Review: F&SF, March/April 2019

The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction,
March/April 2019

FSF-2019-03_04

Original Fiction:

  • “The Unbearable Lightness of Bullets” by Gregor Hartmann (sf short story)
  • “The Plot Against Fantucco’s Armor” by Matthew Hughes (f novelette)
  • “At Your Dream’s Edge” by S. Qiouyi Lu (f short story)
  • “All of Me” by R. S. Benedict (f novella)
  • “miscellaneous notes from the time an alien came to band camp disguised as my alto sax” by Tina Connolly (sf short story)
  • “The Mark of Cain” by John Kessel (f short story)
  • “Playscape” by Diana Peterfreund (f short story)
  • “The Free Orcs of Cascadia” by Margaret Killjoy (short story)
  • “Dear Sir or Madam” by Paul Park (sf short story)
  • “Postlude to the Afternoon of a Faun” by Jerome Stueart (f novelette)
  • “Bella and the Blessed Stone” by Nick DiChario (short story)
  • “Contagion’s Eve at the House Noctambulous” by Rich Larson (sf novelette)

I enjoyed F&SF last year. It had more stories I regarded as the “best of the year” than any other magazine. Things are inexplicably different so far this year, though this issue does have two stories of note (one recommended). The remaining ten divide evenly into “okay” and “not so much.” One striking feature of this issue is how fuzzy they are in terms of science fiction vs. fantasy with some not being much of either one. Another is that GWAR and Ozzy Osbourne are referenced in separate stories. Along with alto saxes, clarinets, and Debussy.

Plot” is another novelette about the wizard Thelerion’s henchman Baldemar. He gets caught up in an elaborate plot which seems to be about the succession to the throne. Baldemar is shown to be extraordinarily slow-witted and unlucky immediately before we are reminded that he’s been changed by an entity and his “mind worked faster and with more precision now…. And he was lucky.” Luck aside, this is conveniently plotted, with amazingly thin walls plus convenient ducts and ear trumpets for overhearing things and so on. It’s also longer than it needs to be. For example, while the threat of a torture which doesn’t happen can be useful in a story, this red herring gets an entire section rather than a more effective line. Overall, though, the tale was engaging enough and fans of the series will probably be satisfied. In “Unbearable,” Inspector Philippa Song is on the case when a currency trader is murdered. There are several logical glitches such as introducing another cop as a “Pather” or religious fanatic and then describing him as “an ordinary cop,” a “pragmatic man,” and thinking “touche” when arguing with him rather than rejecting his axioms. More significantly, the story is written like a murder mystery but then is solved by action which makes the whole thing deflate like a popped balloon and, worse, ends like it’s a middle. Still, there were several moments of potential.

In slighter middling tales, a child has gone missing from a “Playscape” and the mother is suspected of murder. Another mother tries to suspend judgment and sympathize. This much of the “basically fantasy but SF tale if you want it to be” and its creepy traumatized atmosphere is effective enough but the story undercuts its own theme. (See comments for spoiler.) “Dear Sir” is a dead man’s letter, so to speak, which seems to be by an alien whose business in VR personality re-enactments has gotten a bit strange. “Bella” issues her first prayer when her abusive father comes after her again and he’s killed by a rock flying through the window. This is taken as Sign and she becomes a famous social media saint but the rock must have been of iron because irony is on the way. This is one which is hard to call fantasy or science fiction though its more the latter.

Of the lesser tales, “All of Me” is a tabloid-toned “abused girl’s revenge” novella which puts me in mind of stories like an upside-down “Aurelia” from the same magazine. Instead of a butterfly, we have a starfish who becomes a masochistic movie star after a vicious pretty boy falls into the water near her. We follow her wanderings through interminable murders, usually of her, as we head-and-body hop through manifestations of this regenerating, multiplying entity. With “Postlude,” F&SF matches Asimov’s by having a story which references Debussy but this one’s actually about jazz (well, it’s actually about ham-handed homosexual symbolism but it’s definitely not about classical). A clarinet teacher finds that a football-player-cum-musician has his long-lost “Shaft of Moonlight” as he calls his magic clarinet, which was taken from him by the evangelist baseball player Billy Sunday (who also crushed his legs). While I found the musical portions of the program overwritten, some may respond to it but, if you just want a satyr/musician story, try Lester del Rey’s “The Pipes of Pan.”

