Review: Asimov’s, January/February 2019

Asimov’s,
January/February 2019

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Original Fiction:

  • “How Sere Looked for a Pair of Boots” by Alexander Jablokov (science fiction novella)
  • “Credit to My Nation” by Sandra McDonald (fantasy short story)
  • “Written in Mud” by William F. Wu (science fictional short story)
  • “All the Difference” by Leah Cypess (science fictional short story)
  • “Ventiforms” by Sean Monaghan (science fiction novelette)
  • “The Gorgon” by Jay O’Connell (science fictional short story)
  • “Salting the Mine” by Peter Wood (science fiction short story)
  • “Taking Icarus Home” by Suzanne Palmer (science fiction novelette)
  • “Neom” by Lavie Tidhar (science fiction short story)
  • “The Esteemed” by Robert Reed (science fiction novella)

Almost half of the titles in this issue of Asimov’s Science Fiction are not, or are only loosely, science fiction. Frankly, this is also the least inspired issue of Asimov’s I can recall having read.

Credit” is set in the Caribbean, deals with a person of indeterminate gender facing discrimination, and ends with a magic wish-fulfillment. “Mud” aims to be a post-apocalyptic cli-fi comedy set on the shores of Kansas with talking fish nearby. “Difference” is yet another story which uses a magic multiverse machine to ask relationship questions, in this case, ostensibly, of whether the protagonist married the right husband. “Gorgon” has a morally problematic HR guy deal with a “uniquely irreplaceable” employee which requires dealing with issues of time and deus ex AI. It was also fairly familiar but more interesting than the others of this group.

Esteemed” is not much different from both “Difference” and “Gorgon” and seems too much like the recent “DENALI” from the same author and the same magazine as well as what I understand Robert Silverberg’s The Masks of Time to be like, though I haven’t read that to know for sure. A time traveler is introduced to the world by President Ford and turns out to be inextricably bound up with a group of “Esteemed,” particularly including one family. Various real-world and science-fictional crises involving nuclear proliferation, global warming, genetic engineering, and AI are confronted but figuring out the temporal messiah may be the biggest issue of all. Considering its length, it read fairly quickly but its narrative approach of looking at people as though they were objects seen from a great distance unsurprisingly created a disengaging effect.

Salting” is not much different from “Mud” in terms of failed humor. In this attempt at an Andy Griffith Show in Space, Otis is played by an alien and Andy is played by a lesbian. Andy’s folks have been abandoned by a corporation which returns to place them and the natives under their thumbs after a long time away but both develop a halfway red herring plan of resistance which ends by fiat.

Noem” is three pages of dull infodump about an artificial city in the Arabian desert followed by two pages about the protagonist’s visit with her senile mother after the senseless destruction of a chatbot “friend.” The depiction of that was effective.

Ventiforms” is one of at least a couple of stories in series, dealing tangentially with another of Shilinka Switalla’s great artworks but really focused on Taile Aronsen, who is looking for her son. He’s become rather… involved… in his work assisting Switalla. This feels like a story that is simultaneously overlong and yet missing its opening, is one of several stories recently which have an insufficiently prepped presentation of characters overloaded with emotion and, like “Salting,” “Credit,” and others, ends too easily.

Boots” is another in series. Sere functions as a sort of private detective trying to figure out the strange behavior and imprisonment of her sister’s boyfriend which leads her to uncover a complicated plot between the complex mix of species living on her world. It mostly deals with many of those aliens doing many disgusting things and with footgear fashion. Some may enjoy this tale’s color and activity.

Finally, “Icarus” has a Good Samaritan find a lost kid who’s nearly burned up in a pod after falling in with some odd folks whose idea of a good time is flying close to the sun. This has two severe problems: it’s inexplicably told in second person and it has the protagonist behaving in ways that seem to lack good sense without sufficient motivation before providing more grounds for this through character backstory after the fact. Still, this was evocative and otherwise effective and, if I were going to make any of these the cover story, I’d agree that this one would be it.

