Weekly Webzine Wrap-Up (2018-10-21)

Weekly Webzine Wrap-Up image

Original Fiction:

Since Nature hasn’t put up a new story for the second week in a row and Terraform‘s website seems broken, “AI and the Trolley Problem” is the sole SF story this week. It addresses an interesting problem (an AI deciding to kill some of its “own” people to prevent greater loss of life) but, by having the structure of an odd day in the life followed by a conversation between a “specialist in machine ethics” and the AI, it lacks full fictionalization and drama. Not to mention that, regardless of general morality, any AI that kills those it was designed to protect should be scrapped immediately.

MotherJumpers” has as its basic premise the exact same one of “Bluebellows,” published in the same magazine last year: people jump off slave ships and, rather than dying, are changed. This is written in an extremely thick Caribbean dialect and I even resorted to trying the podcast which did help but not enough so, while some of the underwater descriptions were imaginative and it may have turned out well,  I didn’t finish it.

BCS brings us a pair of fantasies of female friends falling out. “Crow Knight” is much the longer of the two novelettes and seems to have a rather reductive “tend your garden (because you can’t tend others’)” motif after detailing some abortive, misdirected, deceitful steps to deal with the ominous crow which pesters both the plain and morose knight and her angry, bitter, dangerous lady (or princess, one would think, as she’s to be queen). Though short of a full recommendation, “Zayred” was much more appealing. It provides enough in each scene to maintain interest while it unspools the story in reverse. In this case, the strategy makes each scene seem to deepen or intensify without making it seem too baldly put. However, the conclusion (or lack thereof) suffers from just that and from being apt enough, but unsatisfying. Still, the tale of a couple of war-bards (spellsingers) fighting to control the narrative after their deaths, and why they were doing it, was intriguing and possessed of understated style. Some may find the story to be more of an ego-struggle among villains than a social struggle among heroes but I thought the touch of gray could also be seen as an advantage. Without making it a preachy message, there’s also a good depiction of how The Powers That Be keep people at each others’ throats against their own self-interest and for that of the Powers’.


Review: Galaxy’s Edge #34

Galaxy’s Edge #34, September 2018

Original Fiction:

  • “In Which Liz Builds a Robot with Unexpected Results” by Grayson Bray Morris (science fiction)
  • “Employee Theft Is an Ongoing Problem” by Brenda Kalt (science fiction)
  • “The Day Time Stood Still” by Shawn Proctor (fantasy)
  • “The Horn of Amalthea” by George Nikolopoulos (fantasy)
  • “Small Fortune and the Perpetual Luck Machine” by Alex Shvartsman (fantasy)
  • “Yet So Vain Is Man” by A. Merc Rustad (science fiction)
  • “Journey’s End” by Doug Dandridge (science fiction)
  • “Death, the Devil, and the President’s Ghost” by Larry Hodges (fantasy)
  • “El Paletero” by Sharon Diane King (fantasy)

All the original stories in this issue of Galaxy’s Edge are short stories and five of them are very short, with four weighing in at a thousand words or less while the other is about 1700 words.

Of the very short ones, “Amalthea” was the most entertaining to me. While slight and predictable, it was still a clever biter-bit about a man trying to steal the Horn of Plenty from the goat it’s attached to (not to mention Zeus). “Time” takes the familiar motif of losing a loved one (wife) and not wanting to lose another (daughter) so stopping time but then realizing there’s a cost. Unfortunately, the fact that the whole world except for the father and daughter is what’s stopped doesn’t make even fantasy sense and the story is button-pushing more than genuinely emotional. “President’s Ghost,” which aims for comedy, also feels familiar and also has problems with the odd notion that souls are separate from selves and can be both dirty and cleaned. Some President dies and has a conversation with the Devil while Death looks on before things take a sudden turn.

Turning to the more science fictional short-shorts, “Vain” is another familiar tale in which we find an alien on Mars and a corporation stupidly (unbelievably stupidly) transports it to Earth over a scientist’s objections and then that scientist, trying to minimize the threat, makes it worse. This is told exclusively through emails she sends, which feels like a narrative mistake. “Robot” is just what the full title says, in which a robot meant to clean and organize takes a broad approach to the task. Kind of a fluff piece, but readable.

Moving to longer science fictional tales, “Employee Theft” involves a linguist slipping into a group of spies, all disguised as custodial workers, with the former trying to record bits of alien language and the latter trying to steal bits of tech the aliens leave behind in their Floridian quarters. This background is no clearer or more plausible than it sounds and, while I was able to entertain the notion that it would get better as I read it, it ultimately didn’t and the ending was anti-climactic. “Journey’s End” is a shot at hard SF, dealing with a barely sub-light colony augmentation starship. Its skeleton crew learns by a sort of ansible that the colony has been attacked by aliens and they decide to divert the starship with some large-scale Macgyvering. Most everything that happens seems more or less coincidental or accidental and part of the conclusion between two loved ones is jaw-droppingly awkwardly put, at best, but it was otherwise readable.

