Weekly Webzine Wrap-Up (2018-10-07)

Weekly Webzine Wrap-Up image

Original Fiction:

  • The Mirror Crack’d” by Jordan Taylor, Cosmic Roots and Eldritch Shores, September 30, 2018 (fantasy short story)
  • Wake” by Anna Cabe, Terraform, September 30, 2018 (science fictional short story)
  • The Palace of the Silver Dragon” by Y. M. Pang, Strange Horizons, October 1, 2018 (fantasy novelette)
  • Cerise Sky Memories” by Wendy Nikel, Nature, October 3, 2018 (science fiction short story)
  • Court of Birth, Court of Strength” by Aliette de Bodard, Beneath Ceaseless Skies #261, October 4, 2018 (fantasy novelette)
  • We Ragged Few” by Kate Alice Marshall, Beneath Ceaseless Skies #261, October 4, 2018 (fantasy novella)

Edit (2018-10-08): Updated this with the BCS stories at the end.

I’m posting this now with coverage of four stories which, as a group, are above average. I’m not covering the Diabolical Plots story this week because I’ll be covering both of the month’s stories for Tangent when the second one comes out. I’m also still running behind and will update this with the BCS stories when I finish them (hopefully tomorrow). And, again, apologies for not taking the time to make this shorter.

Mirror” tells of Elaine and Morgan’s quest to pull the Grail from the ether and into the world with their magic. Rather than a Mabinogion-like medieval milieu, this appears, oddly, to be an alternate 19th Century England, takes its title from Tennyson’s “The Lady of Shalott” and quotes that, Malory, Shakespeare, and E. B. Browning (twice) as epigraphs to each of its five sections, and is steeped in a Pre-Raphaelite sensibility. Frankly, it’s not my kind of thing and didn’t engage me but I feel like that’s just me. Aside from a line or two, it’s not overwritten despite its elevated prose, the two main characters seem well drawn, there is a sort of numinous Neoplatonic/Christian power to its magical/spiritual elements, and it has some drama. Probably the weakest element is that it ends somewhat anti-climactically (or has too much epilogue/denouement or something) but the ending’s also in keeping with its sehnsucht. If you want such a tale, I believe you’re likely to enjoy it and I recommend it.

While “Mirror” wasn’t full of explosions and car chases or anything, there was a sense of step-by-step progression with a reasonably engaging character and it felt more like a novelette fitted into a long short story’s word count. By contrast, “Palace” initially seems to wander aimlessly with an unappealing protagonist and ends up feeling like a short story in a short novelette’s word count. An unhappy and unpleasant (selfish, always runner-up, violent) woman hears the dragon’s song and flings herself off a cliff into the waters where, transmuted by the dragon’s kiss, she becomes his companion and is regaled with stories and must ultimately share her own, all with a hint of death hanging over her. This story’s strength is its imaginative underwater castle and its dragon mythology (though whether this is original or borrowed from sources I’m not familiar with, I don’t know). Ultimately, the big reveal is much more familiar and less enthralling. Still, some may enjoy this tale of a weird sort of semi-redemption.

Wake” is another “water woman” story and is unusual only in being cast as the loosest sort of SF rather than as straightforward fantasy like “Palace” and innumerable other stories. An adolescent female has a skin condition and the doctors treat it by applying scales to her skin but it doesn’t stop there… and there are no points for guessing where it continues.

In “Cerise” (which, being an eight crayon kind of guy, I had to look up – “reddish” as in a sunset), a sort of biological robot has been programmed to be an office worker and part of this (later dropped from the design as excessive) involved being programmed with false memories, a la Blade Runner. On being decommissioned, she incidentally learns something and goes looking for her “childhood.” This reflection on memory, self-consciousness, and connections isn’t a real thrilling story to start raving about or anything, but it’s effective and I enjoyed it. Mildly recommended.