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Year’s Best Short Science Fiction and Fantasy #2 (2018 Stories)

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Introduction

This second annual virtual anthology of the year’s best speculative fiction differs in four primary ways from last year’s Web’s Best Science Fiction #1 (2017 Stories) and Web’s Best Fantasy #1 (2017 Stories). Rather than restricting my coverage to web magazines as in 2017, I added coverage of several 2018 print magazines which created a much larger pool of stories to choose from. Thus, the word count for the “best” stories has increased from 140,000 to 250,000 words. Further, those words were evenly divided between two volumes of science fictional and fantastic stories but have now been combined into a single volume with three sections of uneven story and word counts. Finally, because of some of this, I renamed it to Year’s Best Short Science Fiction and Fantasy.

What hasn’t changed is the principle of selecting (to repeat the first introduction’s quote of the late Gardner Dozois) “only those stories that honestly and forcibly struck me as being the best published during that year, with no consideration for log-rolling, friendship, fashion, politics, or any other kind of outside influence.” And there’s still the same qualification to that: for variety’s sake, if multiple stories are by the same author or have strikingly similar elements, I try to select only one. Similarly, I’ve attempted to sequence the stories for a varied reading experience rather than any other principle. (The sequencing may not be ideal, though, as I wasn’t planning to do it this time, because not everyone will be able to read all the stories, but I wasn’t happy with other ordering methods.)

So what are the specifics of these principles and what sort of compilation did they produce? From December 11, 2017 to December 9, 2018 I read nearly 900 stories (872, I think) from 22 magazines (Amazing, Analog, Apex, Ares, Asimov’s, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Clarkesworld, Compelling, Cosmic Roots and Eldritch Shores, Diabolical Plots, F&SF, Flash Fiction Online, Galaxy’s Edge, Grievous Angel, Lightspeed, Nature, Nightmare, Slate, Strange Horizons, Terraform, Tor.com, and Uncanny) plus occasional issues from others. I selected 29 stories from fourteen of those regular, and two irregular, magazines which, despite the increased word count, is only three more stories than last year. The main reason for this is that last year there were several flash or very short pieces and no novellas while this year there are only three flash pieces and four novellas (which ironically include two from the web).

Partly due to the increased coverage and word count and partly due to an intrinsic quality of some of the best fiction, I felt it was better to split the fiction into three sections called “Natural,” “Pseudonatural,” and “Supernatural” fiction. The natural stories are science fiction stories which, while they might push the boundaries or make mistakes, are stories set in this space/time continuum and deal with things intended to represent the physical phenomena of nature while supernatural stories are fantasy stories which slip those mortal coils and deal with ghosts, vampires, spells, or otherwise purely fantastic things. There were a number of stories, though, which didn’t quite fit either category but which might be called alternate history, steampunk, rationalized fantasy, science fantasy, etc. They may insert fantastic elements into a science fictional milieu or apply the scientific method to fantastic things or at least approach them in a particularly reasoning and empirical way. They may be set in different timelines or use imaginary science or otherwise stress the notion of natural plausibility without sacrificing literary quality. Or they may just oscillate back and forth between genres while being experienced, like optical illusions.

Each section’s story count is not identical but happens to have come out close though the wordage of the “natural” stories (114K) dominated the rest and the “pseudonatural” stories (58K) formed the smallest group. If forced to pigeonhole everything as either SF or F, I’d probably split the “pseudonatural” category titles evenly between them. In terms of quality, I felt the SF in the first volume was generally stronger than the fantasy but this year produced numerous especially powerful fantasies.

As I did last year, I once again wish I could present more than three space-based or extra-terrestrial stories in the “natural” section and almost substituted one cluster of stories for another to achieve that but, strictly on quality, decided not to. I wish there were more combinations of Nina Allen’s “A Gift of Angels” (a beautifully written but almost mainstream story) and G. David Nordley’s “Empress of Starlight” (a huge toybox of Big Dumb Objects and interstellar exploration/adventure without appealing characters) but most excellent stories, if not that lopsided, still excel more in one domain than the other.

One type there was more than enough of, which cuts across subgenres, is the “Young Adult” or “juvenile” tale. More than one good story failed to appear in this group due to an excess of that type and they still make up over a third of the titles. On the one hand, this shows the remarkable quality of such stories and that’s a good thing but, while “YA,” I’m not sure how many young adults they’d actually excite. I can only hope it’s a lot.

A last thing to note about the contents is that 26 authors make their first appearance this year with only Ashley Blooms, Greg Egan, and Susan Palwick repeating.

