Here’s a somewhat unusual round-robin review:
(Stories reviewed by Mike Wyant, Jr., Jason McGregor, and Victoria Silverwolf)
- “Painless” by Rich Larson (science fictional short story)
Here’s a somewhat unusual round-robin review:
(Stories reviewed by Mike Wyant, Jr., Jason McGregor, and Victoria Silverwolf)
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.
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.
This issue of Asimov’s is the second consecutive one with stories by Rusch and Rucker and the second with a double-barrelled shot of Gunn (sixth with at least one Gunn). The average quality is reasonable and there’s one or two notable stories but little sticks out significantly either way. One thing that does stick out is that, while there’s nothing here that’s strictly fantasy, there’s quite a bit that isn’t strictly SF in one sense or another.
Two stories are essentially fantasy. “Seven Months Out” features a woman who’s lost her husband, is expecting a baby, and works on a ranch where some of her cows are also expecting. Almost half the story is her hallucination, vaguely rationalized by maybe-aliens. Some few may respond to its thick (indulgent) emotional content. “A Threnody for Hazan” spends much more (too much) effort reinventing the wheel of a surreal spiritual time machine which lets a protagonist become a wall or road in WWII (which turns out to have more resonance than might be expected) but what it really wants to do is describe the relationship between an interesting and strange couple and to address all the awful things that make up history and humanity. It’s not bad but probably would have have been better if it had been a straight fantasy.
Four are essentially mainstream and come in light and heavy flavors. Of the two lightly science fictionalized ones, “Artisanal Trucking, LLC” doesn’t need to take place in a very near future of self-driving vehicles, while making noises about authenticity and self-determination, in order to tell a story about running over a dog and dealing with its orphaned puppies. “Because Reasons” doesn’t need to send a person to Mars in order to have the other talk about her feelings about that friend abandoning her: another country would do. Despite being yet another relationship “listory,” the list elements convey a voice and backstory that make for a reasonably engaging read. For the heavy ones, if a starship captain crashes her improbably designed vessel onto a colony world full of weird alien critters which orbits a temperamental star and becomes pilot of the “Queen of the River,” it has to be SF, right? Well, yes, but it’s also all contrived to produce an underplotted tale of a Mark Twainish paddleboat trip. It feels like a piece of something bigger but the critters were fun. There are similar, lesser critters in “The Billows of Sarto” which is almost identical to the author’s earlier “Crimson Birds of Small Miracles.” We have diseased characters wandering to strange planets to deal with death and experience the magical phenomenon of alien lifeforms. Just replace “crimson birds” with “billows” but either could be replaced by a bunch of parrots just as the alien world could be replaced by a tropical island. Aside from that, the improbable relationship of the two characters is especially flawed, despite a failed attempt at a preemptive strike: “He barely knew a thing about her, but…”
Two more pieces are arguably thickly cloaked medieval bits but the “pieces” and “bits” are more significant. “The Waiting Room” is a fragment of a prologue to “Attack on Terminal” which is, itself, a fragment of a prologue to the Transcendental books. Riley, his AI implant, and some fellow pilgrims are trying to travel to the Transcendental Machine. A brief attack by alien barbarians punctuates what is otherwise just Riley’s looking at and thinking about his fellow travelers.
“Dix” is indubitably an SF novella but of a TV sci-fi sort where technobabble problems and solutions fail to provide tension and the reader spends most of the tale waiting for the other shoe to drop but there’s only one shoe. A ship was stuck in foldspace for 5,000 objective years and has recently emerged. The protagonist and her captain find the first officer dead of an apparent suicide and have to deal with the threat this may pose.
