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.

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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”).

Rec: “Party Discipline” by Cory Doctorow

Party Discipline” by Cory Doctorow, Tor.com 2017-08-30, SF novelette

Lenae and Shirelle are a couple of students who are about to graduate into a world of haves and have-nots where their odds of ending up “not” are very, very high. With a positively rebellious attitude, some technical know-how, and a lot of unusual friends, both old and new, they try to strike a blow against the empire.

This is similar to, and not as good as, the author’s earlier “The Man Who Sold the Moon” and probably to much more of his work (this may be related to other stories, for all I know) but it’s still such a complexly imagined milieu with such appealing characters and engages in the concrete near future (present, really) with such “hopeful dystopianism,” so to speak, that I just feel it merits wide reading. It is too long and the ending, while correctly trying to avoid extremes, isn’t entirely satisfying, but its virtues more than outweigh those quibbles.

Rec: “Uncanny Valley” by Greg Egan

Uncanny Valley” by Greg Egan, Tor.com 2017-08-09, SF novelette

Adam Morris struggled up from nothing to become a big-time writer/creator in Hollywood before dying. This story’s protagonist is the new Adam: about 70% of the original’s consciousness sideloaded into a humanoid robot. The missing material is partly due to technological limitations and partly due to what the new Adam discovers were intentional “targeted occlusions.” Between a legal system that doesn’t recognize the new Adam as a person, angry descendants of the original Adam contesting the will, difficulty making a life on his own, and a sense that the original may have created a “director’s cut” of his life because of a very nasty skeleton in his closet, the new Adam is having a hard time. Full of questions, he becomes a sort of detective, investigating himself to find out what’s missing and why.

This novelette’s eleven sections, which are full of fresh, clever metaphors and expressions, keep the tale moving, seamlessly weaving in new information and complications and backstory. The main character is very well drawn, as are his loved ones and even the minor characters such as Sandra, the tech/handler. The only thing I could think to say against it, without risking spoilers, are that sideloads and edits have been covered frequently (though rarely as well). It’s a very skillful exploration of people through technology and possibly the best story so far this year.

(Digression: what odds? The flux of the web and my game of catch-up has resulted in reading consecutive stories by Vernor Vinge (from Nature), Stephen Baxter, and Greg Egan (both from Tor.com). All are pretty big guns in my book and most live up to that here. I’ve already recommended the Vinge and now the Egan. This particular Baxter is more in the ballpark of an Honorable Mention, though. He might be given points for cleverly weaving together Mythago Wood (by Robert Holdstock, to whom the story is dedicated) and Wells’ The Time Machine and “The Crystal Egg” but it’s hard to find much in there that doesn’t seem to derive from the unlikely pair of Holdstock or Wells. And he might be given points for making such an interesting middle of a story but the opening runs in place for too long and the close is pretty predictable. Still, people who, unlike me, are fans of retro-pseudo-AltHist “SF” may like it a lot. And given all that, for me to like it as much as I did means the story’s strengths are very strong.)