Court” is apparently set in the milieu of the Dominion of the Fallen series which may explain one of the major problems with this tale: one of the characters reflects, “What was going on? It was like sitting in at the table for a card game where people played by utterly unfamiliar rules…” when this is true for this reader, as well, and this isn’t the sort of story where that should be the case. More importantly, it’s chock-full of overdone things like “Asmodeus’s smile was quick and wounding, like a stab to the heart,” and, of course, his sighs are like hurricanes and each eyeblink is like the setting and rising of suns. (Okay, I’m making those up, but it gives the idea.) The milieu seems to assume that demons have fallen to an alternate 18th/19th Century Paris and are much weaker and nicer than one would expect but still magical and sometimes malicious. There’s been a war between “houses” and there is now a case where a favored child tutored by one of the Fallen is to be given over to another house’s not-so-tender mercies and the Fallen must decide whether to save her or start another war between houses in a sort of “Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” decision. The ending is rather cheap and easy (in terms of this story if not in terms of the eventual sequels) after all the overwrought setup.

Few” is another tale of conflicting loyalties. When a rot hound intrudes on what should be protected land, Reyna Bonespear realizes a prophecy may be coming true and events lead her into a collision with her tribe’s chief as they have differing visions on how the tribe is to be saved. Reyna would rely on her dead sister’s prophecy while the chief would rely on his crone’s advice and his own inclinations. However, it spends 13, 217 words building an anthropologically detailed structure which includes gelds and the cold and mutelings and graylings and so on before it gets to that point and then spends the rest (nearly 25,000 words in total) showing that that’s just a plot point and the real interest is ultimately in having her invading people pay a price to the natives. There’s a lot of world building (or window dressing) which includes points about those who are and are not stricken with an infertility bug/curse somewhat like “The Persistence of Blood” (Juliette Wade, Clarkesworld #138, also an anthropologically overdone and generally overlong story) and a lot of the dark and grim tone of “When We Go” (Evan Dicken, BCS #223, a much better tale) and the latter is probably its strength but it all mostly pads that central point and it didn’t appeal to me.

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Weekly Webzine Wrap-Up (2018-09-30)

Weekly Webzine Wrap-Up image

Original Fiction:

  • Pig Guts” by Troy Farah, Terraform, September 23, 2018 (science fiction short story)
  • Last Contact” by Graham Robert Scott, Nature, September 26, 2018 (science fiction short story)
  • Shadowdrop” by Chris Willrich, Beneath Ceaseless Skies #261, September 27, 2018 (fantasy novella)
  • Ruby, Singing” by Fran Wilde, Beneath Ceaseless Skies #261, September 27, 2018 (fantasy short story)
  • Lions and Gazelles” by Hannu Rajaniemi, Slate, September 27, 2018 (science fiction short story)

We have quite the menagerie in the science fiction offerings: natural gorillas, modified pigs, and metaphorical lions and gazelles. “Pig Guts” is a satire of a sybaritic solipsistic slob living in a future made possible by bioengineered pigs used for parts combined with modern medicine and a demotivational government. Some may find it striking but I suspect most will find it heavy-handed and off-putting. The cli-fi flash of “Last Contact” puts us on a speck of land in a risen ocean and involves a gorilla entering an AI-controlled city for a reason that eventually becomes clear and is touching but the exact thematic thrust I was supposed to get from it all never came clear to me. Finally, “Lions and Gazelles” tells the tale of a race in which bioengineered corporate leaders literally embody their product and demonstrate it in a race to catch some robotic prey. The protagonist finds his motivation for racing shifting as he deals with an ex-partner who had betrayed him years ago and as he learns more about the race he’s in. While the setup is a bit contrived and I’d have liked more focus on the science fictional aspects of the engineering and what it was subjectively like, I thought this was a workmanlike and reasonably involving tale.