Miscellaneous Notes” is about a girl trying to make out with a cute guy at band camp, is written in Teen Girl Gush, and has absolutely no need for its “alien” other than to make it “science fiction.” “Dream’s Edge” is another of these stories which completely melt down any notion of “objective correlative.” A person uses a fantasy “app” to experience nightmares: “An arrow pierces your neck. An arrow pierces your eye. Stop, you want to say, but the word will not come as blood pours from your mouth. Stop, you want to say, but they will never stop.” This is for desensitivity training to make a visit to a family who will “use the wrong pronouns” relatively bearable. Finally, “Free Orcs” fails on several levels, including the basic level of believability. Just as one example, the protagonist is a self-described “good journalist” who goes to a group of pseudo-medieval counter-culturalists to interview an admitted murderer. Without checking anyone else’s story, she believes everything the murderer says, including that he killed his victim because that guy was a leader of a group of fascists while his people are matriarchal. Then the journalist implies majority voting is “dumb” and advocates behaving like the driver at Charleston. Despite the use of the word “orc” and having a made-up group, there’s also nothing more fantastic or science fictional here than what you might find at Burning Man.

Finally, turning to the stories which redeem this issue, it’s hard to call “Cain” (which is a metafictional collection of scenes which nod to alchemy and posthumous fantasy and are interspersed with commentary) a fantasy or even a story but, though a little footloose, it’s not fantasy-free and is story-like. The protagonist, whom we call Cal, narrates some of his less virtuous moments in life and some of these scenes, which all meditate on “the mark of Cain” and man’s innate goodness, badness, and ugliness, have power, especially the one which occurs while fetching the milk. I can’t exactly recommend this and could almost question its being published in this form but, at the same time, have to note the quality, nuance, and power of its parts.

Noctambulous” is a fine story which is thoroughly science fictional but feels almost like a Poe horror story as it describes the rich survivors of biological apocalypse commemorating the event with a get-together and festivities. It’s also a clinic in how to do certain things. It opens in the midst of the action of a boy or young man playing with a servant and produces a sense of the society which can contain these two people who interact the way they do. Because this is an exceedingly unpleasant society, it quickly introduces the protagonist’s brother and the main conflict. Sparked by the vicious older brother’s behavior toward the servant, the younger impulsively humiliates the elder. This makes us sympathetic to the younger without absolving him of his society’s sins. Later, the story preserves contrast by including elements of humor (with an undercurrent of darkness) such as when the father lets his eyes literally wander. The only quibble could be the speech (long-delayed infodump) which tells us about the deeper, darker background to it all. But the action immediately returns with the Doppel hunt, in which the young “kill the weak parts” of themselves by shooting their specially (mis)designed clones. Finally, the dark and twisting ending gives readers a sense of completion while simultaneously compelling them to carry the story into the future with their own imaginations.

Advertisements

Review: Asimov’s, March/April 2019

Asimov’s,
March/April 2019

ASF_Mar_Apr_2019

Original Fiction:

  • “The Peacemaker” by Gardner Dozois (1983 science fiction short story; reprint)
  • “Instantiation” by Greg Egan (science fiction novella)
  • “Tourists” by Rammel Chan (science fiction short story)
  • “Eighteen Songs by Debussy” by Michael Swanwick (science fiction short story)
  • “How I Found Harry’s All-Night Hamburgers” by Lawrence Watt-Evans (science fiction novelette)
  • “Terrible Trudy on the Lam” by Eileen Gunn (fantasy short story)
  • “January March” by Tom Purdom (science fiction short story)
  • “The Starry Sky over the Southern Isle” by Zhao Haihong (2017 science fiction short story; “self-translated”)
  • “Transport” by Kristine Kathryn Rusch (science fiction novelette)
  • “Isla Tiburón” by Alex Irvine (science fiction short story)
  • “The Lights Go Out, One by One” by Kofi Nyameye (science fiction short story)
  • “Mr. Death Goes to the Beach” by Jack Dann (fantasy short story)
  • “The Lost Testament” by Allen M.Steele (science fiction novella)

