Weekly Webzine Wrap-Up (2018-10-07)

Weekly Webzine Wrap-Up image

Original Fiction:

  • The Mirror Crack’d” by Jordan Taylor, Cosmic Roots and Eldritch Shores, September 30, 2018 (fantasy short story)
  • Wake” by Anna Cabe, Terraform, September 30, 2018 (science fictional short story)
  • The Palace of the Silver Dragon” by Y. M. Pang, Strange Horizons, October 1, 2018 (fantasy novelette)
  • Cerise Sky Memories” by Wendy Nikel, Nature, October 3, 2018 (science fiction short story)
  • Court of Birth, Court of Strength” by Aliette de Bodard, Beneath Ceaseless Skies #261, October 4, 2018 (fantasy novelette)
  • We Ragged Few” by Kate Alice Marshall, Beneath Ceaseless Skies #261, October 4, 2018 (fantasy novella)

Edit (2018-10-08): Updated this with the BCS stories at the end.

I’m posting this now with coverage of four stories which, as a group, are above average. I’m not covering the Diabolical Plots story this week because I’ll be covering both of the month’s stories for Tangent when the second one comes out. I’m also still running behind and will update this with the BCS stories when I finish them (hopefully tomorrow). And, again, apologies for not taking the time to make this shorter.

Mirror” tells of Elaine and Morgan’s quest to pull the Grail from the ether and into the world with their magic. Rather than a Mabinogion-like medieval milieu, this appears, oddly, to be an alternate 19th Century England, takes its title from Tennyson’s “The Lady of Shalott” and quotes that, Malory, Shakespeare, and E. B. Browning (twice) as epigraphs to each of its five sections, and is steeped in a Pre-Raphaelite sensibility. Frankly, it’s not my kind of thing and didn’t engage me but I feel like that’s just me. Aside from a line or two, it’s not overwritten despite its elevated prose, the two main characters seem well drawn, there is a sort of numinous Neoplatonic/Christian power to its magical/spiritual elements, and it has some drama. Probably the weakest element is that it ends somewhat anti-climactically (or has too much epilogue/denouement or something) but the ending’s also in keeping with its sehnsucht. If you want such a tale, I believe you’re likely to enjoy it and I recommend it.

While “Mirror” wasn’t full of explosions and car chases or anything, there was a sense of step-by-step progression with a reasonably engaging character and it felt more like a novelette fitted into a long short story’s word count. By contrast, “Palace” initially seems to wander aimlessly with an unappealing protagonist and ends up feeling like a short story in a short novelette’s word count. An unhappy and unpleasant (selfish, always runner-up, violent) woman hears the dragon’s song and flings herself off a cliff into the waters where, transmuted by the dragon’s kiss, she becomes his companion and is regaled with stories and must ultimately share her own, all with a hint of death hanging over her. This story’s strength is its imaginative underwater castle and its dragon mythology (though whether this is original or borrowed from sources I’m not familiar with, I don’t know). Ultimately, the big reveal is much more familiar and less enthralling. Still, some may enjoy this tale of a weird sort of semi-redemption.

Wake” is another “water woman” story and is unusual only in being cast as the loosest sort of SF rather than as straightforward fantasy like “Palace” and innumerable other stories. An adolescent female has a skin condition and the doctors treat it by applying scales to her skin but it doesn’t stop there… and there are no points for guessing where it continues.

In “Cerise” (which, being an eight crayon kind of guy, I had to look up – “reddish” as in a sunset), a sort of biological robot has been programmed to be an office worker and part of this (later dropped from the design as excessive) involved being programmed with false memories, a la Blade Runner. On being decommissioned, she incidentally learns something and goes looking for her “childhood.” This reflection on memory, self-consciousness, and connections isn’t a real thrilling story to start raving about or anything, but it’s effective and I enjoyed it. Mildly recommended.