The redesigned website of Beneath Ceaseless Skies (I liked the old look much better) brings us a couple of long tales (featuring more siblings, as in the last issue) as the first part of the double issues celebrating its tenth anniversary. The near-novelette of “Ruby, Singing” is told by Mira, a girl who can hear gems sing and is defined by others as a sort of bad girl, while her twin is the good one. Mira goes off with the bad man who uses her to find treasure and also gets her pregnant. It’s an avowed litany of her mistakes though it notices a couple of his, as well. It’s a little overwritten and heavy-handed and not real surprising or involving for me (partly by being yet another Evil Man/Oppressed Woman tale), but might appeal to some. Much more interesting and successful is the wonderful “Shadowdrop,” which is narrated by the titular black cat who lives in the deeply and complexly imagined Archaeopolis, which turns out to be under threat from a couple of deranged and/or misguided people but also from the selfishness, lack of empathy, and other vices which plague much of any society. Joined by her brother, many other black cats, a talking scratching post, and others, Shadowdrop tries vigorously and stylishly to save the city. This cat tale is full of brilliant oddities like Foottown and told in a light and witty way with arresting phrases and was a fun and funny read. I’ll admit I’m a black cat kind of guy and that I could conceive of someone finding this a little too long or a little too cute or the theme a little too blunt (the last is almost a minor problem even for me) but, for those who don’t, they’ve got quite a treat in store. As Shadowdrop says in a crucial exchange, “we have always been, and always will be, cats. We will not be dismissed. We will not let our city be destroyed without a fight. And we will do all these things while looking magnificent.”

Weekly Webzine Wrap-Up (2018-09-22)

Weekly Webzine Wrap-Up image

Original Fiction:

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

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

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

Review: Asimov’s, September/October 2018

Asimov’s, September/October 2018

ASF_Sept_Oct_2018

Original Fiction:

  • “3-adica” by Greg Egan (science fiction novella)
  • “The Witch of Osborne Park” by Stephanie Feldman (fantasy short story)
  • “The Huntsman and the Beast” by Carrie Vaughn (fantasy novelette)
  • “R.U.R.-8?” by Suzanne Palmer (Capek-derived playlet, not reviewed)
  • “The Grays of Cestus V” by Erin Roberts (science fictional short story)
  • “DENALI” by Robert Reed (science fictional novelette)
  • “The Callisto Stakes” by Doug C. Souza (science fiction short story)
  • “Survivors” by Sheila Finch (fantasy-like short story)
  • “The Wrong Refrigerator” by Jean Marie Ward (science fictional novelette)
  • “In the Sharing Place” by David Erik Nelson (science fictional short story)
  • “Best Served Slow” by Leah Cypess (fantasy short story)
  • “The Secret City” by Rick Wilber (alternate history novella)

The lengthy reading of this issue and writing of this review has been plagued by innumerable problems and I apologize for the result.

The Secret City” is an alternate history story which deals with a baseball playing spy (Moe Berg, who is based on a real person) but it seems too similar (if separate) or too different (if connected) to a story from a couple of issues ago by the same author. In this one (also reminiscent of Steele’s “Einstein’s Shadow” (Jan. 2016 Asimov’s) down to having big planes), a couple of parallel-world-shifting spies try to get Fermi successfully into a 1940 US to help build an atomic bomb to answer Germany’s recent destruction of Dublin with theirs and get Rommel’s Texas Korps off the US’s doorstep. This is readable enough but has errors even for alternate history (why would an essentially identical Me-262 be in production in 1940 when it wasn’t even test flown in our timeline until 1941?; why would the Afrika Korps have fought in El Alamein and Tobruk in 1940 when these were 1941-2 battles?; etc.) and doesn’t make any coherent historical argument, seeming to change things randomly (this world’s President Roosevelt is Eleanor and Texas has seceded again without problems because it was so simple the first time). Perhaps worse, the protagonists (including the unnamed but repeatedly referenced “woman”) aren’t especially engaging and the novella is just a middle with a dramatic pause more than an ending.

