Review: Nightmare #74

Nightmare #74, November 2018

Original Fiction:

  • “Dead Lovers on Each Blade, Hung” by Usman Malik (horror novelette)

This is an unusual issue of Nightmare in that it has only a single original story (a fairly long novelette) instead of two (usually both short stories unless one is a very short novelette). In the snaky “Dead Lovers,” a Pakistani heroin addict makes his statement to a cop. He describes how he was saved from an overdose by a man who was looking for his lost wife, whom he’d bought when she was a child. With the two men’s lives now entwined, they head off to a sort of mystic religious music concert near a shrine where the husband thinks she may have gone in search of the “Cobra Stone” which fascinates her. When they arrive, the tone and nature of the story becomes much darker and graphically violent and those are only the first steps in the escalation.

The characters are interesting (and become more so in different ways) and the narrative voice, itself, works but the awkward strategy of making this be a person’s long-winded statement to a cop doesn’t help, shown most vividly when the story breaks from first-person narrative to introduce into evidence a key letter written by the missing woman. (On the other hand, one superb element of this story is that you are definitely in Pakistan and there are many unusual or outright unfamiliar words and concepts but it’s lightly done and never obstructive or isolating but invites you in with a strong sense of place and culture.)

The story does a fairly good job of somehow maintaining some interest but over 8000 of the 12000 words are prologue and mainstream prologue at that. When we finally arrive at the climactic section, the narrator’s frozen horror is initially unconvincing. Sure, we’re in an underground cavern a snake has just come out of and some creepy guy is singing weird stuff to the weird friend but either there’s not enough there or it’s not written so that it seems like enough. Then it goes from not enough to too much, jumping straight to a gross-out with a graphic description of viscerally repulsive stuff. The next phase (no spoilers) is actually well done but calls into question whether this is even fantasy at all.

Finally, this seems rich with thematic material and symbolic imagery and could tie together moths and flames, fireflies and snakes, humans and transcendence, along with the obvious intrinsic connections of heroin needles to viper fangs but instead is overly explicit about arbitrary “white queen” stuff instead. It was ultimately interesting but extremely mixed for me, though readers’ reactions will probably run the gamut.

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Review of Galaxy’s Edge #35 for Tangent

The final Galaxy’s Edge of 2018 brings us three flash fictions, two very short stories, two longer short stories, and one novelette. Unusually, all are SF except one of the shorter stories and, in a mathematically improbable way, it is one of the two best stories in this above-average issue.

Full review at Tangent: Galaxy’s Edge #35, November/December 2018.

Honorable mentions:

  • “Cat Lady” by Susan Taitel (fantasy short story)
  • “A Waltz in Eternity” by Gregory Benford (science fiction novelette)

Review: F&SF, November/December 2018

The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction,
November/December 2018

Fantasy & Science Fiction, November/December 2018, cover by Alan M. Clark
Original Fiction:

  • “Thanksgiving” by Jeffrey Ford (fantasy short story)
  • “The Lady of Butterflies” by Y. M. Pang (fantasy novelette)
  • “Extreme” by Sean McMullen (science fiction short story)
  • “The Iconoclasma” by Hanus Seiner (translated 2013 novelette; not reviewed)
  • “Overwintering Habits of the North American Mermaid” by Abra Staffin-Wiebe (fantasy short story)
  • “Every Color of Invisible” by Robert Reed (science fiction novelette)
  • “This Constant Narrowing” by Geoff Ryman (fantasy novelette)
  • “Other People’s Dreams” by Nina Kiriki Hoffman (science fantasy short story)
  • “The Baron and His Floating Daughter” by Nick DiChario (fantasy short story)
  • “When We Flew Together Through the Ice” by J. R. Dawson (science fiction short story)
  • “The Island and Its Boy” by Bo Balder (fantasy short story)

F&SF‘s final issue for 2018 more or less reverses last issue’s SF tilt with a lean towards fantasy and is also lacking a novella but is packed with stories that are mostly long within their categories (aside from a 122-word “story”). Despite those similarities, this issue is much stronger.

The only story which is hard to see as a story of family or of courtship rites is, naturally, the one about a psychopathic thrillseeker caught up in a conspiracy of rich people up to no good. “Extreme” has vivid first-person narration and may show a good grasp of an outlier mentality but is less convincing when it comes to imagining, not the possible depths, but the required factors of the ultra-rich.

