepathic linguists?), and is otherwise almost completely dependent on its tone for success or failure but the tone worked for me. “Martian” is basically a well-written fantasy which I called “retro-pseudo-AltHist ‘SF'” (and Greg Hullender concisely and charitably called a “pastiche”) in a fuller description at the end of the Egan recommendation. The first of the Compelling stories is a sort of “Ender’s Game meets Total Recall” and the second is not exactly Asimov’s “The Last Question” but is a quick tour through deep time and immense space. “Ink” uses an American hemophiliac philatelist in Italy to perhaps tell us about history and self. And “Plain Jane” took me to an apocalyptic church knitting circle and made me laugh.

[1] Edit (2017-09-04): I discovered Strange Horizons had posted a story out of their usual weekly sequence, so read it and also read one of the previously unread stories for Tangent, so the monthly totals were forty-seven stories, of which I read forty-six of 227K words.

Summation of Online Fiction: July 2017

Aside from a two-part novella from BCS (which was just a flash away from counting as a novel), July was a relatively light month in the webzine world. The number of noteworthy stories is also light, but Clarkesworld continued its resurgence with a July issue that was probably even better overall than the June (though each had a standout story), Ellen Datlow picked another for Tor.com, and some other zines also contributed particularly good work.

In addition (and not unrelated) to the Clarkesworld streak, June’s preponderance of SF over F continued in July.

The numbers for this month were thirty-five stories from eleven prozines, of which I read thirty-two of 178K words.

Recommended:

Science Fiction

Fantasy

Honorable Mentions:

Science Fiction

Fantasy

  • Fallow” by Ashley Blooms, Shimmer (May 2017), short story

I mentioned the Reed in the recommendation of the Kornher-Stace story. The McDevitt is a flash on environmental messes and overpopulation. The Grant is a kind of Egan-esque (or anti-Egan-esque) second-person tale with data stream people squirting around black holes except that it’s not supposed to be even better than the real thing.

Because Ashley Blooms’ story seemed so weird, I decided to look for anything else out there that would indicate whether this was an exception or a rule. Turns out she has two other stories and I was able to read “Fallow,” which gets a belated honorable mention. It indicates the weirdness could be a rule, though “Fallow” is a little more generically “literary” somehow and less boldly idiosyncratic.

Summation of Online Fiction: June 2017

The twelve prozines of June produced thirty-eight stories and I read thirty-five of them at about 165K words. (Tor.com should have posted a fourth story on the 28th but didn’t. If it comes out today or tomorrow, I’ll update this post accordingly.)[1] The random flukes of this month were a large number of honorable mentions (with not so many recommendations) which were mostly SF, half of which came from almost the entire issue of Compelling Science Fiction. Given that, I’ll basically do a mini-review of the whole issue after the lists.

Recommended:

Science Fiction

Fantasy (billed as):

Honorable Mentions:

Science Fiction

Fantasy

In “What’s a Few Years When You Get Money and Friends in High Places?” I couldn’t buy the “Head/Off” premise (a body builder and a rich guy whack their bodies and heads apart and trade pieces) and the ending was pretty trite but, in between, it was well done, interesting, entertaining, and didn’t always do the expected. “Integration” features a constituent of an AI collective loading itself into a robot body to learn how the other half lives and seemed quite fresh though a little too cute and slightly constructed, especially for its heavily theme-centered thrust. “Fathom the Ocean, Deep and Still” gets major points for taking a can-do approach to climate change where we don’t solve the climate change problem but do work around it in an amazing way. As someone who takes climate change extremely seriously, I don’t think this “when life hands you lemons” approach is ideal, obviously, but have to admire its boldness. On the other hand, the plot is extremely predictable, though executed well enough, given that.

The one story I didn’t single out as noteworthy was “Cogito Ergo Sum” which takes the very tired approach of using a robot (here questionably called an android because of a flesh surface) to question “what makes us human?” and is one giant “as you know, Bob” with some unconvincing emotions tossed in, but even it is readable.