Moving to supernatural tales, “Witch” deals with modern suburban witches and involves the family unit moving to a new place where bad stuff happens. A familiar-feeling domestic tale in which witchery is taken for granted and the twist is unsatisfying. “Beast” bucks the prevailing trend of male-oriented stories by the unprecedented means of retelling “Beauty and the Beast” with the genders reversed. (I think it says something that my favorite part was actually bad because, while the Prince and Mr. Beauty arguing about the latter’s sanity was funny, it was also out of place, tonally.) “Best Served Slow” is probably the best of the outright fantasies or it could be my enjoyment of “posthumous fantasy” kicking in again. This one deals with an old woman accompanying her family on a return vacation to Greece where she has a murder mystery to deal with. Problems include an otherwise good opening that is helped along by a little too much artifice, a confusing couple of critical conversations, and a necessarily but unsatisfyingly inconclusive conclusion, not to mention the odd aspects of a Delphic oracle being more summoner than sought, and being associated more with the Erinyes/Furies than Apollo. But the zesty protagonist is portrayed well and the story is interesting.

Grays” is very loosely SF, with tropes clothing a social tale of folks working bad jobs in a bad environment in which, to the basically insane artist protagonist, drugs and death seem like the only solution. Similarly, “DENALI” is more pseudo-SF as aliens leave us a magic machine which allows the political will of the people to manifest, making the world switch tracks through parallel universes or the like. Disturbingly, it seems to throw in the towel on democracy though its (perhaps overly symbolic) main couple and their relationship was interesting. “Survivors” is nominally about an “indistinguishable from magic” visitor trying to help out a PTSD vet but the whole thing takes place in a creepy, metmorphosing cemetary and feels like fantasy. It didn’t seem especially emotionally convincing. (Also, no American vet would have a “row” with his wife.) “The Wrong Refrigerator” is a fantasy which applies “quantum entanglement” to people and tangles that up with time travel as a woman who wants kids to paper over her unhappy marriage finds herself connected to an old flame who has been “killed” in a scientific experiment gone awry (akin to Larson’s recent “Carouselling”). Things come to a head when her husband tries to trade her to his boss for a promotion. (Oddly this story references Jessica Rabbit but made me think of what little I’ve seen of Peggy Sue Got Married.)

Moving up a notch, “Callisto” is narrated from the point of view of nanobots charged with keeping a kid alive in a futuristic drag race as he circumnavigates Callisto in a homemade gizmo, ostensibly trying to win some prize money to (akin to “Grays”) ease his horrible and abusive domestic and social situation. The complication is that the kid really has been suicidal and he’s got his kid sister with him in the machine. The viewpoint is interesting, as is the contest within the contest (boy vs. nanos, boy vs. racers). The sentimentality, especially of the nanos with their constant concern for “little Sandi,” is a bit much and much of the story is questionable, but it’s a decently paced adventure with some depth.

3-adica” is a “hard math fiction” computer virtuality story in which a couple of sentient game pieces have discovered a really clever GPU hack and are using it to try to make their way to the promised land of the 3-adica game but have so far only made it to a gothic, gaslight, Dracula/Ripper sort of horror game which gives us SF vampires and such. The milieu and the main character are well done but its two phases seem disjointed and it ends abruptly, ultimately feeling like the opening of a novel more than a novella. Also, while 3-adica is intrinsically interesting and symbolically significant, I’m not sure that it’s used in practical plot terms in a way that justifies so much focus on it, especially given what the protagonist actually encounters there.

(By the way, there are several odd word choices early on: “misogynous Ripperology” should probably be “misogynistic,” “desanguination” should be “exsanguination,” and “resile” is an intransitive verb meaning “to return to a prior position” so “I will not resile from the task” doesn’t seem quite right. Leaving aside language, I have no idea why the Shelleys were used the way they were but it seemed pointlessly bizarre.)

