Review: Clarkesworld #143

Clarkesworld #143, August 2018

Original Fiction:

  • “The Veilonaut’s Dream” by Henry Szabranski (science fiction short story)
  • “The Anchorite Wakes” by R.S.A. Garcia (science fiction short story)
  • “Kingfisher” by Robert Reed (science fiction novelette)
  • “The Privilege of the Happy Ending” by Kij Johnson (fantasy novelette)

In “Privilege,” Ada and her talking chicken (and a damned fierce talking chicken it is) are driven from their home by the ravening horde of little monsters that periodically ravage the English countryside in the 12th century. Will they survive? Can anything be done about the nasty critters?

If someone were to intentionally write a story that would appeal to me less, they’d have their work cut out for them. This is a near-novella of a medieval fairy tale fantasy with an intrusive narrator  who constantly addresses the reader to talk about the storyness of the story while the sometimes archaic main narration uses a dozen words when one would do. However, none of this is unintentional and this sort of story does appeal to some so, if the meandering middle and handwaving ending doesn’t interfere, they might enjoy it. (Weird note: the start of the final action scene put me in mind of Aliens with a Chicken Ripley.)

Moving to the other novelette without escaping a fantasy feel, “Kingfisher” is a similar “short story in long story’s wordage,” so to speak. This takes the fun out of everything: a 700-word infodump a third into the story establishes that it’s set on a hyperfiber Beltrami pseudosphere starship which uses the cosmos for fuel (in the widest sense) in a striking way but this great setting is used to wander about with a feeble post-human sub who is slowly chasing after his repugnant “post-er-human” dom after they got separated a few zillion years ago. The whole thing feels like a middle with even less of an end than a beginning and with no characters to care about.

Anchorite” is a pseudo-Catholic science fantasy in which Sister Nadine is doing her hallucinatory religious things when she meets the Magic Child who is suffering domestic abuse before things absurdly transform into cosmic AI war. Though it has a science fictional kernel, the withholding of the nature of what’s going on, coupled with its muddy, unrealistic narrative approach makes it feel like fantasy and it essentially is.

Madeleine is a “Veilonaut,” or one who explores a veil-like rift in space beyond Pluto. Machines effectively fail to enter this veil (presumably because it’s dependent on a possibly naive version of the QM observer effect, which plays into the conclusion) so humans must explore it (fruitlessly so far) at great risk to themselves with people regularly “cut” or “lost” when the veil shifts: if they are partly in and partly out, they are chopped in two and, if all in, never return to the solar system. She’s a lucky one, being a veteran of many trips, but knows her luck may run out, especially when one of her two companions makes inauspicious comments before this story’s trip.

At first, I was thinking this was going to have to be really great to have any merit compared to Rogue Moon or even “Diamond Dogs” or any number of other contrived semi-magical “death machine stories” or Gateway with its similar lottery-like exploratory aspect but, even though it wasn’t great, it did end up seeming at least noteworthy for its clean, realistic narrative approach to its fuzzy subject matter and for effectively conveying the emotions involved in what happens with this trip’s complications.

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Review: Clarkesworld #142

Clarkesworld #142, July 2018

Original Fiction:

  • “Gubbinal” by Lavie Tidhar (science fiction short story)
  • “A Gaze of Faces” by Mike Buckley (science fiction novelette)
  • “The James Machine” by Kate Osias (science fiction short story)
  • “For What Are Delusions if Not Dreams?” by Osahon Ize-Iyamu (science fiction short story)

Perhaps the most accessible short story is the adequate science fictional romance story “The James Machine” which, aside from being four times too long, feels like a Flash Fiction Online story. A dying husband and his wife try to make an AI emulation of the husband and she decides that, if you love someone, you must get them free will. The somewhat less accessible “Gubbinal” is set on Titan and features a woman who is hunting for artifacts left by Boppers (sentient, organic-like machines) when she comes across an injured Ermine (a person modified to live on Titan and other worlds without mechanical aid) and they both set off to explore until pirates have other ideas. This underplotted tale, which seems to be a small piece of a larger story, also seems to want to combine Rudy Rucker and Wallace Stevens in ways not entirely clear to me, but it was interesting. The least accessible, most perplexing short was “For What Are Delusions if Not Dreams?” which deals with a human being treated like an element of a computer or an element of a computer being something like a human. Either way, it would seem to be a metaphor for individual humans caught in the inhuman emergent System of modern society. It’s much softer and quieter than an Ellison story but appropriate that, after his death, it’s reminiscent of such tales as “I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream.”

