Review of Compelling #11 for Tangent

On its new schedule as a semi-annual, this is Compelling‘s first issue after a six month break and it was worth the wait. In terms of quantity, with the help of a reprint, it has one more story than its ever had before, though the word count is not appreciably longer but, in terms of quality, I recommend two tales (almost three) and, while not quite on those levels, personally enjoyed a couple more.

Full review at Tangent: Compelling #11, Summer 2018.

Recommended:

  • “Targeted Behavior” by J.D. Moyer (science fiction short story)
  • “Redaction” by Adam R. Shannon (science fiction short story)

Honorable mention:

  • “Driving Force” by Tom Jolly (science fiction short story)
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Review: Nightmare #69

Nightmare #69, June 2018

NM69
Original Fiction:

  • “Leviathan Sings to Me in the Deep” by Nibedita Sen (dark fantasy short story)
  • “Red Rain” by Adam-Troy Castro (absurdist gore short story)

Did you ever read a story written entirely in second person questions? Did it really annoy you? Would you read it if you didn’t have to? Because “Red Rain” is such a story and involves apparently millions of people falling out of the sky to their deaths while “you” get drenched in gore as “you” try to duck and cover. This is conveyed by some inexplicable entity asking “you” a lot of questions which are essentially declarative sentences with an interrogative stuck up front and a question mark stuck on the end. This device and the unaesthetic lack of proportion combined to completely dissociate me from any effect this story might have had. I’m sorry, but I’d rather read John Shirley’s Three-Ring Psychus or something.

(Incidentally, one gets the sense these people are falling from great heights at great speeds but one person hits a power line and bounces off before landing and getting shredded when, even in a fantasy, he ought to have just gotten cut right in half—with guts spewing in both directions, presumably. And why stop with just one line? He could have gone through several like an egg in a slicer. Maybe there was some sense of limit or proportion to the story after all?)

On the other hand, for the second issue in a row, Nightmare has a really good story. “Leviathan Sings to Me in the Deep” tells the tale of a captain of a whaling vessel on a world that is and is not of our world and history. On this voyage, a scientist is busy trying to create a whale communicator of sorts, using parts of whales the ship’s crew have killed. Unsurprising but hauntingly effective descents into madness follow.

While there may be a a glitch or two in the narrative voice of the captain as recorded in his plain, direct, but beautifully written log, it is generally solid and his character is well-realized and effective with initially benign aspects growing to altered effect as the story progresses. The plain description of the whaling activities, however normal they may have been, produces a natural darkness before the unnatural darkness even properly begins. The ending contains its message but is relatively subdued rather than overt and, unlike most stories of this sort, is more concerned with empathy and equity than simple vengeance. There is a problem with the narrative device and the ending which does ask for some charitable work on the part of the reader to work around but, otherwise, this story was superbly done and captivating. I’m not one to say “I wish this was a novel” about a story since I think that tends to deprecate it as a story but this was definitely the sort of story that I could settle into and my only real complaint was that it did wrap up quickly.

Review: Lightspeed #97

Lightspeed #97, June 2018

LS97

Original Fiction:

  • “I Sing Against the Silent Sun” by A. Merc Rustad and Ada Hoffman (science fantasy novelette)
  • “A Pilgrim’s Guide to the Lighthouse of Quvenle the Seer” by Lina Rather (science fantasy short story)
  • “The Quiltbag” by Ashok K. Banker (science fantasy short story)
  • “From the Root” by Emma Törzs (science fantasy short story)

[The link to “From the Root” will be added when available.]

Lightspeed‘s table of original contents would seem to present the usual two science fiction and two fantasy stories but there are arguably none of either as all four strike me as science fantasy.

In “Silent Sun,” a genderless person and a sentient spaceship are hunted by a god which demands silence of all and they recite poetry at it in defiance. It’s interesting to think of this in comparison with “Repent, Harlequin” in that the two tales of rebellion against oppressive authority figures share a certain juvenile nature but the sharp, vivid imagery, sense of whimsy, and universality of the Ellison tale contrasts strongly with this impressionistic, humorless, particular (and unconvincingly resolved) piece.

Pilgrim’s Guide” involves a person engaging in space travel to approach someone in zero-G… who is a seer and gives her a prophecy. Basically, as the prophecy was being revealed, I realized the “why” of her state (meaning not just what triggered it but why she wanted what she wanted). It’s initially evoked effectively but it’s ultimately made a little too explicit and, aside from that, would have been better as a straight fantasy (and without the second-person narrative technique).