Court” is apparently set in the milieu of the Dominion of the Fallen series which may explain one of the major problems with this tale: one of the characters reflects, “What was going on? It was like sitting in at the table for a card game where people played by utterly unfamiliar rules…” when this is true for this reader, as well, and this isn’t the sort of story where that should be the case. More importantly, it’s chock-full of overdone things like “Asmodeus’s smile was quick and wounding, like a stab to the heart,” and, of course, his sighs are like hurricanes and each eyeblink is like the setting and rising of suns. (Okay, I’m making those up, but it gives the idea.) The milieu seems to assume that demons have fallen to an alternate 18th/19th Century Paris and are much weaker and nicer than one would expect but still magical and sometimes malicious. There’s been a war between “houses” and there is now a case where a favored child tutored by one of the Fallen is to be given over to another house’s not-so-tender mercies and the Fallen must decide whether to save her or start another war between houses in a sort of “Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” decision. The ending is rather cheap and easy (in terms of this story if not in terms of the eventual sequels) after all the overwrought setup.

Few” is another tale of conflicting loyalties. When a rot hound intrudes on what should be protected land, Reyna Bonespear realizes a prophecy may be coming true and events lead her into a collision with her tribe’s chief as they have differing visions on how the tribe is to be saved. Reyna would rely on her dead sister’s prophecy while the chief would rely on his crone’s advice and his own inclinations. However, it spends 13, 217 words building an anthropologically detailed structure which includes gelds and the cold and mutelings and graylings and so on before it gets to that point and then spends the rest (nearly 25,000 words in total) showing that that’s just a plot point and the real interest is ultimately in having her invading people pay a price to the natives. There’s a lot of world building (or window dressing) which includes points about those who are and are not stricken with an infertility bug/curse somewhat like “The Persistence of Blood” (Juliette Wade, Clarkesworld #138, also an anthropologically overdone and generally overlong story) and a lot of the dark and grim tone of “When We Go” (Evan Dicken, BCS #223, a much better tale) and the latter is probably its strength but it all mostly pads that central point and it didn’t appeal to me.

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Weekly Webzine Wrap-Up (2018-04-28)

Weekly Webzine Wrap-Up image

Original Fiction:

  • The Witching Hour” by Ekpeki Oghenechovwe Donald, Cosmic Roots and Eldritch Shores, April 23, 2018 (fantasy short story)
  • My Favourite Sentience” by Marissa Lingen, Nature, April 25, 2018 (science fiction short story)
  • Into the Gray” by Margaret Killjoy, Tor.com, April 25, 2018 (fantasy short story)
  • The Thought That Counts” by K.J. Parker, Beneath Ceaseless Skies #250, April 26, 2018 (fantasy novelette)
  • Angry Kings” by Bonnie Jo Stufflebeam, Beneath Ceaseless Skies #250, April 26, 2018 (fantasy novelette)
  • Nitrate Nocturnes” by Ruth Joffre, Lightspeed #95, April [26], 2018 (fantasy novelette)
  • A Most Elegant Solution” by M. Darusha Wehm, Terraform, April 27, 2018 (science fiction short story)

Original Fiction, Special Edition:

  • The Minnesota Diet” by Charlie Jane Anders, Slate, January 17, 2018 (science fiction short story)
  • Mother of Invention” by Nnedi Okorafor, Slate, February 21, 2018 (science fiction short story)
  • Domestic Violence” by Madeline Ashby, Slate, March 26, 2018 (science fiction short story)

The last week of the month is nearly as strong as the first week of the month. Also, unlike last week, the stories tend to be long, though one of the best is the shortest.

In the future, several students write paragraphs about “My Favourite Sentience.” No, there’s no plot but, wedged into less than a thousand words, there are a great variety of voices and a flood of ideas (with a couple of brilliant touches) that some would use to fuel trilogies. I don’t know if the world we see through these tiny windows is delightful or terrifying but everyone should take a look.