The novelette, “A Gaze of Faces,” is another example of the stories particularly focused on the cognitive estrangement and dark, unpleasant moods that Clarkesworld is especially fond of. It probably slots near “Gubbinal” in disorientation and near “Delusions” in dark mood. This was the strongest tale of the issue in many ways but had some significant weaknesses. The “estrangement” is produced from simple inversion. The story opens with undefined terms: “I was sixteen when the viz came. The spiral went crazy for a while, shooting, soldiers at the corners.” Then “viz” and “spiral” and the other layers of confusion are basically “de-estranged” by unspooling a series of simple infodumps interspersed with good action scenes. On top of that, the infodumps teeter on the edge of two different connotations of “incredible,” almost leading to a sense of wonder as they expand the scope of the story and its depth of time but almost leading to a sense of ridiculousness as well. Ultimately, the background seems to fall to the latter sense. So now that I’ve begun without a synopsis, I’ll infodump it: on an essentially uninhabitable world, a “vault diver” pokes around in the remnant VR system of the colonial starship and “spiral” of a habitat that was built from it, looking for things of value. He’s tasked with training a young girl and, together, they discover something of importance which changes their understanding of their history and worlds. The numinous alien facehuggers they all live with are quite creepy (though also a plausibility problem) and the brutal, violent, decayed civilization they inhabit is powerfully portrayed. Without seeming to do much to achieve it, the main characters are appealing enough. It’s just that the deep background which produces this powerful foreground doesn’t work. It’s an “honorable mention once removed,” so to speak.

Review: Clarkesworld #140

Clarkesworld #140, May 2018

Original Fiction:

  • “A Vastness” by Bo Balder (science fantasy short story)
  • “Not Now” by Chelsea Muzar (science fantasy short story)
  • “Fleeing Oslyge” by Sally Gwylan (science fiction novelette)

Yoshi is chasing “A Vastness” of Guardians (like a school of space fish) in a slow spaceship and it will take extreme measures to keep up with them to continue studying them. She initially wanted to implement her crazy plan herself but “she’d realized in order to acquire that Nobel prize, she’d have to be the person publishing the research, not the one dying in the attempt,” so she tries to get others to go before finally having to go herself, after all. So far as I could believe this character (not very) I didn’t like her and I couldn’t believe any of the people around her. I also couldn’t believe any scientific expedition would be so unplanned until developing a crazy one. Finally, the Guardians are basically like Tim Zahn’s Warhorses, only less interesting, and the ending is a movie we’ve all seen.

In “Not Now,” a girl’s room has been destroyed because a robot arm fell on it from space. Reporters are camped outside and people chant against them (and former best friends throw eggs at the girl) because they’re “Pro-Ro” and deserve this. The parents are distant, disturbed, and disturbing. The kid’s going to cover up the hole in her room with a banner but it won’t stick. The surrealism just kind of meanders to a halt. Meanwhile you get things like, “Mom reminds me of the waiting people at the mall … worrying that the person they’re waiting for will never come. Their impatience and fear hardens around them like a thin chocolate coating. It makes them unapproachable.” Are we supposed to find chocolate unapproachable or people who are impatient and afraid delicious?

This is a strange issue because those two stories and the next are not, to partly quote Jules Winnfield, even playing the same sport. Senne is “Fleeing Oslyge” after the invasion of her world of NyHem by the Tysthand. Nobody’s quite sure what the Tysthand (“Peace Hands”) are but they fight dirty, using projections and human traitors against the soldiers and populace. Senne takes up with a handful of soldiers on a harrowing journey to a stronghold, during which she feels nearly as afraid of some of her companions as the enemy. The overarching concept is familiar and the primary plot revelation isn’t all that surprising but the tale is well-constructed and very well written, always keeping things moving and interesting while being very dark and gritty without being overdone. Can’t say I’d ultimately take the same road as the very believable protagonist because I think you need both angles but she has her reasons. Good stuff.