Invisible” is set among a hidden group of Lakota and focuses on Raven Dream, a boy who similarly gets caught up in a conspiracy of the rich. It spends more than half of its nearly 14,000 words describing the boy being educated by his uncle, the computer, and the TV, with descriptions like, “Television was a slab of glass and plastic, its spine running up to an antenna on top of the trailer. High clouds and no wind meant that the television would let five windows come indoors. But the television was sleeping today.” (Throughout, its science fictional core components and fantasy style have an uneasy co-existence.) Finally, the boy is taken before the rich man and a certain tension develops but this reads more like a random excerpt from a novel (which may turn out to be good) than a fully shaped story. “Ice” involves a cardboard villain of a mother taking her two daughters and running away from her husband by stealing a spaceship (which has a dashboard and on which people shoot bullets). She has the older daughter and our narrator chipped with a mind-controlling “conscience” but, for some reason, doesn’t do the other one. After years (decades, even), this leads to violence. The tale’s monochromatic misery has its power but needs more than that and it contains sometimes ineptly deployed familiar tropes.

Somewhat like “Invisible,” “Dreams” is a blend of fantasy and science fiction but this reads more purely like “science fantasy” in that it’s essentially a fantasy set in space. One orphaned being is apprenticed to another being who has problems with her siblings. They craft dreams for other entities and the crux of the story arrives when the master is called by her sibling to finally sort things out by producing a very special dream. The narrative’s style was sometimes stiff but generally effective and the plot was interesting but not quite enthralling. In the last and best story I’m lumping into this group, one fine “Thanksgiving,” after Uncle Jake has left, a family realizes none of them know whose uncle Jake is. This leads to a family discussion and a climactic next Thanksgiving. The spooky idea and the short story form go together like turkey and stuffing and it’s generally well executed. There are at least a couple of ways such a story could go and the one enhances the effect of the other. There are a couple of minor blemishes, though. Conversation as earthy as having someone “put shit in the oven” and stilted as “[t]he act of putting his jacket on” seeming to “drain” another didn’t mesh and, similarly, the segue from the mainstream to the fantasy parts of the story could have flowed better.

Moving to courtship rites, “Narrowing” is a deeply unpleasant story (the author provides his own trigger warning list after the fashion of Strange Horizons) in which all the women of Earth have followed Mary and disappeared, leaving men to hunt other men, wounding them with gunfire and claiming them as sexual trophies. But, eventually, races and other divisions of men start disappearing piecemeal as well. This seems to be a hodge-podge of the preoccupations of contemporary fiction and is probably saying something about “internet bubbles.” It seems to accidentally switch tenses once before decisively doing so when it also begins addressing the reader as the hunter who is trying to force a wounded narrator to satisfy you. That narrator insists he’s a Latino Californian gangbanger but calls redheads “gingers” and refers to being “in hospital.” “Mermaid” is the 122-word piece in which we get advice regarding mermaids and their winter clothes and what people interested in them might do.

Island” is a much more interesting tale as it’s not everyday one reads a fantasy about polygamous matriarchal Eskimo-like people on a moving island which orbits the pole until it breaks into more southerly currents and gets replaced by a baby island which serves as the new home of the people. One special boy doesn’t want to leave his familiar home (but is quite willing to explore the unfamiliar otherwise) and he must ally with a handicapped girl to complete his plan of secession. In the end, the plot is more of a deus ex than his own work (though it can all still be seen as a necessary test) and the ending is a bit sentimental or overwritten, but this was a decent tale. Perhaps a step above, “Floating Daughter” deals with a Prince visiting a Baron only to find the Baron’s daughter, Levita, stuck to the ceiling because she’d forgotten to eat the magic apple that keeps her from floating away. The Prince is enchanted by her and vows to succeed where others have failed and solve the problem of the magic tree with the magic fruit so that he can marry her. The Prince, the Baron, and Levita are all initially delightful and the tone is superb and it’s thoroughly enjoyable, Then it takes a surprising and very risky turn which it nearly pulls off but left me with a damaged character and confusion about the theme. It was so intriguing throughout, though, that I have to note it.

Better still, and recommended as the best story in the issue and likely one of the best of the year is “Butterflies.” When the inexplicable, enigmatic, and mostly amnesiac Morieth, apparently a native of a sometimes rival land, shows up on the grounds of the curiosity-collecting Emperor and his First Sword, Lady Rikara, the three find themselves drawn into a triangle of attraction set amidst more general and multi-sided court intrigues. Matters reach an action-packed climax when the king from that rival land arrives to treat with the Emperor and many are set at odds with one another and must make great sacrifices, before those events are followed by an appealing denouement. The Japanese-like fantasy setting is rich, the characters are complex and the bindings and divisions between them are powerful. One of my favorite elements of the story is its style which doesn’t derive from fancy words but uses plain, simple ones and derives its beauty from their arrangement and rhythm which produces a deliberate, but never slow or clotted pace. Similarly, an objection could be made that the Big Reveal isn’t all that surprising and so might be disappointing but, like the style, the plot works for me because it doesn’t rely on sometimes cheap surprise and reversal, but is made out of solid elements arranged well and seems to unfold with a sense of inevitability.