Turning to BCS, “The Thought That Counts” is a variation on Faustian themes which opens with an innocent country girl chattering on, seen through the mordant eyes of the narrator/protagonist. She’s going to the city to become a painter and he’s glad to be rid of her once they arrive but he’s not so free as he thinks. When she’s arrested for, essentially, being a murderous witch, he finds himself compelled to get involved. This has everything needed to make an excellent story but depends a lot on the breezy, discursive narration of its brilliantly delineated protagonist, the “cleverest, wisest man who ever lived” (and a “thief” and “con man”). He could wear on some people, I suppose, but I enjoyed this story a lot.

The other BCS tale involves a princess complaining about her evil father while returning to the palace in order to try to fix him after having run away. Interspersed with her recollections are retellings of other stories of “Angry Kings,” at least some of which are traditional. I oscillated uneasily between sympathizing with her and finding her a bit maudlin and “self-insuffcient,” so to speak. It all ended up feeling like an inauthentic self-affirmation speech. That said, the prose was mostly decent and it may well resonate strongly with some readers.

The remaining stories from this week were similarly mixed. “The Witching Hour” involves an evil witch’s good disciple trying to counteract her malign influence. It’s too oblique at first and then gets too talky. Despite some “dark goodness,” it still operates in a “good and evil” mythos. The climax is way too easy. But it does an excellent job of creating a magic milieu and mood. “Into the Gray” is a reverse-variant retelling of “The Little Mermaid” folktale (in which a boy/girl wants to become a mermaid like the entity s/he is infatuated with) and read fairly well but there is misdirection and then there is not firing Chekhov’s gun. The theme was expressed through a botched drama, making it ultimately unsatisfactory. (Also, fantasies shouldn’t have pikes and swords and such and have the protagonists anachronistically refer to their “adrenaline.”) Finally, “Nitrate Nocturnes,” reads like a combination of “Strung” (Xinyi Wang, Diabolical Plots #31A, September 2017) and Lightspeed‘s own “The Independence Patch” (Bryan Camp) from the last issue, in that it’s about a timer (manifesting on people’s arms) counting down to the time they’ll meet their soulmates. A college student will apparently not meet hers for some forty years but then her timer starts acting funny. This is exactly the most significant problem with the tale. Even though fantasy is fantasy, it generally has its own rules and logic while this was capricious, twice changing the rules with no explanation beforehand and little or none after. This is a story of author fiat rather than one which feels like an organic sequence of events; a case of theme preempting plot. That said, the narrative voice and some of the speculations on lives and loves and time (and some authentic party scenes) made it an easy read.

Incidentally, Lightspeed‘s reprint this week is “Mozart on the Kalahari.” I liked it (next best after “Death on Mars”) when I read it in Visions, Ventures, Escape Velocities (where it’s still available). That takes us nicely to today’s special feature. The same Arizona State University Center for Science and the Imagination which helped bring us that anthology, is also helping to bring us a monthly series of short fiction (each with companion non-fiction articles) published at Slate for their “Future Tense Fiction” department which I’ll begin covering here, going back to this run’s start in January. The theme of the first quarter of the year is “home” and the three stories universally take that to mean terrestrial “smart” homes and cities.

The Minnesota Diet” follows a group of young urban professionals living in New Lincoln, which is a smart city. However, when the food supply trucks start being diverted from the city and extreme governmental gridlock prevents any relief, two of the three million inhabitants are unable to leave, so face starvation. While most of us are dependent on our current technological society for survival and many things do get replaced without a suitable backup being retained, truth is stranger than fiction and this particular situation strained credibility and seemed contrived. Also, the characters, despite blue pompadours and the like, didn’t really come alive for me. Points for grappling with several important motifs, though.