The March/April 2019 Asimov’s is a special issue in honor of former editor Gardner Dozois. It features some writers with special connections to him such as Jack Dann, Tom Purdom, and Michael Swanwick, as well as people like Greg Egan (who received a lot of support from Dozois) and Lawrence Watt-Evans (who has a sequel to his Hugo-winner that Dozois edited). Some of this may be specially commissioned or just serendipitous but the bulk of the tribute consists of special non-fiction. Regular columns have special content: Sheila Williams writes an Editorial on the great editor; Robert Silverberg Reflects on him; James Patrick Kelly finds connections to him On the Net. A special column includes touching and/or hilarious memorials from over a dozen writers. Returning to fiction, the capstone is a reprint from Dozois himself: the Nebula-winning “The Peacemaker” from the August 1983 issue of Isaac Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine, as it was then known, as it was then edited by the underrated Shawna McCarthy. I don’t ordinarily review reprints from current magazines but I will say that this slow-moving tale of a boy washing up on the shores of a religious cult after the ice caps have melted and the seas have risen is an inarguably well-written tale which concludes powerfully and its generational and personal significance is apt.

Turning to the regular fiction, there are four novelettes and novellas among the twelve stories and at least three of them are in series.

Instantiation” is a superior sequel to “3-adica,” a novella from the Sep/Oct 2018 Asimov’s (review). While the earlier story was generally good, I felt it had some problems that this one avoids. It also orients the reader more clearly so that they might not even need to read the first one to follow along, though I wonder if the characters of Sagreda and the others would seem as fleshed out (so to speak). This installment deals with the fact that the business which runs the gameworld in which our AI cryptopeople exist is starting to fail, making them realize they face a mortal threat. They discover a possible escape route via a game in which logical positivists kill Nazis (I don’t know how the business could be failing) because one of the players is using a special VR rig which has useful features (any sufficiently advanced bug is indistinguishable from a feature). The problem is, that player has recently quit. In order to draw the player back in, Sagreda goes undercover. One of the most effective elements of this story, which sets it apart from most other VR/AI stories is the clear double perspective with which we read about data that’s human and machines that are worlds and how, well, “haptic” it all seems, with genuine stakes. While this story’s plot arc does conclude, those stakes are made even more tangible in an epilogue which shows more is to come.

Lost Testament” is a sequel to “Starship Mountain” (Jul/Aug 2018 Asimov’s; review) and “Sanctuary” (Tor.com, May 17, 2017; review). It features the same cast of characters as “Starship Mountain.” In this one, Pilot and Philip drop into private investigator Jeremy Crowe’s life again, this time soliciting his help to go to another rich family’s estate and steal a valuable document and a gizmo. This is a decent read but less interesting than its predecessor with the only tension coming from being followed by the fuzz and with little plot for a novella. (There are also several glitches, ranging from the non-word “stalagtite” to making a big deal about not taking a gun because they’re illegal but later revealing lockpicking tools which are just as illegal.) Even if the blurb didn’t say so, the pause to this one also makes it clear there will be more.

How I Found Harry’s All-Night Hamburgers” is the third tale in that milieu, the most notable one of which is “Why I Left Harry’s All-Night Hamburgers.” In that award-winning tale from the July 1987 IAsfm, 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. This one primarily concerns a PI who is compelled to go to Harry’s after a client hands him a sort of rock Harry pawned to him that makes the PI feel really good. The narrative describes the lengths to which the PI goes to get his hand on another one. While explanations are possible, it’s not clear why the current owner’s not as affected.

Finally, in “Transport,” which is a tale apparently unconnected to the Diving Universe but in which space travel is just as bizarrely unreliable, a kid disappears from a spaceship, causing a cover-up to unravel, an unpleasant lawyer to go on the warpath, and an ex-engineer to come out of retirement. The whole story feels like something impatiently thrown together to get across its point but the last two pages/chapters feel especially hasty, schematic, easy, didactic, and sentimental.