The next tale’s protagonist, who believes racism is genetic, is judge, jury, and executioner of innumerable parallel worlds, using her “Quiltbag” to “eat” “bad” worlds. (“Bad” means irredeemable worlds who have an inhabitant who fails to meet her definition of being sufficiently accepting of the races, genders, and identities she values, or who have improper diets. “Eating” means that those worlds which are not already like the quiltbag in one way are turned into the quiltbag in another.) The undramatic structure mostly involves her waiting in a room for an interviewer to arrive and then interviewing him.

Finally, “From the Root” takes place in an alternate eighteenth century in which “regenitrices” are known to exist in the background of the world. These are otherwise human women who regenerate from wounds and would only die from old age except that childbirth is always fatal. The protagonist is one and she’s fallen for a doctor who knows her secret and who’s trained her in midwifery. Marya is another regenitrix who, though a lesbian, has become pregnant by force. He wishes to examine her corpse when she dies and the midwife wishes to save her with another in her line of theories about why pregnancy kills regenitrices. Marya just wishes to be left alone. They each try to encourage the others to share their desires without knowing who can be trusted, with the fate of the midwife’s love, Marya’s life, and the lives of innumerable others in suspense.

This is very well-written with an ample, but unpretentious style, a tangible setting, sufficiently realized women and an appropriately vague doctor, and a set of compatible and contrary desires which produces real tension. Thematically, it speaks to gender disparity in the medical establishment but is wider-ranging and deeper than that. My only problem is that I have a hard time accepting the “science” of the regenitrices and of part of the resolution. I can’t get into the last (which is arguably more serious) but, for the first, if regenitrices can only produce one offspring and not all do, they should go extinct unless their numbers are replenished by spontaneous mutation but this is never questioned or answered. The general quality makes this a story I’d recommend but the background problems of this completely non-supernatural story focused on the science of medicine make me hesitate. I recommend it in the sense that it’s generally good and I may be mistaken about the problems or they may not bother some readers.

Summation: May 2018

This month’s baker’s dozen of noted stories (four recommended) comes from the pool of ninety (of 440 Kwds) published between April 30 and May 28. The print zines were individually strongest with Analog and F&SF each contributing multiple tales but the web combined to contribute seven.

While not applicable to the monthly recommendations, I did review a collection this month which had eight reprints (three recommended) that I especially liked.

Two bits of site news: I’ve once again updated Expanded Collated Contents of the Year’s Bests (2017 Stories, Links), this time with The Year’s Best Military & Adventure SF, Volume 4, and I’m modifying what’s included in these “Summations.” Previously, I’d linked only to those reviews which discussed the noted stories but I’ve decided to link to all reviews of magazines (and books, if any), as well as various “news” articles, making this serve as an essentially complete retroactive “table of contents” of the activity for the month.

Noted Stories

Recommended

Science Fiction

  • Fleeing Oslyge” by Sally Gwylan, Clarkesworld #140, May 2018 (novelette)
  • Grace’s Family” by James Patrick Kelly, Tor.com, May 16, 2018 (novelette)
  • “The Last Biker Gang” by Wil McCarthy, Analog, May/June 2018 (novella)

Fantasy

  • Bride Before You” by Stephanie Malia Morris, Nightmare #68, May 2018 (horror short story)

Honorable Mentions

Science Fiction

  • “Crash-Site” by Brian Trent, F&SF, May/June 2018 (novelette)
  • Discard the Sun, for It Has Failed Us” by Marina J. Lostetter, Uncanny #22, May/June 2018 (short story)
  • “Inquisitive” by Pip Coen, F&SF, May/June 2018 (novelette)
  • “Life from the Sky” by Sue Burke, Asimov’s, May/June 2018 (novelette)
  • “While You Sleep, Computer Mice™ Earn Their Keep” by Buzz Dixon, Analog, May/June 2018 (short story)

Fantasy

Reviews

Magazines

Book

News

Review: The Golem of Deneb Seven by Alex Shvartsman

The Golem of Deneb Seven and Other Stories
by Alex Shvartsman

Golem_Cover

Date: 2018-03-16 (Amazon)/2018-04-03 (ISFDB)
Format: Trade paperback
ISBN: 978-1986220613
Pages: 266
Price: $15.99 (Amazon)
Publisher: UFO Publishing

Contents:

  • “The Golem of Deneb Seven”
  • “A Perfect Medium for Unrequited Love”
  • “Burying Treasure”
  • “Nouns of Nouns: A Mini Epic”
  • “Whom He May Devour”
  • “Letting Go”
  • “The Fiddle Game”
  • “The Seven Habits of Highly Effective Monsters”
  • “Islands in the Sargasso”
  • “Catalogue of Items in the Chess Exhibition at the Humanities Museum, Pre-Enlightenment Wing”
  • “Fifteen Minutes”
  • “Masquerade Night”
  • “The Poet-Kings and the Word Plague”
  • “Golf to the Death”
  • “Staff Meeting, as Seen by the Spam Filter”
  • “Invasive Species”
  • “One in a Million”
  • “Grains of Wheat”
  • “The Ganthu Eggs”
  • “The Practical Guide to Punching Nazis”
  • “Dante’s Unfinished Business”
  • “Forty-Seven Dictums of Warfare”
  • “How Gaia and the Guardian Saved the World”
  • “He Who Watches”
  • “Recall Notice”
  • “Dreidel of Dread: The Very Cthulhu Chanukah”
  • “Die, Miles Cornbloom”
  • “A Man in an Angel Costume”
  • “Future Fragments, Six Seconds Long”
  • “Parametrization of Complex Weather Patterns for Two Variables”
  • “The Race for Arcadia”

Depending on your inclination, the table of contents may not be so exciting or forbidding as it appears. Seventeen of the thirty-one stories are inarguably flash (less than one thousand words) and four more are less than two thousand. About a third of all lengths are clearly intended to be humorous, albeit sometimes darkly so, while the more serious nature of the other two thirds ranges from light to dark. Almost three-fifths are science fiction of one sort or another and the rest are fantasy except for one non-speculative story. Most of the stories were published in Galaxy’s Edge (those tending to be longer and better), IGMS (longer, lesser), Nature (shorter, better), and Daily SF (shorter, lesser).

The humorous fantasy flash or near-flash includes tales of metafictional satire (“Noun of Nouns,” “Seven Habits”) and Lovecraftian spoofs (“Cthulhu Chanukah.” “Recall Notice”), while the more serious ones include a magical con job (“Fiddle Game”), a non-magical con job crossed with a divinatory love story (“Future Fragments”), a biter-bit (“Forty-Seven Dictums”), a sort of demonic inverted “It’s a Terrible Life” (“Angel Costume”), and a surreal fantastic fable (“Poet-Kings”). I have problems with several of these, such as “Seven Habits” reading like a weak echo of “The Top 100 Things I’d Do If I Ever Became An Evil Overlord,” but most simply may or may not appeal to a given reader. My favorite was “Recall Notice,” in which letters from librarians of Miskatonic University tell the tale of Lovecraft the Third using Grandpa’s library card to check out things like “Preparing an Occult Ritual in Ten Easy Steps, Sports Illustrated: The Swimsuit Issue, Properly Pronouncing Your Invocations: Audio book on CD” and others to raise hell on earth.

Oddly, the shorter SF stories are more serious. They deal with alien invasions of varying sorts (“Catalogue of Items,” “Invasive Species”), nuclear apocalypse (“He Who Watches”), an omniverse quantum magic story (“One in a Million”), various sorts of love stories (mixed with weather control hacktivists in “Parametrization;” with time travel in “Letting Go”; with AIs in “Perfect Medium”). Three more AI pieces involve a couple of AIs in a depopulated solar system trying to figure out how to save Earth from a natural disaster (“Gaia and the Guardian”), a spam filter “becoming” sentient in a story which seems like it ought to be funny but unsuccessfully goes dark (“Staff Meeting”) and a person who feels tormented by an AI in a story which seems dark but very successfully goes for black comedy (“Fifteen Minutes”). The two science fictional revenge fantasies include another time travel listory (“Practical Guide”), while the much better one (“Grains of Wheat”) is a thoughtful look at business and medicine. The average quality of the SF may edge the fantasy though “Letting Go” is so contrived (and second person, present tense) and “Practical Guide” is so insufficiently transmuted by art that they don’t help the average. On the other hand, “Grains of Wheat” is transmuted by art and “Fifteen Minutes” is superb. Even some of the more middling pieces have some really nice elements such as the depictions of the Europans in “Gaia and the Guardian” and the clever methods of encoding messages in “Perfect Medium.”

Moving to the longer short stories, “Die, Miles Cornbloom” is an oddity in that it’s so weird it feels almost fantastic but isn’t. Miles and his pal are living their humdrum lives except that Miles has somehow acquired a stalker who has moved up to death threats. As the story progresses, so does the danger and then a twist occurs. It’s not a perfect story but it was effectively tense while managing a bit of lightness and worked for me.