As a final note on the field generally, the magazine is dead! Long live the magazine! Ares and Grievous Angel no sooner became SFWA-qualifying markets than they died. While Grievous Angel lasted most of the year, Ares died before I ever saw an actual issue and after I’d read only one story which was released on their website. To make up for this, Amazing (the cat of science fiction magazines) was reborn yet again and The Dark raised its pay rate to an SFWA-qualifying level. Here’s hoping they not only survive to qualify but prosper after doing so.

Part One: Natural Fiction (Science Fiction)

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Umbernight” * Carolyn Ives Gilman
Clarkesworld #137, February 2018

The Independence Patch” * Bryan Camp
Lightspeed #94, March 2018

Redaction” * Adam R. Shannon
Compelling #11, Summer 2018

“Galatea in Utopia” * Nick Wolven
F&SF, January/February 2018

Flash: “My Favourite Sentience” * Marissa Lingen
Nature, April 25, 2018

Grace’s Family” * James Patrick Kelly
Tor.com, May 16, 2018

Octo-Heist in Progress” * Rich Larson
Clarkesworld #146, November 2018

The Nearest” * Greg Egan
Tor.com, July 19, 2018

“The Camel’s Tail” * Tom Jolly
Analog, March/April 2018

Sour Milk Girls” * Erin Roberts
Clarkesworld #136, January 2018

“The Last Biker Gang” * Wil McCarthy
Analog, May/June 2018

Part Two: Pseudonatural Fiction

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“Likho” * Andy Stewart
F&SF, March/April 2018

Strange Waters” * Samantha Mills
Strange Horizons, April 2, 2018

“In the Sharing Place” * David Erik Nelson
Asimov’s, September/October 2018

A Song of Home, the Organ Grinds” * James Beamon
Lightspeed #98, July 2018

“Never the Twain” * Michael Reid
Interzone #274, March/April 2018

Leviathan Sings to Me in the Deep” * Nibedita Sen
Nightmare #69, June 2018

Nine Last Days on Planet Earth” * Daryl Gregory
Tor.com, September 19, 2018

Flash: “This Big” * John Cooper Hamilton
Nature, March 21, 2018

Part Three: Supernatural Fiction (Fantasy)

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“The Lady of Butterflies” * Y. M. Pang
F&SF, November/December 2018

The Thing About Ghost Stories” * Naomi Kritzer
Uncanny #25, November/December 2018

A Witch’s Guide to Escape: A Practical Compendium of Portal Fantasies” * Alix E. Harrow
Apex #105, February 2018

The Thought That Counts” * K. J. Parker
Beneath Ceaseless Skies #250, April 26, 2018

“Hainted” * Ashley Blooms
F&SF, July/August 2018

The War of Light and Shadow, in Five Dishes” * Siobhan Carroll
Beneath Ceaseless Skies #247, March 15, 2018

“Hideous Flowerpots” * Susan Palwick
F&SF, March/April 2018

“The Monstrosity in Love * Sam Thompson
Black Static #64, July/August 2018

Flash: “The Ghost In Angelica’s Room” * Maria Haskins
Flash Fiction Online, March 2018

Shadowdrop” * Chris Willrich
Beneath Ceaseless Skies #261, September 27, 2018

Summation: November 2018

The issues of Clarkesworld and F&SF were especially strong and Galaxy’s Edge had a couple of nice tales. I also began belated coverage of the resurrected Amazing‘s August “Fall” issue this November. On the other hand, in general, non-prozine news, Shimmer ceased publication and I noticed that the long-dormant SQ Mag had finally acknowledged its death in September. Speaking of death, this month’s wombat was at least three excellent stories in which the deaths of mothers and a sister played significant parts.

The tally for November was 79 stories of 482K words (plus five October stories of 19K in November’s first review of the weeklies) with thirteen noted and six of those recommended. In more general site news, I’ve decided on Featured Futures‘ 2019 coverage. The link to that is in the “News” section at the end of this post.