Next are a pair of actual SF stories featuring bent brains. “Love Songs for the Very Awful” is one of Reed’s recent run of dyspeptic tales with anticlimactic endings but has elements of interest. A scientist has escaped from her small town and is running an experiment which models personalities by permanently implanted brain meshes. A sociopathic sort of a person is among the first test subjects which means that, when the tech has advanced and people are modifying their personalities, he can’t modify his. The tale deals with those two characters’ relationship with each other and his with another woman later. In the other tale, Scott’s “Emojis” don’t just go viral, they are viral. At the behest of his boss, he infects himself without knowing he’ll be contagious. So the whole world gets little empathy-based icons floating in their visual field and they can be used for advertising, too. So Scott decides to take it a step further. Entertaining enough but not as momentous as it seems like it should be.
Fans of Simak and/or anthropology might be most likely to enjoy “Bury Me in the Rainbow” which is a “stand-alone sequel” to “We Will Drink a Fish Together” (which I have read and recall enjoying but can’t recall otherwise). In this one, Tony takes over for the recently deceased Sam and is in a power struggle with a calculating and aggressive woman who thinks Tony is too trusting of the aliens who are offering some of Tony’s tribe passage on their ship. The off-the-cuff, incidental characterizations and observations are probably the best part of this. The story’s not overwritten or exactly padded and there are a lot of details and complicated parts but the basic story doesn’t seem to require this very long (34K) novella which resolves fairly predictably and clearly indicates another installment is coming. It’s done well enough and of enough substance to merit some attention, though.
Finally, I recommend “In Event of Moon Disaster.” Laurie and Sol are alone in a region of the moon after something has struck the surface. Laurie had gone out to investigate and has now returned. Sol lets her in and she goes to sleep. Then there’s a knock at the airlock. Laurie’s banging on the ship and wants to come in. This story riffs on all sorts of things from “The Brain Stealers of Mars” to “Knock” to “The Cold Equations” and “Think Like a Dinosaur” and more but you don’t need to be familiar with any of that to be weirded out by and interested in this story which also displays a grasp of twists and scale. Since this is set in one continuum, I don’t know if it also means to be addressing one of my biggest gripes with the “many worlds” conjecture but, if so, I like that, too.
At this point, fourteen stories listed in the collated contents of the big “year’s bests” have annotations saying the evaluation was “late.” This was because the stories were initially unavailable on the web or came from odd venues. I’m reviewing them now, expanding on the brief “read,” “honorable mention,” or “recommended” labels.
I read “Charges,” “Hunger,” and “Sidewalks” in mid-/late-December without thinking to actually review them, but simply jotted down my usual notes, so what follows on them are just belated restatements of those notes.
I felt that “Charges” (about an attempt to “cure” transgender people in the near future by torturing them and transferring them into non-transgender corpses) was extremely dated (transposing past treatment of homosexuals into an exaggerated future) and plain silly “science” fiction. It had a sort of horror movie intensity but that’s about all that could be said for it. “Hunger” addresses the potential ennui of (relative) wealth which, while not completely invalid in some nuances, is suitable for 1% propaganda generally. More importantly in fictional terms, the protagonist talks about “the romance of death by adventure” and notes that “I faced a less newsworthy ordeal.” Which made for a less interesting story as this was a boring grocery list of “actions” and, as said, largely unconvincing thoughts. In “Sidewalks,” a speech pathologist meets a woman from an alternate reality who speaks a form of Old English and comes from California, though she’s initially taken to be a gibberish-speaking nut. The details of this make little sense and, generally, this sort of story has been done many times before and much better.