The actual fantasies include another metafictional satire which takes issue with the economics of fantasy in “Burying Treasure” and the posthumous fantasy and unconvincing anti-pot diatribe, “Dante’s Unfinished Business.” Much more successful is “Masquerade Night” which uses the familiar motif of gods whose powers have waned along with their followers but creates a very powerful, creepy, and weird feel. It tells of a cat-god encountering a beautiful woman in the masquerades which allow the worlds of the humans and gods to barely, dangerously touch through the mediums of their disguises. The story is set in the 1920s and, indeed, feels like one of the good old-fashioned Weird Tales.

The longer science fiction pieces include the collection’s only novelette, “Islands in the Sargasso,” which is an installment in the shared-world series of “The Sargasso Containment” that Galaxy’s Edge ran from 2014-2016. Readers might benefit from being familiar with some of the other stories but I think this stands alone fairly well and is a pretty solid space opera which handles its drugs (a science fictional “Rust”) more convincingly and ambiguously than “Unfinished Business.” A recovering addict is fleeing from pursuers and must enter the barrier which surrounds the solar system and has previously meant certain death. He awakens on the other side two hundred years later and the scale of the tale broadens significantly. The other short stories include the title story about courage in invasions which isn’t provided by mechanized armor and “Whom He May Devour,” about a young woman dealing with technologically advanced humans encroaching on her religious and backwards world whose sole technology is devoted to preserving their uploaded ancestors. The worst of the short SF is “The Ganthu Eggs” which uses the poor device of a letter from a “mass-murderer” to a warden on behalf of another “mass-murderer” prisoner which depends on an anti-abortion viewpoint and trivializes the issue either way with the letter’s main concern. Along with “Sargasso,” two other tales compensate for that. “The Race for Arcadia” is a pretty good tale about a terminally ill man trying to win a second space race as a Russian competing against Americans and Indians to get to an earth-like world first, with a twist. “Golf to the Death” uses the “champion of the species” framework. In it, a man witnesses a human fight an alien in the aliens’ chosen sport and then must compete in the humans’ chosen sport, but with alien stakes, as they “golf to the death.” Just saying that makes me laugh and the story handles the premise reasonably well.

This is a collection with directly written stories full of familiar elements which for some readers will be a feature and for some a bug. Similarly, some may appreciate the mix of SF & F and of humor and seriousness while some might prefer just peanut butter or just chocolate. However it shakes out for the given reader, I do recommend several (the science fiction of “Fifteen Minutes,” the fantasy of “Masquerade Night,” and the mild suspense of “Die, Miles Cornbloom”) and think several more are notable (“Islands in the Sargasso,” “Golf to the Death,” “Grains of Wheat,” “Recall Notice,” and “The Race for Arcadia”).

Weekly Webzine Wrap-Up (2018-05-19)

Weekly Webzine Wrap-Up image

Original Fiction:

This was “the journey is better than the destination” metafiction week. It was also an inordinately good week; staggeringly so, given the theme.

Shirin’s Door” and “Graduation” aren’t especially metafictional though the first is part of the microgenre of time-dilated protagonists witnessing the time-lapse of history through repeated visits to a spot and adds nothing to that microgenre, while the second is a sort of Sunnydale High/Cthulhu Mythos story about a couple of students nearing graduation in a world populated by Lovecraftian critters. They have a near-death experience which partially mentally fuses them. The characters, milieu, and tension in this are winners along with the wry “dramedy” tone but the climax is lacking and the end moral is a bit bald. So it’s ultimately weak but is a hell of a lot of fun on the way.

After the Dragon” isn’t thoroughly metafictional, either, except insofar as it’s a microfiction sequel to the “hero slays the dragon and gets the girl” story which takes issue with the “happily ever after” (also its own microgenre) which, even for 233-word microfiction, is more of a note on an idea for a story than a story.

The half of the stories that are thoroughly on theme begin with “Narcissus,” which depicts a crazy person swamped in the virtual reality of social media. While its abundance of periphrasis may contribute to its depiction of insanity, it makes for labored writing and laborious reading. Also, I’m not sure how science fictional it is, given that its happening subjectively now and the whole point is subjectivity.

In “Variations on a Theme from Turandot,” Liu is seen to be a character played by a Soprano but that actress is like a vessel which becomes unmoored during performances of the opera and begins shaping it differently (or being shaped by a certain “Liu-ness”). She may be impelled by a wish to save “her” own life contrary to her fate in the “real” opera or to save the Stranger’s life or even to help the Princess but, whatever it is, it takes some effort—efforts which are appreciated by the audiences of the metamorphosing performances.