Finally, “In a Sharing Place” does everything “wrong” and is the best story in the issue. It’s a second-person present tense tale with lots of Capitalized Concepts which leaves the reader confused about exactly what is going for quite awhile but (apart from an inexplicable reference to “li’l hijackers”) has such a mastery of tone and a well-judged intimation of weirdness (including the easy but effective drama of traumatized kids going off to meet sometimes horrible fates) that it easily holds interest until all is revealed. This story of a strange invasion which has destroyed civilization is ultimately quite powerful and its point-of-view allows it to seem ambiguous and not preachy. The closing segment is an extremely powerful depiction of inside and outside in both physical and psychological ways.

Summation: August 2018

This month has been doubly strange. Despite reading 42 stories of about 201K words from the August magazines, I’m in the unprecedented and unpleasant position of only being able to note one story (and that’s not even fully recommended). Counting a late July story and things for a couple of Tangent reviews, I read 59 stories of about 324K words this month and can at least add two recs and another honorable mention, all from the July/August Black Static, but only one of those is even speculative with the other two being straight horror.

Noted Stories

Recommended

Fantasy

  • “The Monstrosity in Love” by Sam Thompson, Black Static #64, July/August 2018 (dark fantasy short story)

Horror

  • “The Blockage” by Jack Westlake, Black Static #64, July/August 2018 (non-speculative short story)

Honorable Mentions

Science Fiction

Horror

  • “Why We Don’t Go Back” by Simon Avery, Black Static #64, July/August 2018 (non-speculative novelette)

Reviews

Magazines

Books/Other

News

 

Review of Black Static #64 for Tangent

If you’re not picky about genre, this issue of Black Static is a good one. A third of it is non-fantastic horror dealing with insanity. Oddly, the fantastic stories, while generally very readable, aren’t as good except for the last (fourth overall), which is superb and the best of the issue.

Full review at Tangent: Black Static #64, July/August 2018.

Recommended:

  • “The Blockage” by Jack Westlake (non-speculative horror short story)
  • “The Monstrosity in Love” by Sam Thompson (dark fantasy short story)

Honorable mention:

  • “Why We Don’t Go Back” by Simon Avery (non-speculative horror novelette)

Summation: July 2018

Here are the fifteen noted stories (four recommended) from the 92 stories of 503 Kwds I read from the July issues along with links to all their reviews and the other July posts on Featured Futures. This month’s wombat was a remarkable number of mostly print SF honorable mentions while all the few other items (except an excellent F&SF dark fantasy) came from the web.

Noted Stories

Recommended

Science Fiction

  • Chasing the Start” by Evan Marcroft, Strange Horizons, July 9, 2018 (novelette)
  • The Nearest” by Greg Egan, Tor.com, July 19, 2018 (novelette)

Fantasy

  • “Hainted” by Ashley Blooms, F&SF, July/August 2018 (short story)
  • A Song of Home, the Organ Grinds” by James Beamon, Lightspeed #98, July 2018 (short story)

Honorable Mentions

Science Fiction

  • “Broken Wings” by William Ledbetter, F&SF, July/August 2018 (novelette)
  • “A Crystal Dipped in Dreams” by Auston Habershaw, Analog, July/August 2018 (novelette)
  • “Left to Take the Lead” by Marissa Lingen, Analog, July/August 2018 (novelette)
  • Resigned” by Floris M. Kleijne, Galaxy’s Edge #33, July/August 2018 (short story)
  • “Starship Mountain” by Allen M. Steele, Asimov’s, July/August 2018 (novella)
  • “True Jing” by Zack Be, Asimov’s, July/August 2018 (novelette)
  • “Until We Are Utterly Destroyed” by Frank Wu, Analog, July/August 2018 (novelette)
  • Your Face” by Grace Tang, Nature, July 11, 2018 (short story)

Fantasy

Reviews

Magazines

News