Moving on to recent reads, “Persephone” is an initially interesting slipstream/dark fantasy which has quite a few strong images and ideas and an interestingly shifty narrative technique as it describes a pseudo-orphaned lost girl but seems underwhelming given the wind-up. “Confessions” describes the perfect storm of higher education, corporate rule, and social media, through a narrator who’s modded down from a “Pro” member of society to a “Con.” Unfortunately, most of this is already here and isn’t science fictional at all. It’s also unfortunate that it doesn’t make for the perfect story as it’s rather dull and unpleasant but not in a compelling, effective way. Perhaps it’s to the point but the narrator protagonist was hard to engage with and, while it did go for an emotional ending, it didn’t quite work for me. It’s not bad, but not remarkable. “Wind“—in which a fiddle player and history teacher on a generation starship tries to explain to her resistant kids why even broken history (and music and tradition and creation) is necessary—is a story with nice ideas and decent characters and most everything else needed for an excellent story but basically forgot the plot or, more specifically, the drama. It’s a mostly good but dull story and I’m someone who loves starships and history and music so I imagine it’d be worse for those who don’t. The zestier “Monkey” is somewhat clever with its structure of a fragment of history interlarded with scholarly notes which depict some gorilla warfare, so to speak, in which the meek will inherit the earth if they jujitsu for it and the most striking thing was the very isolated elements of humor or discordant notes delivered with a perfectly straight face in the course of a generally serious tale. This story doesn’t do much wrong aside from the contrivance of not having the religious order’s noncombatants expelled along with the royal family and I think it merits an honorable mention (I’ve waffled a bit) but it didn’t overwhelm me.
Buckell has two stories in the annuals, both of which seem more like honorable mentions to me. “Shoggoths” is a reasonably clever science fantasy about GPS and automated vehicles being used to try to summon monster monsters. The vehicle for conveying this concept is a tale of a couple of tow truck operators stealing a drug dealer’s stolen car in order to return it to the original drug dealer for a reward. This is a fun read but doesn’t strike me as especially significant. The more problematic “Zen” has a cardboard villain representing tradition and inflexibility start and lose a starship fight with the modern, flexible good guys. When he survives and sneaks aboard the victorious starship, he and a mind uploaded into the form of a maintenance bot vie for supremacy, with the bot’s programmed lack of freewill complicating the struggle. This has a gosh-wow-sensawunda suitable for both old and new space opera and homages several things from previous SF but its simplistic ethos is discordant in a new space opera. Further, the wondrous setting being mostly a clever plot contrivance is bothersome. Still, the story’s pace and imagery are noteworthy.
“The Discrete Charm of the Turing Machine” is an unusually funny story for Egan (not saying that it’s an outright comedy, but it definitely has its lighter, stranger moments). When the protagonist unceremoniously loses his job and he and both his immediate and extended family go through some financial troubles, some discussion with a tin-hat brother-in-law and an attempt to debunk his theories lead to pondering the nature of economies and emergent systems. This description doesn’t do it justice as it doesn’t convey the calm, confidently unhurried but efficient pacing, the tangibility of the characters and their plight, or Egan’s usual thoughtful angle on things. While I still prefer “Uncanny Valley,” both novelettes are great reads.
And wow: “An Evening with Severyn Grimes” is a date you don’t want to miss. The idea of mind uploads placed in borrowed bodies and the religious/ideological people who oppose this is a bit familiar (and not completely dissimilar from “Zen”) and the hackery of one of the characters is a bit magical, but this tale—of a woman, for reasons of her own, infiltrating a cult which wants to seize a rich guy currently in such a borrowed body so they can kill him painfully and publicly—is sheer brilliance. The old mind in the young body is constantly seeking thrills to make him feel alive again and that’s just what this short story does for the reader. This needs to be the basis for a slightly expanded movie or something. Further, it does something “Zen” does not do in that it has complex characters working at complex cross-purposes who can sometimes align just enough to make things really interesting. Very enthusiastically recommended.
Following on from Part 1, I’ve now read the eleven stories that only Clarke or Dozois selected. Part 1 left off with a question about whether multiple quality Dozois selections and a slower start from Clarke would continue.
As far as Clarke’s selections, I didn’t care for Margaret Ronald’s talky alien infonet tale “And Then, One Day, the Air was Full of Voices” and I previously ambivalently reviewed Lettie Prell’s artsy post-human “The Three Lives of Sonata James.” I couldn’t go for a full-tilt recommendation of Karin Lowachee’s “A Good Home” (paraplegic vet adopts PTSD android) or Sarah Pinsker’s post-apocalyptic “Sooner or Later Everything Falls Into the Sea” but they’re certainly reasonable selections to me and you probably wouldn’t go wrong to give them a try.