Of the short stories, “Lights Go Out” is very nearly a novelette. The Solar system is about to be destroyed by a black hole and a few starships go out looking to move a sun to a rogue planet. This has a humanizing family component to its intergalactic scope and places its characters in an agonizing moral dilemma after a wondrous discovery in another solar system but the science and a lot of the plot details were simply unbelievable. “Tourists” involves a race that loves to be just that but their activity once resulted in a massive loss of life when they revealed themselves to a xenophobic race so doing that is now forbidden. There is some nice paranoia regarding urges to come out but it all depends on an “idiot plot” and annoyingly repeats the phrase “[some language] or whatever” over fifty times in just over eight pages. I wouldn’t ordinarily review “Starry Sky” but wouldn’t ordinarily review “Peacemaker” either, so the former is an excessively passive tale about a damaged ecology resulting in poor economic policies which damage families, but a dad and his daughter at least have a phone. As only the rich get clean air in “Starry Sky,” so only they get clean water in “Isla,” while security teams working for the company hunt poor terrorists. It’s an initially interesting and serious tale (with a hilarious bit on water, wine, and beer) but ennobles its terrorists while not giving its bad guys any wives or children because that would complicate its moral clarity. The better “Eighteen Songs” is about sex and violence in an AI-dominated post-human future of body-swapping written in the key of (WT)F. (I prefer Mr. Mojo Risin’s formulation: “I tell you this, no eternal reward will forgive us now for wasting the dawn.”)

Terrible Trudy” is a bizarre little comic fantasy set in the 1940s about a tapir who escapes from the zoo and becomes an entertainer but eventually meets Firrup Mumble (Philip Marlowe?) and happens into another career change. “January March” is an unusual and nicely written but modest story about a bureaucrat accompanying some participants in the international portion of Philadelphia’s Mummers Parade. They face windy situations which the “cyber” autopilot has to deal with while the guy reflects on all this and the current romantic relationship in his life. My favorite of the shorts was “Mr. Death.” This is one of those “heresy of paraphrase” stories which makes it hard to summarize. A sick boy is at the beach with his famous model mom when he sees a boy and a very strange man. When the boy disappears and the man appears by him, the boy has a strange experience. While I would have liked something “bigger,” the thing that sets this slightly apart is the effective weirdness which seems to suspend time for the reader just as time is suspended for the boy.

Review: Analog, March/April 2019

Analog,
March/April 2019

AFF_Mar_Apr_2019

Original Fiction:

  • “Beneath a Red Sun” by James C. Glass (science fiction novelette)
  • “Hop and Hop with Gleepglop-Geep! A Bedtime Reader” by Tim McDaniel (science fiction short story)
  • “Negotiating Traffic” by Brad Preslar (science fiction short story)
  • “The God of All Mountains” by Jo Miles (science fiction short story)
  • “Parenting License” by Leah Cypess (science fiction short story)
  • The Little Sailboat, James Gunn (science fiction short story)
  • “Fine-Tuning” by Bond Elam (science fiction short story)
  • “Running the Gullet” by Vajra Chandrasekera (science fiction short story)
  • “Second Quarter and Counting” by James Van Pelt (science fiction short story)
  • “Final Say” by Eric Del Carlo (science fiction short story)
  • “Dangerous Company” by C. Stuart Hardwick (science fiction novelette)
  • Probability Zero: “Tea Time with Aliens” by Jack McDevitt (science fiction short story)
  • “The End of Lunar Hens” by M.K. Hutchins (science fiction short story)
  • “The Invitation” by Bud Sparhawk (science fiction short story)
  • “Rising Stars” by Elisabeth R. Adams (science fiction short story)
  • “The New Martian Way” by Brendan DuBois (science fiction short story)
  • “Slow Dance” by Jay Werkheiser (science fiction short story)
  • “The Walk to Distant Suns” by Matthew Kressel & Mercurio D. Rivera (science fiction novelette)
  • “Better” by Tom Greene (science fiction novelette)
  • “A Mate Not a Meal” by Sarina Dorie (science fiction novelette)

This issue of Flash Fiction Offline presents us with five novelettes and fifteen short stories. As I indicated in the review of the last issue, I won’t review all the short stories.