Noted Stories

Recommended

Science Fiction

  • “Empress of Starlight” by G. David Nordley, Analog, November/December 2018 (novelette)
  • “Foster Earth” by Julie Czerneda, Amazing, Fall 2018 (short story)
  • The Gift of Angels: an introduction” by Nina Allan, Clarkesworld #146, November 2018 (novelette)
  • Octo-Heist in Progress” by Rich Larson, Clarkesworld #146, November 2018 (short story)

Fantasy

  • “The Lady of Butterflies” by Y. M. Pang, F&SF, November/December 2018 (novelette)
  • The Thing About Ghost Stories” by Naomi Kritzer, Uncanny #25, November/December 2018 (novelette)

Honorable Mentions

Science Fiction

  • “Joyride” by Kristine Kathryn Rusch, Asimov’s, November/December 2018 (novella)
  • A Waltz in Eternity” by Gregory Benford, Galaxy’s Edge #35, November/December 2018 (novelette)

Fantasy

  • “The Baron and His Floating Daughter” by Nick DiChario, F&SF, November/December 2018  (short story)
  • Cat Lady” by Susan Taitel, Galaxy’s Edge #35, November/December 2018 (short story)
  • The Coal Remembers What It Was” by Paul R. Hardy, Diabolical Plots #45B, November 16, 2018 (short story)
  • Godzilla vs. Buster Keaton or: I Didn’t Even Need a Map” by Gary A. Braunbeck, Apex #114, November 2018 (novelette)
  • “Thanksgiving” by Jeffrey Ford, F&SF, November/December 2018 (short story)

Reviews

Magazines

News

Review: Amazing, Fall 2018

Amazing, Fall 2018

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Original Fiction:

  • “Captain Future in Love (Part One)” by Allen Steele (serialized science fiction novella)
  • “Harry’s Toaster” by Lawrence Watt-Evans (science fiction short story)
  • “Beyond Human Measure” by Dave Creek (science fiction short story)
  • “Flight of an Arrow” by Shirley Meier (short story)
  • “Sister Solveig and Mr. Denial” by Kameron Hurley (science fiction short story)
  • “Foster Earth” by Julie Czerneda (science fiction novelette)
  • “Slipping Time” by Paul Levinson (fantasy short story)
  • “When Angels Come Knocking” by Drew Hayden Taylor (fantasy short story)

The Fall 2018 issue of Amazing (which came out in August) marks yet another resurrection of the venerable title. As such, I’ll spend some time on general and non-fictional aspects of the magazine before moving on to its fiction.

Non-Fiction

The new Amazing is attractively presented, with interior illustrations and cartoons (the first is especially funny) enlivening its three-column layout which packs in a lot of wordage relative to its 104 pages. An interesting bit of style is the use of the first column of each story for a drawing of the author set above the biographical blurb. A problem (though less of one than for many other magazines) is that there are several typos or misspellings, poor word breaks, and uncorrected grammatical lapses. Its common in other magazines of this sort to present a fraction of an item followed by a “continued on Page N” and I appreciate that they don’t do this, but have complete non-fiction articles bookending the complete run of stories.

Speaking of that non-fiction, it opens with a presumably irregular “Publisher’s Note” from Steve Davidson which thanks everyone, living or not, who contributed to this revival and makes a good point about Amazing being not just a magazine, but a symbol of science fiction and “the genre’s birth place.” The rest of the non-fiction columns are presumably regular. Raconteur Robert Silverberg, the current Memory of the Field, relates his history with Amazing in an engaging piece. In the last piece before the fiction, NASA man Jack Clemons brings us a regular column on space exploration.

Moving to the back, there’s a “European Author Profile” (interview) from Gary Dalkin on Tade Thompson. While Wells and Verne were major early Europeans drafted by Amazing, I’m not sure what the real connection is and if simply profiling one of the authors published in the issue, like Analog and many other magazines do, wouldn’t have been better. Then there’s a movie review column from Steve Fahnestalk rather than a book review column (shades of some of Amazing‘s more multimedia periods) and, lastly, an editorial from Ira Nayman on the uses and abuses of stories, amazing or otherwise.

Fiction

The fiction reminds me most of Galaxy’s Edge, overall. There’s science fiction and fantasy, the former is usually far from hard, and both include humor. There may also be some comparison to On Spec in that there’s a strong Canadian (specifically Ontarian) presence which includes the editor and a third of the authors.

It begins with a two-part serial of Allen Steele’s “Captain Future in Love” which, if the parts are at all equal, will be a novella. There is also a reprint of Rudy Rucker’s 2013 tale “Apricot Lane” which is typical of the author.

The original fiction opens with “Harry’s Toaster.” In the award-winning “Why I Left Harry’s All-Night Hamburgers” (IAsfm, July 1987), Harry runs a diner which serves as a nexus for travelers of parallel worlds and sometimes receives strange payments from them but the story primarily concerns his assistant. In this short, humorous (but lesser) follow-up, the focus is on Harry as he’s paid with a “toaster” which doesn’t have anything to do with bread.