Of the longer fantasies, “Paletero” is a vaguely Bradbury-ian tale that mixes darkness with wild whimsy and may be deep with symbolism which I missed but just seems like a couple of remarkably imaginative incidents, The “paletero” is basically an ice-cream man with a magical ice-cream cart. The latter incident is somewhat like “Time” in that it deals with a person wanting to reverse time and also discovering it’s complex. I thought this was overloaded with sensory details but many find that a virtue. Finally, the best story in the issue, by a small margin, is another comic fantasy like “Amalthea.” “Perpetual Luck Machine” deals with a woman trying to convince her grandmother that she’s ready to run their magic pawn shop but then encountering a gnome who wants a loan and will put up the PLM as collateral. This gnome is tricky, though, and she’s not getting the bargain she thought. This was smoothly told and effectively comical.

Weekly Webzine Wrap-Up (2018-10-14)

Weekly Webzine Wrap-Up image

Original Fiction:

Pairs week. Nature and Tor.com went missing this week but Strange Horizons had a bonus story and, due to the unusual lateness of what should have been last week’s Terraform, there are also two of those to go with the two BCS tales.

Leda” is a joke rather than a story and, despite being set on a moon of Jupiter, is a fantasy rather than SF, dealing as it does with people not dying on a Jovian moon and the bureaucratic corporate opportunities that could present. “Cranes” is another mawkish Terraform story about climate change narrated in reverse.

Asphalt” takes issue with the Filipino war on drugs and describes some “innocents,” who have been murdered by cops, getting stuck in a benevolent underworld creature’s realm and deals with a particular conflicted cop who Learns Better. Since it takes issue with extra-judicial killings, the juxtaposition of it with “Fortunate Death” is interesting (read: ludicrously ironic). The latter, while crisply narrated with a well-done first-person narrative voice, exults in its heroes’ extra-judicial killings and tortures. The narrator is a hacker girl who torments those she disagrees with and witnesses the murder of her current victim and belatedly aids the murderer.

While not my sort of thing, by far the best stories of this round were the BCS tales. “Scout” depicts a sort of “winter fairy tale/bedtime story” milieu, the nested tale of which deals with an insomniac Governor and the efforts to get him some rest (culminating in a ride on a magical sleep-inducing creature) and the outer tale of which deals with a young person’s efforts to learn how the story ends. (All the children throughout all time, as comfortable and well-fed and happy as they are, always fall asleep before the conclusion.) While the extended nature of the Governor’s journey and the children’s inability to know the ending are contrived elements in literal terms, the tale’s elaborate and fanciful meditations on sleeping and waking, dreaming and story, maturation and wisdom, is sure to find admirers even if it was a little slow for my taste. “Magic Potion” is also appealing but somehow also fell a little short of a full recommendation from me, though it will likely be enjoyed greatly by many (with the caveat that some may be put off by the genre of the story—discussing that may be a mild spoiler, so see the comments below). In a sort of “old time Asian” milieu, a civil servant (and minor royal) gets shipped off to an out-of-the-way post and, because of ambiguity in the language, thinks he’s learning about one thing (how to become magically strong) when he’s really learning (a great deal) about something else. The depiction of the village he’s in and that of the “magic potion” village and its “Grandmother” is calmly delightful.

(A couple of stray notes: BCS is once again rife with grammatical and typographical errors, especially in “Scout,” which hurt the otherwise enjoyable fiction. On the flipside, its “Magic Potion” has unfamiliar words which are perfectly contextualized and present no problem while SH‘s “Asphalt,” after confusing readers over the course of the story, includes a glossary(!) at the end(!) to “help provide nuance and context” which is what the story is supposed to be for. And, ha, I just realized that Terraform‘s two stories combined are “Leda and the Cranes.” Not quite a swan, but close enough for a laugh.)

Review: Analog, September/October 2018

Analog, September/October 2018

Original Fiction:

  • “Go Random, My Love” by Bill Johnson (novelette)
  • “Optimizing the Verified Good” by Effie Seiberg (short story)
  • “A Surprise Beginning” by Gregory Benford (short story – reprint, not reviewed)
  • “When the Rain Comes” by Ron Collins (short story)
  • “The Unnecessary Parts of the Story” by Adam-Troy Castro (short story)
  • “The Pendant Lens” by Sean McMullen (novelette)
  • “…And He Built a Crooked Hub” by Christopher L. Bennett (novelette)
  • “Shepherd Moon” by Premee Mohamed (short story)
  • “It Came from the Coffee Maker” by Martin L. Shoemaker (short story)
  • “Nevertheless” by Elizabeth Rubio (short story)
  • Probability Zero: “The Plaything on the Tesseract Wall” by Larry Hodges (short story)
  • “Off-Road” by Harry Lang (short story)
  • “Trapezium” by Tony Ballantyne (novelette)
  • “Black Shores” by Darren Speegle (short story)
  • “Impetus” by Shane Landry (short story)
  • “Harry and the Lewises” by Edward M. Lerner (novella)

Most of the stories in this issue of Analog try to be science fictional and are readable, with few either exceeding or falling short of that mark. The most remarkable thing about this issue is that it tops Analog‘s usual excess of short stories with a staggering eleven of them, leaving room for only one novella and four novelettes, two of which are little longer than short stories, themselves.