Second Quarter” involves the notion of “Backspin,” which is a process of rejuvenation which may make people young, but may also cost portions of their memories and personality. This story is recommended after surviving its poor opening of a 350-word monologue from an old man with a “get off my lawn” vibe. After that, the background narrative describes the platonic relationship of two swimmers which has lasted from their teens to their seventies while the foreground narrative describes the man’s decision to be rejuvenated and the woman’s handling of this. The general science fictional notion is familiar but explored in detail very well here and the highlight of the story is the wonderfully done relationship.

In “Lunar Hens,” a woman is trying to make a lunar biosphere sustainable as a step on the way to colonizing Mars but the chickens don’t, uh, do well. Nor the rabbits. This doesn’t please the project’s backers. What can she do to improve the unsustainable crop yield? This is an example of the microgenre of colonizing nitty-gritty, somewhat in the fashion of parts of The Martian. It lacks a really great ending but it was short, darkly whimsical, and pretty entertaining

A couple of others aren’t quite technically “notable” but I’ll discuss them anyway. “Slow Dance” is the more successful of two off-Earth murder mysteries which suffers from a needlessly unlikable main character/investigator but sets up interesting dynamics and semi-cryogenic ideas (somewhat reminiscent of one of my favorite novels, Between the Strokes of Night). “Hop and Hop” is a story written in the form of a children’s bedtime story with very non-human (or is it all-too human?) mores. While the story has a certain energy, what makes it stand out is that the usually double-columned Analog presents this in single-column pages and with numerous uncredited large interior illustrations. They give the entities anthropomorphic bodies though a “second left arm” is mentioned in the text, but they’re interesting and fit the twisted “children’s” story motif.

While uncharitable interpretations are possible, a generous one for why there are so many stories that are so short in issues of Analog these days is that SF is a literature of ideas and a short story can adequately explore an idea and this approach gives the reader a large array of ideas. Unfortunately, most of the stories, as stories, are only indifferent (five of the remainder) or inadequate (the other six). But at least they do introduce a nice twist on the already tired motif of autonomous vehicles, take us to Mars (twice, once for the other murder mystery), question whether parenting should require a license, warn about post-human survival strategies, show how future people might be given coherent last words on dying, and add examples to the climate change, robot, time travel, first contact, and “evidence of alien visitors” subgenres.

Turning to the novelettes, three are quite short. The story and writing in “Red Sun” wasn’t satisfactory with, for instance, a romance delivered with “John thought she had a nice smile and was glad to have her on his team,” before moving on to “[t]he relationship between John and Carol had gone well beyond friendship, and Captain Soder married them just after their second awakening.” The ending has a similarly simple “here’s the summary and now good night kids” ending but there was a good core of scientists exploring a weird ecology under the flares of a red sun with a trite but true “battling the elements to survive” motif.

Dangerous Company” is a lot like”Red Sun.” While it starts off with a battle to survive against a crazy person, it then turns into a similar, second struggle against nature, this time on the Moon. The way the two characters and their situation are introduced led me to ask “Who are these people? What is going on? Why should I care?” It did improve later, but I’m not often a fan of secret history (which this turns out to be) and especially not this particular secret history (which I won’t spoil).

To give a flavor of one of the many problems with “Distant Suns” and its contrived plot, when the Company raises the cost of taking that walk to a distant sun (think Stargate), a disadvantaged tech with a sick mother hatches a lunatic plot to smuggle her family through and, when her improvisation catches the eye of security types and they are interrogating her as a possible terrorist who might have been trying to destroy a zillion dollar station with massive loss of life, she tells them they’d really enjoy stopping the interrogation to go take a look at people actually walking through the stargate. And they do! They tell her to go to her room and not turn off her phone, so she turns off her phone and flees. Anyway, there’s a predictable twist which is well-drawn but way too little, too late.