The only solo Clarke selection that really impressed me was Rich Larson’s “Extraction Request“ and that in a very specific way. It is undeniably effective but if you don’t wish to read nihilistic military horror SF (The Dirty Dozen economized to an Evil Eight and then dropped in a blender with Aliens and The Blob) then you can safely give this a pass. I wouldn’t have wished in advance to read such a thing but, as I say, it does effectively draw the reader in and is quite creative, especially in certain sadistic details.
I would also recommend Dozois’ selection of Rich Larson’s “Jonas and the Fox“ more generally but with reservations. Jonas is the older brother of Damjan. They’re living through a revolution when a distant relative, the Fox, who had helped start the revolution prior to being deemed an enemy by it, arrives and hides out with them. Damjan later falls to his brain-death and the Fox has his mind sideloaded into Damjan’s body to hide more effectively. Our story picks up at this point as starry-eyed and contrary (and guilt-plagued) Jonas and his parents and the Fox deal with their situation and try to survive informant teachers and bloodhound soldiers and so on. The reservations come from this being a gripping story throughout yet not especially satisfying in the end. The ending is certainly apt enough and prepped for but somehow the story overall feels like a slight letdown. Also, I’m perfectly happy to swallow the personality/consciousness/soul backups and several other things but, even in that context, the plausibility of aspects of what can and can’t be detected (at least three things) bothers me. Still, quite good and just as gripping as “Extraction Request” with psychological horror but without the visceral horror and nihilism.
Dozois’ other selections were pretty solid. I was least impressed by Maggie Clark’s “A Tower for the Coming World” (interconnected sketches dealing with a variety of people connected to a space elevator) but it wasn’t bad. Eleanor Arnason’s “Checkerboard Planet” wasn’t great, but was a pleasant good ol’ planetary exploration tale starring her recurring Lydia Duluth character. Like Larson’s tale, only more so, Mercurio D. Rivera’s first contact tale, “Those Brighter Stars,” suffered from a somewhat unsatisfying ending (albeit by design) in a tale of abandonment on both small and large scales but was mostly brisk and vivid.
James Patrick Kelly’s “One Sister, Two Sisters, Three” – a tale of siblings, jealousy, mortality, religion, and the Fibonacci sequence – is an embarrassment for me since I have to confess I don’t get it. It seems really superb until the end where I think I understand what happened and why but then simply do not understand the lack of response to it in the denouement. I understand why there wouldn’t be much focus on a certain kind of response but an absence? So I don’t know what to say about it. If the whole thing does hang together and is as good as the bulk, it’d certainly be recommended.
Along with the Larson, the other tale I can clearly recommend is Ted Kosmatka’s “The One Who Isn’t“ which stays confusing and disorienting for almost too long but finally crystallizes into a remarkable story. As such, it’s one I hate to say anything about because even a simple characterization would spoil the journey. The setup “starts with light. Then heat.” It goes on with a woman “in a porcelain mask” testing a child on his perceptions of colors. Given his inability to distinguish blue and green, she informs him he’s “getting worse.” Then she tells him a bedtime story and I encourage you to go find out about it.
For awhile now, I haven’t been thrilled with Dozois’ annuals but, if the parts I’ve read are at all reflective of the whole, this seems like a very good anthology. One of my major complaints has been an excess of depression, death, destruction, and dystopia in the annuals of late. This certainly has some of all that but in more tolerable quantities and with a lighter or more nuanced touch. Of the nineteen stories from the volume I’ve read thus far, I especially liked eight of them and disliked or wasn’t interested in only a handful with the rest at least being okay. That’s a pretty strong batting average.
Next up, the Horton and Strahan solo selections to finish up this little project!
Edit (2017-01-29): And here’s that conclusion.