Beyond Human Measure” is also a sequel, this time to “Stealing Adriana” (Analog, October 2008), and related to others. Carrie Molina is guarding Vicari, the evil nut who tortured and killed Carrie’s sister Adriana. They are on a mission to try to save a sick Jupiter whale who is the only one who can broker a peace deal between other whales. Because of Vicari’s modifications, he’s the only one who can heal it. When Vicari falls ill himself and needs to take an extraordinary step to accomplish the mission, Carrie must choose between her hatred of him and her desire to, um, save the whale. Leaving aside Jupiter whales, Vicari’s uniqueness is implausible, the emotions aren’t convincing, there are repeated minor contradictions (such as Carrie saying she’d never turn her back on Vicari when she’s done just that immediately prior and will again later) and much “as you know, Bob” and telling rather than showing (such as Vacari saying, “I’ll walk all of you through this so it’s clear what I’m doing”). Finally, the story veers sharply from a sort of science fiction towards a sort of fantasy.

Flight of an Arrow” conveys its grimdarkness well but is too sadomasochistic for me. It’s also categorically odd because, despite a practically impossible ending, I couldn’t find any fantasy (not to mention SF) in it. A small man who is poor with a sword but a superb archer attracts the animosity of an extremely ignoble noble and, after his wife is insulted and the men fight a duel with swords, the archer loses and is blinded, put into a miserable, filthy cell, and abused for a long period until the noble drunkenly offers him one chance at freedom.

Sister Solveig and Mr. Denial” is a profanity-filled tale which is fixated on smells, so I might mention the musty odor of decayed cyberpunk this gives off. A wimp of a man and a super-warrior of a woman are “gene-freaks” who hunt down other gene-freaks, perhaps as victims of divide-and-rule. No changes are rung on the dystopian cli-fi scenario and the characters don’t come alive but some may find the pace and smart-aleck narration from the wimp give it energy.

Slipping Time” is actually a pun on “timeslipping.” Sometimes, when the protagonist accidentally slips and falls, he travels backwards in time a few hours, days, or weeks. This gives him a do-over after a fight with his girlfriend. The ending doesn’t punch and, because it’s not mechanical or rationalized in any way, I call it a fantasy, but it’s a decent read.

A woman is trying to bead “When Angels Come Knocking” (or an angel, anyway). Gabriel’s come to tell her she’s been picked to be the next mother of the son of God but times have changed and she’s got her own opinions about that honor. This is much like “Slipping Time,” both in terms of its ending and overall readability, but did have an early line that hit me sideways and made me laugh out loud.

Saving the best for last, in “Foster Earth,” humanity is part of a six species “Hub” when aliens, who come to be called “The Silent,” go around dropping off some of their babies to each of those species. This does not generally go well. This story concerns two main threads: one of official investigations, with most of those scenes featuring scientist Zeynep Qadri, and a more personal experiment in which Ernest and Julia (Gallo?), who have recently lost a son, become foster parents of one alien infant. They all work to unravel the mystery of the aliens and establish meaningful contact. It all seems biologically implausible, the movement between scenes feels choppy, and, again, this is a little shaky on the dismount with the last line seeming overly forced and sentimental but it was engaging and read quickly. The Hub feels a bit like Isaac’s Universe (a shared universe created by Asimov in 1990) and that and the general story has a dash of Cherryh. The sense of a lively universe, median society, and real individuals being involved in intellectually and emotionally stimulating things was strongly conveyed and welcome.

Review: Asimov’s, November/December 2018

Asimov’s, November/December 2018

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Original Fiction:

  • “Water and Diamond” by Derek Künsken (science fiction novelette)
  • “Stormdiver” by Nick Wolven (science fiction novelette)
  • “The Gift” by Julie Novakova (science fiction novelette)
  • “Incident at San Juan Bautista” by Ray Nayler (fantasy short story)
  • “Joyride” by Kristine Kathryn Rusch (space opera novella)
  • “Pregnancy as a Location in Space-time” by David Ebenbach (science fiction short story)
  • “Theories of Flight” by Linda Nagata (science fiction short story)
  • “Parallel Military Cultural Evolution in a Non-human Society” by Tom Purdom (science fiction novelette)
  • “What I Am” by William Ledbetter (science fiction short story)
  • “Girl with a Curl” by R. Garcia y Roberston (space opera novella)

Unlike the companion issue of Analog, this issue of Asimov’s has a perfect mix of four short stories, four novelettes, and two novellas. The quality of the stories in those categories is very odd, though. There’s almost no story without some interest and the average is, well, very much above average compared to other venues, but there’s also a complete lack of completely satisfying tales.