Of the longer novelettes, some may enjoy “Mate,” the alien lesbian spider story which describes the protagonist’s struggles with a murderous male imposter and her confusion when she meets a four-limbed “spider” that she falls in love with but it reads like an animal fable rather than science fiction for a long time and I could never shake that feeling, especially with all the symbolism. (By the way, this is similar in ways to “Hop and Hop” and there are several stories which could be paired up in this issue.)

Much, um, better, for me was “Better,” which vies with “Second Quarter” as the best story in the issue. Humanity has basically been drafted in a galactic war between “Proxies” and “Pancakes.” Earth has been largely depopulated when Nick returns from the fighting without all his legs and with the assignment to make the Morphos (alien slugs inside prosthetic bodies who have no sense of sight or smell but only extraordinary hearing) productive members of what’s left of society. The stakes? Well, he’s also been poisoned by the enemy and, for the cure to run through the right neural pathways, he has to succeed here. The good news is, he has plenty of time: two days.

This whole story is extremely weird and wonderful without ever being so weird as to block engagement. The background scope and the foreground drama create a canvas of breadth and depth and, without the story doing anything ostentatious, Nick is a very sympathetic character. This story took me a long time to read in the good sense: I kept stopping and thinking with Nick about all this stuff and these weird aliens and what made them tick. Their sensory world and mentality fully meet Campbell’s demand to show him aliens who think as well as men (or better), but not like men. My only quibble is that it’s set up somewhat like a mystery or puzzle and we are given plenty of clues on the road to solving it but, at least to me, I don’t feel like the ending was fully prepped, though it does make a counter-intuitive sort of sense. Regardless, this is another of the few Real Science Fiction™ stories and is the second tale I recommend from this issue.

Selected Stories: 2019-02-06

Past Dinosaur Fantasy Future Prehistoric

Noted Original Fiction:

  • The Crying Bride” by Carrie Laben, The Dark #45, February 2019 (recommended dark fantasy short story)
  • Quiet the Dead” by Micah Dean Hicks, Nightmare #77, February 2019 (recommended dark fantasy/horror short story)

Oddly, I’ve been more impressed by Nightmare than Lightspeed so far this year and Nightmare here racks up its second recommendation in as many issues. Even more oddly, I’ve been more impressed in general by February’s dark fantasy/horror than other fantasy or even science fiction and a story from The Dark is my only other recommendation so far this month.

Swine Hill, basically nothing more than a pork processing plant, is already well on its way to becoming a ghost town with people outnumbered by, and many possessed by, the “Dead.” Kay is possessed by rage and vengeance after her father has died and her mother’s left, leaving her to raise her two siblings. Oscar is born and dies each day and Mira is rendered unable to speak of some great mystery or trauma. After a co-worker disrespects Kay and she wreaks vengeance on him, she loses her job. The domino effect from this runs through the family and town, bringing matters to a head.

The characters are well-drawn, the dark fantasy/horror elements are powerful (especially the night in the bar and, even more especially, the morning after) and the dying town rings true. Up to that point, this is strongly recommended. After such an effective beginning with rising tension between the sisters, I personally felt the ending was too quick and incomplete and the last line was too easy. I feel like I see what it was going for and something it was trying to avoid and perhaps others will think the ending is perfect. For me, though, it results in only a mild recommendation.

The Crying Bride” is a monologue from a old woman who turns out to be the aunt of the listener. That niece is catching up on family history prior to her marriage to another woman and the tale she receives presumably shocks her. As the story opens, they’ve gotten to talking about ghosts and the aunt assures the listener that she doesn’t believe in ghosts because the family was never haunted by the one person who should have haunted them: the crying bride. What follows is a narrative of the lives and deaths on a family farm of a drunken uncle and his prematurely dead bride, a bitter mother, and a narrator who bonds with her special tree, flees to college to become “Janey Appleseed,” and returns to make even more of a difference than she already has.