Review: F&SF, September/October 2018

The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction,
September/October 2018

Original Fiction:

  • “The Memorybox Vultures” by Brian Trent (science fiction short story)
  • “Shooting Iron” by Cassandra Khaw and Jonathan L. Howard (fantasy novelette)
  • “The Men Who Come from Flowers” by Bonnie Jo Stufflebeam (fantasy short story)
  • “Powerless” by Harry Turtledove (alternate history novelette)
  • “The Gallian Revolt as Seen from the Sama-Sama Laundrobath” by Brenda Kalt (science fiction short story)
  • “We Mete Justice with Beak and Talon” by Jeremiah Tolbert (science fiction short story)
  • “Taste of Opal” by Yukimi Ogawa (fantasy novelette)
  • “Suicide Watch” by Susan Emshwiller (science fiction short story)
  • “Emissaries from the Skirts of Heaven” by Gregor Hartmann (science fiction short story)
  • “Impossible Male Pregnancy: Click to Read Full Story” by Sarina Dorie (science fictional short story)
  • “Blessed” by Geoff Ryman (fantasy short story)

The September/October issue of F&SF includes a couple of very long novelettes and some substantial short stories (one within the fuzz factor of a novelette and written like one) but provides the same number of novellas Analog did: 0. (In fact, looking ahead, it looks like F&SF will only emit three in all of 2018.) This issue tips slightly more to the SF side of the field than usual, with six stories of a science fictional nature plus an alternate history vs. four fantasies.

My favorite was one of the two decent SF cops’n’robbers stories. “Mete” takes us into the near future when someone tries to assassinate a mayor with a drone. The interesting element is the “cop” matched up against that drone: an eagle with a bird/human/AI gestalt mind. The story, itself, is a little thin, being a “person low in the pecking order trying to make good” template but the technical idea is fun and the aerial flight and fight is well done. “Vultures” is another crime tale but not another bird story as its birds are metaphorical. Its plot is too thick. In this near-future, a woman works with quasints (AI-like entities derived from people’s online personas). Her case seems to shift from a former bookstore owner to a former woman who is trying to take down an evil politician but that politician and his vulture (pet hacker) play hardball. The premise is fine (though shaky as presented) and the initial layout of actions and issues is fine. The political skullduggery in the meat of the story is okay in the abstract except for TV-episode-like melodrama. Unfortunately, the penultimate twist undercuts the story and hurts the ultimate twist which would have been superb and could have joined up with the start perfectly if the story had had a different middle.

Moving to stories with revolutionary elements and eventually seguing into fantasy for a bit, “Powerless” is a story about a propaganda poster from the West Coast People’s Democratic Republic being the straw that breaks Charlie Simpkins’ back. He throws it away, rather than hang it in his shop window as required, and that small act, after some pushing and shoving with the Powers That Be, leads him into a life of revolution. The sole speculative element of this story is, “What if California were, say, Cold War Romania?” but there actually was a Cold War Romania. This is effectively unpleasant but rather dull and underwhelming and, though it illustrates how one need not be powerless in bad political times, I’m not sure why the story took this particular retro-form. “Gallian Revolt” moves us off-world and well into the future in another underwhelming tale of a regular person in a revolt, this time as mostly an observer with key details of participation. Also, except for the surface of made-up names and indications of multi-planet empires and some trivial “laundrobath” tech and so on, this isn’t especially science fictional either. “Emissaries” is a little different and reminds me a lot of “Inquisitive” from two issues before in the same magazine. A disadvantaged but driven girl rises from her broken home and experiences a great deal in a larger life in a theocracy in which she’s a participant, though we’re supposed to be sympathetic to her. Here, she tries to find a way to combat a heresy of a group which believes humanity must shrink to pool its godhead vs. those who believe it must be fruitful and multiply throughout the galaxy. While interesting enough, it didn’t seem to connect to much for me. Finally, the fantasy, “Blessed” is one of several stories in this issue written in second person and/or present tense. You’re a white African woman with postcolonial malaise and an acute case of dorkiness who gets lost in a cave tour, endures a nightmare, and then experiences a Change. If I’m reading this right, it may well include a profound truth about the relation of the past to the present and future but its cave nightmare, while indeed theoretically nightmarish, constitutes almost all the surface story which meant it was actually uninvolving.