There are a few stories set in the relatively near future on a relatively small scale. “Water and Diamond,” apparently related to the “Quantum Magician” universe, isn’t exactly a reprint or a translation but is close to both. It was originally published in a Chinese magazine and shows every sign of it, but makes its first English appearance here. The Chinese have discovered a wormhole and built a socialist habitat in the system on the other side. Though her husband is a lazy gamer, our protagonist is a cop devoted to maintaining order who stumbles across a mystery in the data the AIs collect. There wouldn’t be a story if the habitat’s computer systems and policing weren’t looser than one would expect and the bulk of the tale is fairly dull but the mystery, itself, is initially intriguing. Unfortunately, while the solution turns out to be bigger than anyone expected, the clues, themselves, were disappointingly literal and insignificant. “Stormdiver” is even closer to home, involving a publicity-hound sister and a more straight-laced brother taking separate machines into Jupiter’s clouds to find out why several probes have disappeared. It’s a reasonably exciting and interesting tale but, if a convincing reason for manned missions  in Jupiter’s radiation bath and clouds was given, I missed it, the big climactic scene between brother and sister made little sense, and the revelation isn’t especially surprising given the foreshadowing. Closer still, in “Pregnancy,”  the first pregnant woman on Mars jots down seemingly random and somewhat repetitive notes about pregnancy on Mars vs. Earth and worries about the baby relative to her bipolar suicide sister. There’s a line or two of humor or interesting observations but this is not a story and, as sometimes happens, references an actual event (regarding Vesna Vulovic) which was far more interesting.

Two of this issue’s stories deal, at least nominally, with post-humans. “Cultural Evolution” contains long-lived and pacifist humans who refer to us, their ancestors, as “pre-humans” but otherwise seem perfectly human to me. The protagonist is a specialist in military history who is with a large team of people studying some aliens. He uses camouflaged drones to especially follow the events involving an alien general and her possible transgressions of her culture’s norms of warfare and how that may shed light on “pre-humans,” while the rest of the story is about coping with scarce academic resources. The scholarly mystery held my attention for a time but I must have missed something because I don’t know what this story was really about and it seemed to end with some sort of academic joke. “The Gift” also deals with very, very long-lived humans and handles the psychology of such beings much more impressively than “Empress of Starlight” but it clunks to an ending with a didactic speech. In the meantime, the two interleaved temporal strands (about an alien probe arriving in the Solar System and giving us the “gift” of immortality and the much later events of immortals hunting each other down for their accumulated misdeeds) were good.

Incident” was a bit of an outlier. The Man of a Trio of Names meets up with the Woman of a Village’s Worth of Bodies and they get existential in this story of a sort of time travel which makes no effort to rationalize it.

The remainder of the tales all have YA aspects and one has a bit of a science fantasy feel like “Incident,” though it’s more clearly rationalized (presumably, especially if you’ve read Memory which I unfortunately haven’t). A young man with “Theories” is being Daedalus-like in trying to learn to fly despite the Bad Things which such efforts can cause, his cousin is sick, and the two come together in this tale of Gray Goo. This is a very effective commercial for the older novel, and for what I assume will be its forthcoming sequel, but it’s not a satisfying story, reading more like a chapter. “What I Am” is a flash piece about an AI sweater being converted into a submarine metal detector by its owner, a boy who threw his dead mother’s ring into a pond in a fit of stage two grief. It seems to be aiming at a great deal of sentiment, but it left me nonplussed.