While this tale’s details are often surprising, the larger pattern is fairly predictable, but in the satisfying way of the recurrent rhythm of good familiar music. It’s also yet another misandrous tale but its problematic narrator so ironically and lightly delivers its darkness that it makes for a compelling read.

Month in Review: January 2019

85864

This is a slightly re-titled and graphically enhanced version of what used to be the “Monthly Summation” and marks the first month of the two-tiered review system in which eight magazines are fully reviewed and twelve are selectively reviewed. This installment looks back on 96 stories of 502K words which produced just four recommendations and seven honorable mentions. It also includes links to the thirteen relevant reviews and the seven other January articles.

Noted Stories

Recommended

Science Fiction

  • “Applied Linguistics” by Auston Habershaw, Analog, January/February 2019 (short story)
  • Thoughts and Prayers” by Ken Liu, Slate, January 26, 2019 (short story)

Fantasy

Also Mentioned

Science Fiction

  • All Show, No Go” by Alvaro Zinos-Amaro, Galaxy’s Edge #36, January/February 2019 (short story)
  • “All the Smells in the World” by Julie Novakova, Analog, January/February 2019 (short story)
  • Elementary School” by J. D. Trye, Nature, January 30, 2019 (short story)
  • I’ve Got the World on a String” by Edward M. Lerner, Galaxy’s Edge #36, January/February 2019 (short story)
  • Skinned” by Rich Larson, Terraform, January 10, 2019 (short story)
  • VTE” by S. R. Algernon, Nature, January 23, 2019 (short story)

Fantasy

  • “The City of Lost Desire” by Phyllis Eisenstein, F&SF, January/February 2019  (novella)

Reviews

Magazines

Books/Other

News

Selected Stories: 2019-01-30

Past Dinosaur Fantasy Future Prehistoric

I’d figured these “Selected Stories” posts wouldn’t adhere to any rigid schedule but that there would probably be a couple a month, with one coming after I covered the early issues and the second coming after I covered the later stories but, in January, I took a break before getting to the monthly and most of the weekly stories and covering them in one post, so I wasn’t really expecting to do another one this month. However, two late-breaking stories of note require this post.

Noted Original Fiction:

  • Elementary School” by J. D. Trye, Nature, January 30, 2019 (science fiction short story)
  • Thoughts and Prayers” by Ken Liu, Slate, January 26, 2019 (recommended science fiction short story)

Thoughts and Prayers” uses multiple first-person narratives to depict the fates of the surviving members of the Fort family in the wake of their daughter’s death in a mass shooting. The mother, Abigail, is a “digital memory” person while the father, Gregg, is a “meat memory” person, driven by childhood events in his own family. Emily is the second child and Aunt Sara provides technical information. When Abigail seeks to weaponize Hayley’s death to bring about gun control and a wave of trolls swamp the initially positive reaction, the family suffers through a second nightmare which prompts Sara to provide Abigail with “armor” or a sort of individualized Bayesian troll-filter. Will it save them?

This is not a perfect story, as I feel like Abigail’s case was weakly made compared to others’, despite not agreeing with her. Even the one deviation from having family members speak, when a troll is given the floor, makes a more forceful case. Sara is too obviously the incarnated infodump and the story drags in the middle with too much isolated exposition. The bulk of the story reads like recent history more than science fiction and even the SF is rarely more extrapolative than saying at 5:50 that the Six O’Clock News will be on in a few minutes. That said, it does reference some important, burgeoning technologies (the armor “algorithm had originated in the entertainment industry“), the psychology of the story is sound, the subjects are important, and the power of some of the earlier and most of the latter part is remarkable. I was worried that, as the story is partly about crafting an emotionally effective narrative to be “a battering ram to shatter the hardened shell of cynicism, spur the viewer to action, shame them for their complacency and defeatism,” it would also be just that. Perhaps it is, in a way, but gun control is not the primary target and it’s not that simple. Instead, it is part of arrays of reality, guns, trolls, and “freedom to” opposed to mediated simulacra, controls, armor, and “freedom from,” which doesn’t conclude as comfortably as many might like.