Two more fantasies are not your typical Western fantasies. “Opal” involves an opal blooded woman being sold by her parents to some merchants, meeting her jet blooded twin, and realizing that the status quo (or sacrificing some things for the benefits of others or something) is a good thing and I frankly didn’t follow it well. Some people may greatly enjoy its unusual fantasy elements, however. “Shooting Iron” involves an Asian woman traveling to the West (or a portion of it which has been consigned to a sort of dimensional hell by a sort of devil) to learn the martial art of the magic six-gun and go out into the world to take on a lieutenant of that devil in what is apparently the first installment of a larger story. While different and better, this reminded me unpleasantly of “Six-Gun Vixen and the Dead Coon Trashgang” from last year’s Lightspeed and had other issues such as repeating the protagonist’s full name “Jenny Lim” 103 times, “Jenny” another 43 times, and “Cowgirl Lim” another four in this forty-page story. I’m not a fan of Weird Westerns and I don’t see this converting many but, if you are a fan, you may find something here.

The last fantasy is one of two stories which invert notions of masculinity. “Flowers” is a flash piece in which a woman exults in her sweet little flower boy but must grapple with allowing him to become a big hulking ugly cruel brute of a man who won’t do the dishes. Moving back to a vague form of SF, “Male Pregnancy” gives us the first story about male pregnancy we’ve had in, gosh, it must be three or four months now, since “Three Meetings of the Pregnant Man Support Group.” This one is much less interesting, dealing with chimeras and twin absorption rather than freaky alien sex and has a character who is presumably supposed to exemplify reproductive desires overwhelming rational thought but doesn’t have the freaky alien sex excuse and he comes off as too irrational and, frankly, stupid, to empathize with. Your mileage may vary. Other than it not happening to humans to my knowledge, this deals with scientifically factual sports of nature and isn’t particularly science fiction. Just more like “Elvis kidnapped by aliens” sort of tabloid SF, though it does deal with thematically serious things.

Because, like King Missile, I like to end on a “Happy Note” (and because empathy with this protagonist may also be difficult (at least, in this case, I hope it is)), “Suicide Watch” involves a future in which a company taking money to allow individuals to watch other people suicide is somehow acceptable and a narrator who has been sadistic since childhood and who can’t feel anything short of thrilling to people’s suicides. Naturally, he runs out of money paying for multiple such experiences (which, as he continually exults, are his and not shown in detail on the internet at large, though he gets lots of likes when he posts about them). Naturally, there is a twist in which the story takes a dark turn. Darker. Depending on how you look at it. The graphic suicides are powerfully portrayed and the reader is unpleasantly put into the position the protagonist volunteers to be in, each of which may be seen as a quality or a defect. However, leaving aside any other criticisms, given the ultimate content of the story, the narrative strategy for this tale simply does not work.

Weekly Webzine Wrap-Up (2018-10-21)

Weekly Webzine Wrap-Up image

Original Fiction:

Since Nature hasn’t put up a new story for the second week in a row and Terraform‘s website seems broken, “AI and the Trolley Problem” is the sole SF story this week. It addresses an interesting problem (an AI deciding to kill some of its “own” people to prevent greater loss of life) but, by having the structure of an odd day in the life followed by a conversation between a “specialist in machine ethics” and the AI, it lacks full fictionalization and drama. Not to mention that, regardless of general morality, any AI that kills those it was designed to protect should be scrapped immediately.

MotherJumpers” has as its basic premise the exact same one of “Bluebellows,” published in the same magazine last year: people jump off slave ships and, rather than dying, are changed. This is written in an extremely thick Caribbean dialect and I even resorted to trying the podcast which did help but not enough so, while some of the underwater descriptions were imaginative and it may have turned out well,  I didn’t finish it.

BCS brings us a pair of fantasies of female friends falling out. “Crow Knight” is much the longer of the two novelettes and seems to have a rather reductive “tend your garden (because you can’t tend others’)” motif after detailing some abortive, misdirected, deceitful steps to deal with the ominous crow which pesters both the plain and morose knight and her angry, bitter, dangerous lady (or princess, one would think, as she’s to be queen). Though short of a full recommendation, “Zayred” was much more appealing. It provides enough in each scene to maintain interest while it unspools the story in reverse. In this case, the strategy makes each scene seem to deepen or intensify without making it seem too baldly put. However, the conclusion (or lack thereof) suffers from just that and from being apt enough, but unsatisfying. Still, the tale of a couple of war-bards (spellsingers) fighting to control the narrative after their deaths, and why they were doing it, was intriguing and possessed of understated style. Some may find the story to be more of an ego-struggle among villains than a social struggle among heroes but I thought the touch of gray could also be seen as an advantage. Without making it a preachy message, there’s also a good depiction of how The Powers That Be keep people at each others’ throats against their own self-interest and for that of the Powers’.