Short Story Month

For Featured Futures, obviously, every month is Short Story Month. Still, Charles May reminded me that this month is even more a Short Story Month than the others while taking  a look at a story for the occasion. As he says in “Wil Weitzel’s ‘Lion’–O. Henry Prize Stories—Short Story Month,” it’s “a celebration that has never really caught on with writers or readers, but one to which I feel bound to contribute.” That seems like a fair assessment and I feel much the same.

I found some history in “Making the Case for National Short Story Month” and, from one of the horse’s mouths, “The Origins of Short Story Month: a guest post by Dan Wickett.”

For some current approaches, a literary magazine offers “14 Writers You Love & Their Favorite Short Stories,” with links to those which are available online. I was pleased to see one short story writer I love and am extra-pleased that hers is one you can go read right this very minute to celebrate Short Story Month!

Speech Sounds” by Octavia E. Butler.

(You can also read “Bloodchild,” the title novelette of a collection of wall-to-wall excellence.)

Weekly Webzine Wrap-Up (2018-03-30)

Weekly Webzine Wrap-Up image
Original Fiction:

Since this week contains the fourth Monday and fifth Thursday of the month, there are no Strange Horizons or Lightspeed stories, which leaves us with five from four other zines. Even there, I wouldn’t ordinarily have reviewed the Tor.com story as it’s a translation, but did so for Tangent: Tor.com, March 2018.

Of the remaining four, none impressed me favorably. Of the non-BCS pair, “Starless Night” seems to briefly argue against human exploration of space (perhaps in favor of robotic) through the weighted means of a mission to a rogue object which fails without ever explaining how the ridiculous mission was so poorly planned or exactly how it failed, while “Music for the Underworld” is a techno-dystopian retelling of Orpheus and Eurydice, noteworthy only for the degree of its bathos which has soul-crushing tragedy piled upon soul-crushing tragedy until it becomes almost comical and certainly ludicrous. It is similar in both mood and dated subject matter to “Don’t Press Charges and I Won’t Sue” (Charlie Jane Anders, October 30, 2017 Boston Review) in that the latter deals with homosexuals being reprogrammed 50s-style (and horror-style) while the former involves a woman making accusations of sexual harassment and having her life destroyed along with that of her boyfriend. The latter received some accolades from more distinguished readers than I, so perhaps this will have its fans, too.

Of the BCS pair there is, alas, no “The War of Light and Shadow, in Five Dishes” for me like there was in the last issue. “She Who Hungers, She Who Waits” is a mid-length short story which is more of a horror story than a fantasy and has its own underworld motifs, dealing with a woman who vivisects people to somehow help them choose a better death than was their lot but which fails horribly and, um, viscerally in this case, which is only a step in a larger intrigue which makes the case against immortality. The prose style is full of nubivagant effulgences except when the protagonist is speaking of “your cum that warmed my womb.” The mid-length novelette (which feels much longer), “Cry of Desire in a Shrouded Land, ” is a similarly French story for the bulk of its style except when it becomes Anglo-Saxon in its erotic, even pornographic passages. It involves Lukas, a tired old man who sells “miracle tea,” Vidita, a scheming slave woman, and a similarly scheming unnamed spider executioner in a “city of angels” which is seasonally overrun by large spiders. The tea grants wishes in the manner of all those myths which tell you to be careful what you wish for.  This is a story which is very pleased with itself and either doesn’t care or is convinced we’ll be on board, so never notices if anyone hasn’t gotten on or falls off. Presumably some readers will actually be entranced and, for them, it would obviously be a winner, but this would seem to be a happenstance connection rather than a generally applicable result of sound craft.

Review of Heroic Fantasy Quarterly #35 for Tangent

This issue of Heroic Fantasy Quarterly includes three novelettes which take us to the New World, the Old World, and a Secondary World, with more or less bloodthirsty demons and more or less unlikely heroes and more or less of a sense of olden days in all of them. All have good points, though none entirely worked for me.

Full review at Tangent: Heroic Fantasy Quarterly #35, February 2018

Weekly Webzine Wrap-Up (2017-12-09)

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(While no acknowledgement was required, thanks to comfreak for the great art.)