As is probably obvious from the synopsis, readers unfamiliar with the opera would do well to check up on it and some of its backstory before reading this. As is also obvious, with enough iterations (a theme and sixteen variations on it, plus three intermezzi, a cadenza, and a coda), one can achieve almost any result and that, coupled with the ontological uncertainty of the characters/people results in a lack of tension. Despite those blemishes, my lack of interest in Puccini operas, and my tendency to dislike such recondite metafictions, I did somewhat enjoy this well-done, rather clever piece about human bondage and artistic compulsion which was much more sharply drawn and “realistic” than such metafictions usually are. While some may share my reaction, I suspect most readers will be less ambivalent: many will be bored to tears and many will be enthralled and moved.

Finally, Jojin is a member of “Grace’s Family” and he narrates the tale of Grace’s exploration of star systems which add to the “infosphere” while also participating in tales within the tale. Grace is the ship intelligence and Joj, mom, dad, and sis are the crew. Mom and the younger sister (who used to be the older brother) are bots. Dad’s losing his mind, perhaps from age (Grace is over a thousand years old and most of the family are decades or centuries older than Jojin’s nineteen (which often seems like nine, perhaps partly because “Grace kept things simple so as not to confuse us”). When Grace is contacted by Mercy and diverts to meet with her and have a sort of starship infosex, which involves trading mom and dad for a new crewmember, Orisa’s arrival changes a great deal in the crew dynamics and in Joj, himself.

For much of this story, I had that “I kinda know what’s going on but definitely not entirely and, either way, it’s all making my head feel funny” sensation which is one of the many reasons I got into this stuff in the first place. The parts where Joj gets into a big ball or “roller” that he’s designed and takes it onto the ship’s hull for a jog and other more casual moments and references make the story sparkle with wonder. But, of course, familiarity (and ignorance) breeds contempt and Joj is usually bored, to the point of considering leaving the ship (which is no utopia) and becoming planetbound (which is even further from it). During its course, it felt like there were many directions the story could have gone but it opts to go in a very common one which is perfectly congruent with all that had come before except in terms of the bulk’s freshness and the end’s familiarity and the fact that the latter somewhat undercuts the former. This is more like “Graduation” in terms of “journey vs. destination” and not as consistent as “Variations” but, either due to my bias or its intrinsic merits, seems to operate at a higher peak level than either and was my favorite story of the weekly offerings.

Review: Clarkesworld #140

Clarkesworld #140, May 2018

Original Fiction:

  • “A Vastness” by Bo Balder (science fantasy short story)
  • “Not Now” by Chelsea Muzar (science fantasy short story)
  • “Fleeing Oslyge” by Sally Gwylan (science fiction novelette)

Yoshi is chasing “A Vastness” of Guardians (like a school of space fish) in a slow spaceship and it will take extreme measures to keep up with them to continue studying them. She initially wanted to implement her crazy plan herself but “she’d realized in order to acquire that Nobel prize, she’d have to be the person publishing the research, not the one dying in the attempt,” so she tries to get others to go before finally having to go herself, after all. So far as I could believe this character (not very) I didn’t like her and I couldn’t believe any of the people around her. I also couldn’t believe any scientific expedition would be so unplanned until developing a crazy one. Finally, the Guardians are basically like Tim Zahn’s Warhorses, only less interesting, and the ending is a movie we’ve all seen.

In “Not Now,” a girl’s room has been destroyed because a robot arm fell on it from space. Reporters are camped outside and people chant against them (and former best friends throw eggs at the girl) because they’re “Pro-Ro” and deserve this. The parents are distant, disturbed, and disturbing. The kid’s going to cover up the hole in her room with a banner but it won’t stick. The surrealism just kind of meanders to a halt. Meanwhile you get things like, “Mom reminds me of the waiting people at the mall … worrying that the person they’re waiting for will never come. Their impatience and fear hardens around them like a thin chocolate coating. It makes them unapproachable.” Are we supposed to find chocolate unapproachable or people who are impatient and afraid delicious?

This is a strange issue because those two stories and the next are not, to partly quote Jules Winnfield, even playing the same sport. Senne is “Fleeing Oslyge” after the invasion of her world of NyHem by the Tysthand. Nobody’s quite sure what the Tysthand (“Peace Hands”) are but they fight dirty, using projections and human traitors against the soldiers and populace. Senne takes up with a handful of soldiers on a harrowing journey to a stronghold, during which she feels nearly as afraid of some of her companions as the enemy. The overarching concept is familiar and the primary plot revelation isn’t all that surprising but the tale is well-constructed and very well written, always keeping things moving and interesting while being very dark and gritty without being overdone. Can’t say I’d ultimately take the same road as the very believable protagonist because I think you need both angles but she has her reasons. Good stuff.