Review: Clarkesworld #145

Clarkesworld #145, October 2018

Original Fiction:

  • “The Miracle Lambs of Minane” by Finbarr O’Reilly (science fiction short story)
  • “Sparrow” by Yilin Wang (science fiction? short story)
  • “When We Were Starless” by Simone Heller (science fiction novelette)
  • “Thirty-Three Percent Joe” by Suzanne Palmer (science fiction novelette)

The 145th issue of Clarkesworld brings us a short short and short novelette of independent tales and a long short and long novelette of what seem to be sequels of sorts.

Sparrow” is another second-person tale and another tale of “replacement by automation” which deals with a Chinese window washer and doesn’t seem to have any particular speculative element. “Thirty-Three Percent Joe” (who’s actually 67% Joe and 33% AI replacement parts) deals with a terrible soldier who has a worse mother and whose parts try to keep him alive despite her and the enemy’s best efforts. In alternating sections, we listen to the AI parts discuss how to save Joe during battles in Ohio and see Joe participate in them and in the kitchen, which last is the one place he’s actually successful thanks to the codes to the cooking machinery his central unit keeps giving him. This is all made funny, amazingly enough, but Joe isn’t much of a character and the story’s way too long for what it is.

Like the “Ultra Twist,” “Minane” makes tomorrow look like yesterday, only more so and not in a fun way. After a famine caused by sea-critters (likely the same as those in “The Last Boat-Builder in Ballyvoloon”), Ireland’s population is much reduced and there is a struggle between the imperatives of more food vs. more people. This tale is full of local color and a more general rusticity with much minutiae on farming, animal husbandry, and illicit doctoring, enlivened only towards the end with a moment of action. Even though “Starless” seems to be a sequel to “How Bees Fly,” I’m still not sure exactly what’s going on. Presumably it’s set on Earth and presumably the people with tails and carapaces are modified humans but they could be biomechanical or something else. Perhaps I missed something or perhaps it really is vague exposition but, if the latter, this rendition of the “post-apocalypse” tale combined with the “Promethean misfit aids conservative tribe” tale is a case of two wrongs almost making a right, as the weirdness of the exposition provides a gloss of dissonant freshness to the otherwise familiar tale.

Weekly Webzine Wrap-Up (2018-09-22)

Weekly Webzine Wrap-Up image

Original Fiction:

The weekly-ish offerings of this week are above average, overall. Oddly, there are two food tales. While “Gourmando” is a flash piece which describes some cooking with only a perfunctory, common and, in this case, trivial “fight dystopia!” frame to “make it SF,” “Tamales” has humans and aliens living on a space station while the latter communicate with tastes and scents. There’s not much actual plot but the story does a good job of indirect exposition (neither relying on infodumps nor settling for obscurity).

In “Fisher,” a person is perhaps injured and, on recovering, sees a giant bear in an odd landscape doing odd things and has odd conversations with it. Gradually, despite amnesia, the protagonist discovers what’s really going on and that it is a matter of life and death. The desperate battle which ensues is remarkable. This fantasy is frustrating for me, beyond the obvious difficulty of summarizing it without spoiling any of its surprises. It’s second-person, present tense, which does it no favors, the style lapses with a single emotionally explicable but still jarring “fucker,” the protagonist is initially amnesiac but “you still remember your Descartes,” the beginning is essential but perhaps overlong, and the ending is complicated but not as smooth as it should be. But the story’s imagery is fresh, its revelations are effective, and its core is powerful.

The week’s (and, so far, the month’s) best story is “Nine Last Days.” A reference to the Fibonacci sequence indicates the story’s structure, the nine scenes of which follow LT through his life and familial generations as they deal with a strange alien invasion of plant-bearing pods. Though it opens with the invasion in 1975 when LT is ten and is thus a form of alternate history, it doesn’t share alternate history’s usual preoccupations or feel much like it. It does, however, carry us through past, present, and future while juxtaposing the familiar and the strange and saying something about the effects of time and change on people. The structure and pacing, characterization, and ideas are very good and the prose is enlivened with nice observations, such as LT spending time with his dad after his parents divorce: “LT and his father ate their meals in the living room, in front of the fire, wordless as Neanderthals” (which is poetically effective if scientifically controversial), and the house-building dad’s take on evolution: “Dad’s God didn’t improvise. He was a measure-twice-cut-once creator.” Firmly recommended.