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’.

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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.

Review: Lightspeed #100

Lightspeed #100, September 2018

Original Fiction:

  • “Her Monster, Whom She Loved” by Vylar Kaftan (science fiction short story)
  • “Harry and Marlowe and the Secret of Ahomana” by Carrie Vaughn (science fiction novelette)
  • “The Last to Matter” by Adam-Troy Castro (science fiction novelette)
  • “The Explainer” by Ken Liu (science fiction short story)
  • “Hard Mary” by Sofia Samatar (science fiction novelette)
  • “Abandonware” by Genevieve Valentine (fantasy short story)
  • “Jump” by Cadwell Turnbull (fantasy short story)
  • “You Pretend Like You Never Met Me, And I’ll Pretend Like I Never Met You” by Maria Dahvana Headley (fantasy short story)
  • “Conspicuous Plumage” by Sam J. Miller (fantasy short story)
  • “A Brief Guide to the Seeking of Ghosts” by Kat Howard (fantasy short story)

Lightspeed brings us a more-than-double special issue for its 100th number with five original SF stories, five original fantasy stories, plus extra reprints and non-fiction. (The online edition swaps two of the usual reprints for two bonus originals with the Kaftan, Vaughn, Castro, Valentine, Turnbull, and Headley being made available.)

Monster” is a cosmic fantasy with scientific phrases sprinkled about and involves a goddess creating some children, one of whom is a monster, and follows their battle of the eons. It has a lot of the feel of June’s “Silent Sun.” “Ahomana” is a “shipwrecked on an island with a secret city” story with an additional component of alternate history in which “Harry” and Marlowe wander from their Victorian England (which has been modified with relics of alien tech) and discover the wonders of Ahomana. Even for being a part of a series and granting that this episode is finished, this is a middle and a bit long for its content but entertaining enough. “Matter” is a “jaded at the end of the worlds” story with a splash of posthumanism thrown over the New Wavy core. A man is ejected from his “orgynism” of perpetual sex to discover the City is dying and decides there are two ways to go and picks one. Some of this is repellent, the rest is common, and the end isn’t as deep as it purports to be. “Explainer” is metafiction nominally involving a repairman and a little girl, in which a broken (lying) house AI is relevant to the craft of fiction and, more generally, the drive for narrative.

The (perhaps excessively) gender-edged “Hard Mary” was much too long for its content (nearly a novella) but the oddly Simakian tale was the most interesting of the SF tales. Lyddie (narrator) and Mim (misfit genius) are effectively characterized young women living in an isolated religious village in the near future who, with some others, discover an abandoned, semi-functional robot they come to call “Hard Mary.” The (mostly mild) tension comes from multiple places including within and between the characters, between that group and the village, and between all of them and the “Profane Industries” men who created Mary.

Abandonware” involves a broken narrator talking about a sort of VR game while covering her childhood and her current situation with a dead mother and a father who has replaced both of them. There’s a symbolic deer and some things that could be called hallucinations but no real fantasy or effect. “Plumage” takes us to an alternate 1950s where everyone has a fantastic talent, though the narrator’s hasn’t manifested because she first wants to learn more about the murder of her gay brother who “danced birds,” so to speak. From the street that went on forever to its questionable rock history and odd perspective on baseball to its ending, it’s unconvincing and “drops frames” at an increasing rate through the sketchy narrative. “Brief Guide” is no story but yet another ineffectual list (eleven sections on how to avoid or attract ghosts depending on season, weather, time of day, and a tip for the ghostless).

Moving up quite a way, “Pretend” is an initially darkly delightful tale of the less magical son of a magician who has to entertain at a birthday party. Naturally, he goes to a bar and hits on what turns out to be a bereaved mother whose child was killed and husband injured in a motorcycle accident. That turns out to be the high point of his day. His life hasn’t been much better, either, as we learn about his childhood, his dad, and deals with Death and/or the Devil. The sardonic tone and comical imagery (the magician’s bright yellow “lemon” of a VW Beetle accidentally ending up in a funeral procession, for instance) keep this story involving and entertaining and the only real problem is a somewhat incongruous and pat ending.

While much more understated (but consistent), “Jump” is the issue’s best story. One fine day, in an overflow of love and joy, Mike and his girlfriend Jessie teleport home. A desire to repeat the experience comes to obsess Mike while Jessie prefers to treasure the singular experience. For a time, she accedes to Mike’s efforts and, somewhere in there, they get married but this thing that cemented their relationship also tends to tear it apart. Very concise, yet well-realized and with some humor and pathos. Good stuff.

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.

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.