So far in December, Grievous AngelStrange Horizons, and Tor.com have produced no original fiction in English. The rest of the (semi-)weekly venues I cover were active and here are (mostly) brief reviews of their stories.

Low Bridge! or, The Dark Obstructions” by M. Bennardo, Beneath Ceaseless Skies #240, December 7, 2017 (novelette)

A newly married couple take a boat ride on their honeymoon where they are annoyed by a boorish author of ghost stories. This opens (and, indeed, closes) with nothing necessarily fantastic, is narrated in a mannered, Victorian way, and has unappealing characters, so is hard to get into. There is a dinner scene of somewhat spirited conversation and an exciting moment of a low bridge but a prophecy is given which leads to expectations which are disappointed. The culmination is trivial.

The Wind’s Departure” by Stephen Case, Beneath Ceaseless Skies #240, December 7, 2017 (fantasy novelette)

Not having read any Patrick Rothfuss, I don’t know if or how this is related but, when the protagonist is reading The Book of the Names of the Winds, even I couldn’t help but think of the title The Name of the Wind.

What this is related to is at least three other stories about a new god in the world and the wizard(s) who resist it. I’ve only read half of them and I recommended an earlier one (“The Wizard’s House“) in 2015. This one seems to suffer more from sequelitis, being more of a middle and relying more on past stories. These references can add to a larger, numinous effect from ominous vagueness or, being robbed of their context, can simply fall flat. I suspect this could be read in isolation but wouldn’t be a good starting place.

In this installment, Diogenes, the new wizard, is trying to honor his promise to restore the persistent wind, Sylva, to her body, which had been unmade by the previous wizard’s brother. He realizes that the only way to do this is to risk re-awakening the quiescent god. Adding to the difficulties is that there’s an Emperor waiting to be served. The ending wraps up only the most interior thread and sets the stage for further adventures.

This is a slow tale, with little happening in the first half, and never really becoming all that thrilling, but certainly becoming interesting in places due to wonderfully imaginative fantastic elements. Early on, there is another nice depiction of “the wizard’s house” and the second half, with encounters with gods, ascents to the top of the house, and various other things (along with references to the amazing flying jellyfish (that you need to have read a previous installment to appreciate)) keeps things spellbinding. The prose is clean and effective and the cross-bindings of the various characters and their promises and the costs of same is well-handled. If you’ve enjoyed any of the other tales in the series, don’t miss this one and, if not, try one of the earlier tales.

Hakim vs. The Sweater Curse” by Rachael K. Jones, Diabolical Plots #34A, December 1, 2017 (fantasy flash)

A guy cries a lot and vomits Lovecraftian sweaters for his boyfriend. Words fail me.

The Greatest One-Star Restaurant in the Whole Quadrant” by Rachael K. Jones, Lightspeed #91, December [7], 2017 (science fiction short story)

This peculiar tale involves escaped cyborgs finding themselves having to run a restaurant in order to hide in plain sight, with little material to work with and less knowledge of what their fully biological human customers like to eat. When one of them becomes fixated on getting more “stars” in reviews, things go off the rails.

The premise doesn’t grab me, much of the story is extremely unpleasant (with traces of bizarre humor to compensate), and the ending would have been much more effective if the main character had actually been appealing.

Please Consider My Science-Fiction Story” by David G. Blake, Nature, December 6, 2017 (science fiction flash)

This is a meta-story about an author having a meta-conversation with his imaginary/real AI writing assistant. It’s inconsiderable.

Which Super Little Dead Girl™ Are You? Take Our Quiz and Find Out!” by Nino Cipri, Nightmare #63, December [6], 2017 (horror short story)

This very short (c.2,000 word) piece is just what it says: a quiz. Given that, it does a remarkable job sketching the lives and deaths of four murdered girls but still doesn’t result in much of a story.

SWARM” by Sean Patrick Hazlett, Terraform, December 8, 2017 (science fiction flash)

An American/NATO soldier (who’s lost his daughter) is fighting, among others, a mobile minefield in the Russo-Ukrainian war (with children in the area). This is a little too caught up in its acronyms and tech and a little too conventional in its character/emotional efforts to make for successful fiction but it does paint an interesting picture of near-future combat and it’s good to see a story that recognizes the fact of Cold War II (even if it calls it the “Neo-Cold War”).