In “Mother of Invention,” the father of a pregnant woman’s child turns out to have been married, leading to the woman being shunned. She lives in the father’s third smarthome and has developed a fatal allergy to the pollen from the genetically modified plants which surround her when that pollen goes into overdrive as it will shortly do. However, she refuses to leave because she fears that will mean the father will reclaim his house. The crisis arrives when she goes into labor and the storm comes but she’s not quite as alone as she thinks. The story resolves too obviously and easily (but in such a way that begs the question why the end didn’t come at the beginning and solve most of the problems presented in the story in the first place) and I question a mother who, rather than losing an ego battle with an estranged lover (and his wife) and becoming homeless, would risk the life of her forthcoming child, as well as her own. (In trivial but aggravating terms, there was a reference to a thing which “sprung” back.) Still, it did evoke feelings of hopelessness effectively and the portrayal of the home (which was more of a character than many in the previous story) was interesting.

The last, coincidentally best, story on the theme is “Domestic Violence.” Kristine, a company’s “chief of staff,” is dealing with an employee who literally had trouble “getting out of the house.” Kristine eventually deduces that the employee is in an abusive relationship in which the couple’s smart home is being used against her, such as sometimes briefly imprisoning her. It turns out that Kristine has a particular interest in this sort of thing and takes drastic steps to address the problem. I can’t reveal why but one of the best things and the worst thing about this story is Kristine herself, who helps make the story involving but also holds it back for me. Otherwise, barring an infodump paragraph, the technology is cleverly interwoven both structurally in the believable society and verbally in the story. The characters feel real and mostly sensible, if very odd. As with the other stories, this addresses genuine, serious concerns with present and near-future technology and feels even more tangible and compelling.

Edit (2018-04-28): Terraform didn’t have a story Thursday and, since they’d posted two last week, I thought they were taking a break, but they did publish another story yesterday which I didn’t see until just now. Ironically, it starts by talking about “Deaths on Mars” and has a “home” motif (with habitat-building) such that it connects in a couple of ways to the ASU/Slate stories.

A Most Elegant Solution” comes so close to being not only a recommendation, but a “year’s best”-type story, but ends up being an honorable mention. It opens with a nanotech programmer being engulfed by her “gray goo” creations as her colonizing teammates already have been, while she recaps what led her to that position. The ending combines a couple of my favorite books and would really be “goshwowsensawunda” but I saw it coming from pretty early on (partly because of past experience but partly because of the way an early element was handled in the story) and, not only that, but the ending wasn’t a clean revelation that would have really sparked poetic awe but was a bit labored and, even if you hadn’t seen it coming, would have made it like you saw it coming. (It also depends on some problematic programming.) Still, a mostly well executed tale with a great idea.

Weekly Webzine Wrap-Up (2018-03-23)

Weekly Webzine Wrap-Up image
Original Fiction:

  • Princess Mine” by Darby Harn, Strange Horizons, March 19, 2018 (slipstream short story)
  • This Big” by John Cooper Hamilton, Nature, March 21, 2018 (“science fiction” short story)
  • Crave” by Lilliam Rivera. Nightmare #66, March [21], 2018 (fantasy short story)
  • Our King and His Court” by Rich Larson, Tor.com, March 21, 2018 (science fiction short story)
  • Liqeni i Zi” by Corey Mallonee, Cosmic Roots and Eldritch Shores, March 22, 2018 (fantasy short story)
  • You Do Nothing But Freefall” by Cassandra Khaw and A. Maus, Lightspeed #94, March [22], 2018 (fantasy short story)

Two of this week’s stories will be reviewed at Tangent rather than here. The review of the CRES story should be up later tonight or tomorrow, and I’ll be reviewing the Tor.com story as part (or possibly all) of another review near the end of the month. This leaves a flash from Nature‘s “Futures” and a trio of c.3,000 word stories.