The other two YA tales are both novellas and both space operas. “Girl” comes with a synopsis of at least two of its prequels and involves a girl taking over a starship and, together with her cousins, a princess, and various other odd people, including one named Sleepy Booty, fighting to free Callisto and nearby parts from evil slavers and a supercomputer. Some may find this very long novella (or book segment) hugely entertaining and some may find it too silly to bear. I’m going to call “Joyride” the best story in the issue, just because its bulk was so exciting and gripping but it comes with extreme reservations. A boy (who wants to be a ship captain some day) and a girl (that he’s somewhat infatuated with) are engaged in a series of competitions. The latest is a race to steal shuttles of sorts to go outside the main ship to see the “Scrapheap” where innumerable decommissioned ships float within a forcefield. They both hope to get away with it and assume they’ll have their ingenuity recognized even if they’re caught. However, things unsurprisingly go disastrously wrong and to say this is about “Learning Better” is an understatement. This is a TV-style space opera which, especially in the end, is replete with handwavium. It also simultaneously partially misappropriates blame, is unconvincing regarding the key element of its protagonist’s supposed brilliance, and is problematically intellectually elitist. Still, it was easily the most exciting story in a rather sedate issue.

Review: Analog, November/December 2018

Analog, November/December 2018

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Original Fiction:

  • “Empress of Starlight” by G. David Nordley (science fiction novelette)
  • “Pandora’s Pantry” by Stephen L. Burns (science fiction novelette)
  • “The Gleaners” by Sarina Dorie (science fiction short story)
  • “Smear Job” by Rich Larson (science fiction short story)
  • “A Measure of Love” by C. Stuart Hardwick (science fiction short story)
  • “Learning the Ropes” by Tom Jolly (science fiction short story)
  • “Hubstitute Creatures” by Christopher L. Bennett (science fiction novelette)
  • “The Light Fantastic” by J.T. Sharrah (science fiction short story)
  • “The Jagged Bones of Sea-Saw Town” by Marissa Lingen (science fiction short story)
  • “Sandy” by Bruce McAllister (science fiction short story)
  • “Dad’s War” by Filip Wiltgren (science fiction short story)
  • “Ashes of Exploding Suns, Monuments to Dust” by Christopher McKitterick (science fiction novelette)
  • “The 7 Most Massive Historical Mistakes in The Gunmaster of the Carlords” by Eric James Stone (science fiction short story)
  • “The Ascension” by Jerry Oltion (science fiction short story)
  • “Left Turn” by Jay Parks (science fiction short story)
  • “Body Drift” by Cynthia Ward (science fiction short story)
  • “Mixipoxi Learns to Drive” by Joyce and Stanley Schmidt (science fiction novelette)

While, in one sense, the world of SF is one big happy family (heh), in another,  magazines still have to compete with each other. The print magazines are in trouble with higher overhead and other problems but one place where they have a decisive advantage over the webzines is in their ability to publish novellas which are rare on the web. So, naturally, Analog presents us with twelve(!) short stories (some basically flash, though the Probability Zero item is shockingly omitted – “Historical Mistakes” or others could have served), five novelettes (one of which is barely longer than a short story), and zero novellas. Conversely, some of the novelettes fall just 150 words or a little more short of being novellas. So even though some meaty reads are present, the ToC gives no indication of them.

None of the shorts are especially noteworthy though almost all are at least okay and little separates them. Deficiencies of plot and climax, as well as flat themes, are the most common problems. Perhaps the best are “Smear Job” and “Learning the Ropes.” The former is an overly telegraphed tale about an eighteen-year-old statutory rapist suffering Draconian justice, which is possibly even worse than intended, when he receives a court-ordered mod to his implant which blurs his perception of younger people and makes him uncomfortable around them. The latter asks us to believe that numerous pairs of asteroids of specific types can be found within a few klicks of each other and a pair of people can bond without much description in a tale of a person using one corporation against another to achieve her desire of terraforming Mars, with cli-fi motivating elements. If those aren’t problems or you can overlook them, it’s a pretty clever old-school tale.

Tales in the middle of this pack include “The Gleaners” (which tells how, when the human’s away, the alien will play, with humans who want to hide from reality and uploaded aliens who want to experience it swapping places), “A Measure of Love” (a sort of rebuttal to “Tender Loving Plastic” (May/June 2018 F&SF) which talks positively of an orphan being raised by a robot and later rescuing him from the scrap heap), “The Light Fantastic” (a bad joke, wrapped in a worse pun, inside an entertaining narrative about a seeker of immortality encountering incredibly powerful aliens), “Historical Mistakes” (a one-page mildly comic version of Bester’s “The Flowered Thundermug” (1964), in which a post-Singularity entity holds forth on the things an “experiential” got wrong regarding 20th/21st Century American history), “The Ascension” (which describes how it’s an alien-eat-alien cosmos out there in an initially intriguing tale about how one species acquires aptitudes and memories and how they are faced with a leadership struggle and first contact at the same time), and “Left Turn” (a 50s-style tale where not only the car and the traffic jam, but the solution to the traffic jam and the “solution” to that “problem” is  forecast).