In sum, I thought this was a good issue of Compelling and I’m rapidly becoming a fan of the zine. I love that I can’t detect any right-wing or left-wing agenda but only an agenda of idea-centered sci/tech-centered fiction which, to me, is what science fiction is really about. Incidentally, the recommended story, “Thinking Inside the Box,” while not being explicitly “retro” or derivative,  does remind me of science fiction of the sort which played a part in first making me a fan, in which humans and aliens and their psychological issues weren’t taken directly from current, transitory socio-political issues or made to be thinly veiled symbols but seemed like fresh, individual constructs rooted in genuine thought experiments and which, nevertheless, did make you walk a mile in some alien shoes and question your own preconceptions and which did have a genuine positive mental and social effect without being plain propaganda. (If there was any propagandizing, this sort of classic SF was preaching just the virtues of open and rational thought and scientific accomplishment.)

Of the other honorable mentions aside from Compelling‘s, “Bourbon, Sugar, Grace” has thirty-four confusing uses of “moms” and a somewhat implausible premise (likely cost-ineffective, among other things) and deus ex ending but is otherwise interesting and unusual and its milieu of a hardscrabble colony being shafted by the corporation felt tangible and plausible once the premise was granted. “Marcel Proust, Incorporated” is an infodump of unconvincing melodrama but had a fairly fresh idea of brain-stimulated learning and was interesting despite its problems. “Utopia, LOL?” is severely flawed by its choice to project yesterday’s webspeak into the far future but, if you can get past that, this almost Futurama-esque tale of thawing out the cryogenically-preserved primitive is reasonably funny and entertaining and with a serious undertone. Finally, “Owning the Dragon” is a wacky (symbolic) take on a woman and her dragon and juggles a surface (and much more individual) whimsy with its own serious intent.

[1] Edit (2017-07-04): Well, Tor.com didn’t publish another story but I did notice I’d missed Diabolical Plots‘ “B” story again, so read it, which brought the totals up to 36 stories of about 171K words.

Summation of Online Fiction: May 2017

This May there were even more reprints and translations than usual in fewer issues than usual (and I did skip one story which is not included in the total) which may explain why I get only 33 stories (one unfinished) of 146K words from eleven prozines, but it still seems a little light. I can’t find anything I missed, though.[1] If there’s a coincidental streak or theme to this month’s fiction it’s not necessarily general but resides in my SF recs all being forms of horror. That’s not the kind of SF I like to recommend in the abstract, but I have to play the hand I’m dealt.

Recommended:

Science Fiction

Fantasy

I’d said in an earlier post that I had “several honorable mentions” but my own notes on most of them waffle on whether I was “grading on a curve” because I’d read so many stories I intensely disliked that simply not disliking some made merely decent, publishable work seem artificially special. I’ve decided against curves and will only note the couple that I didn’t quibble much about on the “honorable mention” level.

Honorable Mentions:

Science Fiction

  • Sanctuary” by Allen Steele, Tor.com 2017-05-17, short story

Fantasy

Even there, Murray’s story about asteroids with names on them (like large-scale cosmic bullets) was billed as SF when it’s not remotely and, among other issues, has an opening sentence of mixed tense, but I liked its core.

I don’t ordinarily give more than a line or two to HMs but Steele’s tale of a pair of colony starships encountering a crisis upon reaching their new world was particularly important but frustrating. This was a good old-fashioned science fiction story which makes up about 2% (or less) of the “science fiction” web market these days but it went beyond being “old school” and was just downright derivative. The hubris dynamics have been handled by Theodore Sturgeon and others, including Clifford D. Simak. Indeed, his 1951 story “Beachhead” is almost exactly like this one bio/tech-wise except for the specific type of the point of failure. For another point that I can’t comment on much without spoiling, a minor victory snatched from major jaws of defeat was snatched from out of nowhere – it’s a perfectly plausible and reasonable device if prepped, but it felt like a deus ex. It also posited what I hope will turn out to be odd technological lags such as some members of a starship crew in the year 2266 having dental bridgework. It also does something odd with the completeness of the incomplete log. Finally, while it does have a sort of ending, it makes the piece feel more like a novel excerpt than a story. So all this thoroughly precluded it from being a recommendation. But if you haven’t read all its predecessors it should seem fresh and good and if you’re just really hankering for a starship-is-actually-a-starship tale then this certainly can’t go completely unnoticed. Alas, it still won’t fully satisfy some due to [spoiler], but it’s worth looking into if you’re in its general target audience.

[1] Edit (2017-06-15): I actually did miss a second story from Diabolical Plots, which I’ve now read and brings the total up to 34 stories of 149K words.