Escher is fun as a visual artist but doesn’t always work so well in words. If you don’t want yet another dull, meandering, reflexively navel gazing tale of a writer/reviewer/actress/princess talking about itself, then you can give “Princess Mine” a pass. The two Lightmare stories both remind me of other recent stories. “You Do Nothing But Freefall” is like “Foxfire, Foxfire” (by Yoon Ha Lee, BCS, March 3, 2016) in that it has a heart-eating fox becoming a human-shaped entity. The similarity could be seen as going further in that they’re both about carrying on missions, in a way. I found this overwritten and loosely plotted though its attempt to portray friendship between the foxman and the sentient cat statue (maneki-neko – which is the title of a Bruce Sterling story, speaking of being reminded of other stories) was a nice try. “Crave” is even more similar to “Good Girls” (by Isabelle Yap, Shimmer, May 2015) in that it’s about a sort of guts-hanging out vampire (here called a “soucouyant”) coming after a girl (and her little dog, too!) when the starving girl eats the offering meant for the capitalist oppressor symbol in a work that uneasily combines sibling rivalry, gender, and economics. Not an especially surprising plot or an especially powerful ending.

The flash piece, “This Big,” is the winner of this batch. It’s hard to discuss without blowing all the jokes but (if you share my sense of humor) it is one funny story. My only criticism is that the funniest bit comes pretty early and my stomach hurt too much to laugh very vigorously after that. A mad scientist supervillain tells us about his unusual ideas and the unusual circumstances which led him to be able to make a cool toy.

Edit (2018-03-23): Here’s the CRES review: Cosmic Roots and Eldritch Shores, March 2018
Edit: (2018-03-28): And here’s the Tor.com review: Tor.com, March 2018

Weekly Webzine Wrap-Up (2017-12-16)

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Beneath Ceaseless Skies and Nightmare were off this week, Grievous Angel didn’t have anything, and Tor.com is still “only sleeping,” so we only get singles from Diabolical Plots, Lightspeed, Nature, Strange Horizons, and Terraform. Those five stories give us two second-person present tense biter-bits and two cli-fi dystopias. Coincidentally (and thankfully) the one which is neither of these things is superb.

The Leviathans Have Fled the Sea” by Jon Lasser, Diabolical Plots, December 15, 2017, fantasy short story

After a bunch of whaling men got stuck in the sea ice, a bunch of whaling women took to the air and hunted the whales to extinction. The crew of one particular ship turns to hunting sirens and, after a catch, the captain’s life changes and perhaps the world does, too.

This gets points for juxtaposing some tired elements in a fresh way which creates an aura of interest but the moral of the story (one of two “humans suck and are destroying the world” tales in just this week) is too clear and too clearly moralistic and the pacing of the second half (and the whole resolution) falters.

The House at the End of the Lane Is Dreaming” by A. Merc Rustad, Lightspeed #91, December 2017, fantasy short story

This is partly a Lovecraftian Can’t-Choose-Your-Own-Adventure tale about a mysterious house, a mysterious book, a couple of sisters, and an incursion from Beyond. As such, this is one of this week’s two second-person present tense tales. This one has multiple “Act One”s interspersed with “Prologues” before finally moving on to additional acts but never relinquishes the fitful starts and stops and lather-rinse-repeat structures which it embellishes with collage elements of newspaper clippings and emails.

The artifice of the telling and the vagueness of the milieu and characters is all to the point as the story becomes a “godgame” tale (which makes it even less interesting than it had been) but it precludes any possible engagement (from me) and so (in my opinion) the story fails utterly. (And then the conclusion seems morally bankrupt.) This is another “wouldn’t have finished it except for having to review it” story.

Fifteen Minutes” by Alex Shvartsman, Nature, December 13, 2017, science fiction flash

In 2117, an AI keeps us monkeys around for sadistic entertainment, making us perform on the web for better food. So one man delivers a brief monologue about all this.