Bringing up the rear are “Sea-Saw Town” (another plotless cli-fi piece in which one woman is Mrs. Genetic Engineer and her wife is Mrs. Town Planner and each spontaneously figures out something about the other’s area of expertise), “Sandy” (in which “aliens” are minorities and what goes around comes around), “Dad’s War” (another 50s-style tale about a “future” which is today, with people selling their votes to corporations which control their lives as seen through the eyes of a vigorously unpleasant family), and “Body Drift” (a monologue to the reader on non-binary gender/sexuality billed as “un hommage a Frederik Pohl” but which is better described as derivative of “Day Million” (1966) with the saving grace that, unlike much fiction on the subject today, it’s aware that it’s not original).

Moving to the novelettes, “Hubstitute Creatures” is another Hub tale featuring Nashira, David, and Rynyan in which Nashira’s valuable list of Hub “vectors” (a sort of potential treasure map) is stolen by Nashira’s trainee. A “body swapping” technology appears for this occasion, allowing them to become other species (and genders), and they run off to Dosperhag territory in an effort to get the list back (and to walk a light-year in other creatures’ shoes). If you’re still interested in this series, you may enjoy this installment but, if not, not. If you’re unfamiliar with it, this isn’t the best entry point and you may find it entertaining but probably not significant. Similarly, “Mixipoxi Learns to Drive” is a sequel to “Opportunity Knocks” (Analog, October 2014) and is an amusing enough minor tale which stands alone well enough but might work better if you’ve read the prior installment. Previously, the Hunt for a supervillain resulted in observer Mixpoxi remaining on our world. In this one, his replacement finally arrives – which requires Mixipoxi to go alone to a location which requires driving to meet him – and the fate of our world hinges on his learning the skill and handling the meeting. While not yet in series to my knowledge, “Pandora’s Pantry,” about a cooking competition show, is a similarly light tale. Its only speculative element is a robot and that is only used (together with the story’s colorful cast) to make a statement about inclusiveness. Perhaps I’m biased because I don’t watch such shows or have any interest in reading about them but, while the stakes may be high regarding the protagonist’s career, they don’t seem particularly high for the reader and it’s all a little too kumbaya, though the story has decent energy which conveys the buzz of putting on a live show under adverse conditions.

Ashes of Exploding Suns,” on the other hand, is not light at all. (Though the name of the offshoot race, the Karalang, did get the “do-lang do-lang” of the Chiffons’ song “He’s So Fine” inappropriately stuck in my head.) In the far future, humanity has been modified to spread throughout the stars and one unrealistically monolithic race, perhaps Portuguese-based given that people are still called “Juan,” with a driving concept of “fidalguia” (though it seems more like Japanese Bushido or something) have turned their entire solar system into a starship. When they decide to pass near ancestral Earth to say “hi,” conflict ensues and, but for the one small ship of our story, they are wiped out. A call to other descended species and thousands of years of hibernation and a plan of genocidal retribution from the survivors all collide in the finale. This anti-colonial, pacifist, pro-youth, guilt-tripping super-science space opera has a lot of message but very little action for an interstellar war story.

Leaving the first (in two senses) last, “Empress of Starlight” earns its cover by being the best story in the issue. People who are allergic to science fiction may not enjoy this and it does have its imperfections. Immortality and AI can paper over a lot of things (such as getting people across interstellar distances in a lifetime and possibly explaining the magic of easy interoperation between different species’ computer systems) but the psychology is still lacking. It’s all worth it for the physics and space adventure, however. When a star disappears, a neuroatypical (or severely socially challenged) human captain and a pair each of human and Kleth crew head out to those coordinates and find the first of several Big Dumb Objects which form a mystery regarding what they are, what they’re doing, and why. Most of the mystery is unraveled in the course of the story which provides much intellectual wonder (though rather less visceral excitement, despite great moments like the “white blood cell” robots putting the crew in a life-and-death situation). If you like stories written on huge spatial and conceptual canvasses, you’ll like this.

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.