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

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Review of Compelling #12 for Tangent

Compelling‘s second issue from its current semi-annual schedule brings us five more science fiction short stories, most of which deal with varieties of economics and/or forms of biotech and most of which have some interest, including one recommended story.

Full review at Tangent: Compelling #12, Winter 2018.

Recommended:

  • “The Forest Eats” by Santiago Belluco (science fiction short story)

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: 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: Uncanny #25

Uncanny #25, November/December 2018

Original Fiction:

  • “How to Swallow the Moon” by Isabel Yap (fantasy novelette)
  • “The Rose MacGregor Drinking and Admiration Society” by T. Kingfisher (fantasy short story)
  • “The Thing About Ghost Stories” by Naomi Kritzer (fantasy novelette)
  • “My Name is Cybernetic Model XR389F, and I am Beautiful” by Monica Valentinelli (science fictional short story)
  • “Monologue by an unnamed mage, recorded at the brink of the end” by Cassandra Khaw (fantasy short story)

XR389F” is about a maid resisting the sexual harassment a boss is inciting his subordinate to commit. That the maid and subordinate are ineptly portrayed as cyborgs (robots with flesh, here, rather than humans with mechanisms) does nothing to make this science fiction but it doesn’t work as mainstream fiction, either.

Moving to the fantasies, “Monologue” is just what the long title of the flash piece says: an apostrophe to a beloved at the apocalypse. It will appeal to those who want single sentences to contain “tessellated,” “lambency,” and “blackgold kintsugi” and for them to be followed by sentences which contain “fucking door.”

Most of “Moon” is a romance about two women mooning over each other, trapped in oppressive roles by society, but eventually moves to a somewhat rote, but effective, action sequence. Derived from Filipino culture and myth, a bakunawa (gigantic sea monster) ate moons until the last moon was saved by satisfying it with a female sacrifice. While there hasn’t been a sacrifice for a long time, Anyag is raised as a binukot in case the monster comes back, which is to say that she’s kept in almost complete isolation except for her indentured tutor/guardian, “you.” (Yes, this is in second-person present tense for no discernible reason and your name is Amira.) You’re afraid to confess your feelings for Anyag to her but matters come to a head when it’s time for Anyag to get married and a suitor with pointy teeth and nails arrives.

Rose” isn’t a whole lotta story, being slight and undramatic, but this sort of “double flash” piece is nicely structured and amusing and, as AC/DC would say, Rosie is a whole lotta woman. Now that she’s moved on, the various fae and other creatures she’s enjoyed pine for her.

Finally, we come to the third notable story about familial death I’ve read in as many issues. “Ghost Stories” is one of those which is difficult to write about because I don’t want to spoil anything at all, even though readers will be able to anticipate much as they make their way through the story. A folklorist who collects and writes about ghost stories has recently lost her mother to Alzheimer’s. Now able to get back out in the field and solicit ghost stories from people, she learns more than she expected. The first-person protagonist is extremely believable as a person, caregiver, and folklorist in that she’s not a sainted martyr but had her bad days and does talk about her vocation in a sometimes wonky way but doesn’t overdo it. The pain, difficulty, and mixed emotions about her mother’s last years are effectively portrayed and touch the reader, avoiding bathos or mawkishness. Even the story’s “meta”-ness (of the story teller collecting, discussing, and telling stories) doesn’t come across as a cutesy “literary” effect but arises in a natural way and creates a deeper resonance. And the ending is superb. About the only thing I could quibble about is that, while I found the narrator and all she talked about fascinating and all of it was valuable, I don’t know that it was all essential. This really is a short story in terms of outline and conceptual thrust but just crosses the word count threshold of a novelette and anyone not as fascinated might find it a little too long. Still, this gets a strong recommendation from me.

Review: Clarkesworld #146

Clarkesworld #146, November 2018

Original Fiction:

  • “Octo-Heist in Progress” by Rich Larson (short story)
  • “What the South Wind Whispers” by H. Pueyo (short story)
  • “Ghost Island” by E.E. King (short story)
  • “The Gift of Angels: an introduction” by Nina Allan (novelette)

This issue of Clarkesworld is very good because, despite a weak middle, it has a very strong open and close.

In “Wind,” the Earth is inexplicably subject to an assault of space rocks, so shields are built which inexplicably need to be run by humans even though they’re also staffed by AIs (and those can be inexplicably crazy). Both members of a shield’s human staff are autistic and the transsexual one is ready to turn off the shields and kill innumerable people because one of the other two is untrustworthy and not validating the potential mass murderer. Aside from its obvious problems with plot, character, and science fiction, it also shows many unedited signs of ESL. “Island” is more overtly a science fantasy and artsy piece which also features a devastated planet with pieces covered in protective bubbles but, in this, a soldier is assigned to a haunted island where people tend to lose their minds and few readers will be surprised by what follows.

Angels” is also an artsy story (what with allusions to Proust and a long, detailed, fully spoiling discussion of La Jetee being central to it) and also has virtually nothing science fictional about it but is set later (around 2091) in the same milieu as “The Art of Space Travel” (Tor.com, July 27, 2016). The two stories are very similar in terms of the protagonist being deeply affected by an off-stage Mars expedition and otherwise being entirely mainstream tales set on Earth. Indeed, a problem with this tale is that there are references to tobacconists, meccano (Erector sets), stamps, and current things like You Tube, which do not produce a feeling of SF or 2091. The narrator is a science fiction author whose mother went to Mars but her expedition was never heard from again and he’s made it a point never to talk in public about her. However, with the death of his father and the discovery of some of her journals, he’s gone in search of his lost mother and is in Paris (where his parents met) to see what he can learn and if he can write a book about her. This story is perhaps the introduction to that book. I can easily imagine readers being bored silly by it but I can also imagine readers being fascinated by the insights and beauties of some of the passages and the way the rambling nature of the narrator’s thoughts conceals a reasonably tight structure of the events of life which have no “car chase” drama but just the drama of human reflections and connections.

Octo-Heist” is very different (and makes me laugh just typing the title after talking about “Angels”). In the near future, a younger sister has “borrowed” her older sister’s super-shoes and left them behind at a party in which she mightily embarrassed herself. Rather than face humiliation in front of the party’s host or her sister’s wrath, she’s hired a criminal to help her break into the house and get the shoes back. That criminal does his deeds by remote-operating a specially suited octopus which does the actual breaking and entering. Naturally, the heist caper goes awry and the girl’s instant bonding to the octopus plays a major role in subsequent events. This is obviously a pretty contrived story and an oddly sentimental one. Also, the “kidspeak” may work for or against some readers’ enjoyment of the generally crisp, fast style. Those things aside, this was a very fresh, exciting, entertaining tale with a motley crew of colorful characters (including the octopus) who aren’t simply good or bad but just have some learning to do.