It doesn’t sound like much, but this is what I get for posting my “Web’s Best” early. This would likely have been in it (and may be in next year’s), especially at a mere 750 words or so. I can’t review this without spoiling it – even a hint could ruin it. I’ll add some spoiler notes in a comment to this post. All I can say for now is that its dark tone and conventionality are good things. Just please check it out and stick with it.

Sasabonsam” by Tara Campbell, Strange Horizons, December 11, 2017, fantasy short story

A man-eating tree-thing eats something which disagrees with it and we learn about pain, regret, infidelity, vengeance, and other fun things in less than 1800 second-person present tense words which feel like more.

An Incomplete Timeline of What We Tried” by Debbie Urbanski, Terraform, December 15, 2017, science fiction flash

This is not a story.
It is a list.
Like many stories this week, it makes reviewing an unpleasant task.

Literally: it’s a long (over one hundred item) list of inconsistently articulated statements in reverse order which decries our current and future actions regarding the environment and, while presumably intending to be cautionary, basically conveys an impression of hopelessness.

(And I assume this is by Debbie Urbanski. At the time of reading, Terraform had it as “Urbansk.” And golfing would be year “round” rather than “around” as an internal example of more errors.)

 

Rec: “Legale” by Vernor Vinge

Legale” by Vernor Vinge, Nature 2017-08-09, SF short story

Here’s another short-short from Nature. This is a sequel to “BFF’s First Adventure” (which I also recommended at the old site, though reading it isn’t necessary to enjoy this one). In this, Bonnie Colbert is en route from Paris to New York and occupying herself with her very smart phone which she’s trying to turn into her personal lawyer when the plane starts to crash. Fascinating things are done with time and anthropic assumptions and then the vista widens still further, all in 920 words.

(Speaking of time, I believe there is one flaw in this story. One of the entities in it says something catastrophic will happen if they don’t adjourn in “50 milliseconds” but later says, “I just queried your Paris office” and the meeting seems to wrap up in time. But I think Paris and New York are almost two-hundredths of a light-second apart. (Later in the meeting, the same entity says “we don’t have time to wait for Paris” but they didn’t the first time.) But maybe if they just adjourn in five-hundredths of a second the numbers work out and they might still have enough time to do the real-world physics they need to do. But perhaps I’m wrong – either way, I’m not going to let it mess up a good story.)

Rec: “Let Me Sleep When I Die” by Wendy Nikel

Let Me Sleep When I Die” by Wendy Nikel, Nature 2017-05-24, SF short story

Sorry, I’m running just a tiny bit behind, but I have read all the May prozine stuff except Lightspeed and Tor now. I’ve come across several “honorable mentions” but I particularly liked this Nature short-short about a horror of future war and how perceptions can change for some and not others. It’s not the hardest SF or most logically airtight premise but it’s a form-fitting epistolary tale which is effectively creepy and aesthetically thoughtful, so to speak.

Rec: “The Terminator” by Laurence Suhner

The Terminator” by Laurence Suhner, Nature (2017-02-22), science fiction short story

A woman has a task which makes her contemplate beginnings and endings, yin and yang: terminators. And she does this in a system of a tiny cool star and three habitable planets.

I’ll grant that this story may be a little lacking in the dramatic/fictional departments and some of this is just excitement over the timely topic but this is a brilliant evocation of the possibilities of the system. No, it is almost certainly not like everything described in the story and it’s not even very likely it’s much of anything like it (though the author does address some of my concerns about the effects of tidal locking on temperatures and atmospheres and the effects of strange suns and their radiation fields on close planets and so on). Still, one of the strengths of real science fiction is its ability to make genuine possibilities imaginatively concrete and this story concisely achieves that.

For the non-fiction behind the fiction:

* At the time of this post, this article is inaccurate (or at least makes a wildly optimistic, unreasonable, and unnecessary overstatement): “All of them orbit at the right distance to possibly have liquid water somewhere on their surfaces.” Only three do (if three can be described as “only”).

** Ditto: “all of them may be capable of supporting life as we know it…”