(Edit (2019-01-31): I do not recommend the companion article. Having finally read it, it may demonstrate my misunderstanding of the story, but it seems to have been written according to a script which is independent of the story and is unconscious of the ironic result.)

On a completely different note, in celebration of 150 years of the Periodic Table, Nature‘s Futures department sends us to “Elementary School” where we learn about a number of new elements with fascinating and hilarious properties. It’s no story, but it’s entertaining.

Selected Stories: 2019-01-23

Past Dinosaur Fantasy Future Prehistoric

This is the first review in a probably semi-regular series which notes stories from the “selectively reviewed magazines” (magazines which, as of 2019, I read but don’t review in full).

Noted Original Fiction:

  • All Show, No Go” by Alvaro Zinos-Amaro, Galaxy’s Edge #36, January/February 2019 (science fiction short story)
  • I’ve Got the World on a String” by Edward M. Lerner, Galaxy’s Edge #36, January/February 2019 (science fiction short story)
  • Skinned” by Rich Larson, Terraform, January 10, 2019 (science fiction short story)
  • VTE” by S. R. Algernon, Nature, January 23, 2019 (science fiction short story)
  • What It Sounds Like When You Fall” by Natalia Theodoridou, Nightmare #76, January 2019 (recommended dark fantasy short story)

(The recommendation for “The Man Whose Left Arm Was a Cat” by Jennifer Lee Rossman, Diabolical Plots #47, January 2019, would appear here but I reviewed it for Tangent.)

Galaxy’s Edge #36 is above average. Three of the eight original tales are between four and six thousand words and all have their interesting points. “Show” sticks out for me. In it, a first-person narrator finds out that the family robot can do a lot more than would be expected, including creating atomically (though not sub-atomically) identical copies of things. This being in an SF magazine, the plot naturally involves duplicating rare pulps for fun and profit, thanks to the robot’s hedonistic programming. Meanwhile, the narrator has to deal with her(?) antagonistic father when things go well and a bunch of irate customers and the cops when things go wrong. Aside from the pulp references, this is not an overtly “retro” tale but reads like classic SF. However, I find the quantum elements of the story as problematic as they are clever and, even aside from the duo’s main difficulty, I’m not sure how they actually got away with things to the extent they did. Otherwise, this is an unusual, fun, modern robot story with some meaningful character relations.

The five tales which are about two thousand words or significantly less are generally much less interesting but “String” has fun word play and is an excellent analysis of the foibles of string theory, though the story takes it in an opposite and fantastic direction. As short as it is, it’s still a little long and maybe the protagonist could have done something more with his breakthrough, but the tale is entertaining and has some substance.

Turning to noteworthy stories from other magazines, “Skinned” shares some thematic preoccupations with the same author’s “Smear Job” in last month’s Analog and also unsurprisingly makes me think of Rjurik Davidson’s “Skins” (Cosmos, 2015) and other stories about people wearing other bodies. This particular flash piece focuses on the “wearing,” in which the body you choose can be a fashion statement and the main character thinks she’s made a daring choice by taking a man’s body off the sex offender registry and making modifications to it for her own purposes. Neither her hopes nor her fears prepare her for the actual results.

VTE” here stands for “Vicarious Trial and Error” and simultaneously discusses and is a sort of macroscopic double-slit experiment as a scientist dines with another man. I don’t think such extrapolations are plausible and, since there’s a “get out of jail free” card involved, it seems like the plot could have been more foolproof (though pravda has been as strange as this fiction), but it’s still a fun and thought-provoking tale.

In “Fall,” it’s Uncle Pete’s funeral, so he gets dressed for it and the family accompanies him to his grave. Angels have fallen and they’re a lot like birds and vermin but sometimes bring valuable trinkets with the junk they collect for people who are nice to them. Pete’s due to die because he’s lost his job helping his younger brother, the father of our young narrator. Dad is also unemployed except for shooting angels which gets him pennies a dozen. The narrator deals with family life, talks to the buried but not-yet-dead uncle, and interacts with the angels. This is a creative and powerful (though nihilistic) tale of multiple losses (or falls).