One of the shorts is a reprint and four are under five thousand words. The best of these very short tales is “Coffee,” in which a smart-aleck AI, restrained by Asimov’s Three Laws and doomed to be a coffee maker, laments its lot but also describes its clever way to be more. “Rain” is a sort of “Rose for Emily” with climate change and a minimally AI robot. “Plaything” is the Probability Zero piece in which a young 4D being “plays with” (torments) a 3D being until Learning Better. Speaking of “Learning Better,” there may be more than Heinlein’s “three plots” but this Analog both intentionally and accidentally stays very close to some very basic ones. Intentionally, “Unnecessary Parts” is a metafictional conventionally convention-mocking “story” of a “parasite and a disease” which takes the “Black Destroyer”/Aliens-type story and turns it into a pitch black “joke.”

Moving to the longer stories and presumably accidental examples, “Impetus” reads like a serious version of South Park’s “Asspen” (“we’re gonna need a montage!”) complete with a jerk whose only purpose is to torment the protagonist. But its race car-like exoskeletons beat skiing, at least. Similarly, “Nevertheless” involves an overweight protagonist who’s denied her dream of working outside her generation starship but persists and, when disaster strikes, completes her plot template. “Off-Road” similarly puts a pair of Martian truckers in a life and death situation but doesn’t so much try to valorize its protagonist as to have him realize, from dear old dad’s example, what’s really important in life. As that story could have been a good hard SF adventure but is really a relationship story, so “Shepherd,” which sends a woman into space to retrieve the dead body of an ex, is more interested in the psychological side but, more like “Impetus,” tries to valorize the protagonist. Unfortunately, the protagonist is portrayed (accidentally, I believe) as fundamentally incompetent, which makes it all unbelievable. To return to the AI/robots of “Coffee” and “Rain,” “Optimizing” is an allegory about acting for or against one’s own self-interest, especially in violent competition, using gladiatorial battlebots to convey the sociopolitical moral. Finally, “Black Shores” is also a metaphor for life, the universe, and everything when a couple of humans and a native get shipwrecked on the Forbidden Isle populated by the dark cousins of the alien who practice a bloody art before an “anti-Monolith” (2001: A Space Odyssey) sort of object.

Turning to the novelettes, “Random” is another “life or death in a hostile environment” tale like “Optimizing,” “Shepherd,” and “Off-Road.” It has some Null-A and (literally) “Cold Equations” resonances as it describes a man trying to save a frozen woman from hostile alien critters who are even colder. While no editorial note identifies it as being in a series, the background seemed rather sketchy and it feels like it assumes you’ve read something else, but the major elements became clear enough and it became somewhat exciting as the story progressed. “Trapezium,” like “Parts,” feels like a lesser “Black Destroyer” as a small crew invite an aggressive biomechanoid alien on board as part of a trade deal and then try to keep it in check and not become its prey. The science elements of this seem weak but the dramatic aspects aren’t bad. The latest “Hub” story is a sort of bedroom farce with a safe, a “hotel,” and a spy, with people of various species and genders and states of undress running around and being silly as all the multi-dimensional doors of the tesseract suites get screwed up until all things “work out” in their ways in the end. “Pendant” is one of the two “retro” stories of the issue, being set in France in 1794, so that we can learn about Robespierre’s very limited time (viewer) machine through the eyes of the Englishman brought in to repair it with death as the alternative to (or perhaps even consequent of) success. There’s really no SF here – the device may be some piece of secret history or translated from the future or dumped off by aliens but it’s basically magic despite efforts to make it at least proto-steampunk-like but the protagonist and his ambiguous female “friend” are well-drawn and the “period” part of it is readable enough.

While set in the present, “Harry” is steeped in the Lewis and Clark expedition from which everything in it derives. The protagonist is an interesting combination: ex-history academic turned tabloid reporter. The woman who sets him on the trail of his great discovery is a similar mixture, being a smart and capable woman with the money-making public persona of a ditz (and she’s also the boss’s daughter). Due to the story of one of her ancestors, she wants to find out more and our hero is up to the task (with sufficient extra funds from her). What follows pulls in a staggering number of threads to create a conspiracy theory of truly vast scope. It has at least a couple of downsides. In internal fictional terms, it’s weakly held together and contains many contradictory elements that are supposed to be proofs. In contemporary social terms, I don’t know that this sort of story is helpful. Still, a lot of work went into this and it was quite interesting, so (like “Coffee” and its humor) I have to note it.

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.

Review: Lightspeed #101

Lightspeed #101, October 2018

Original Fiction:

  • “The Horror of Party Beach” by Dale Bailey (science fantasy novelette)
  • “The Real You™” by Molly Tanzer (science fictional short story)
  • “Super-Luminous Spiral” by Cameron Van Sant (science fantasy short story)
  • “Ten Deals with The Indigo Snake” by Mel Kassel (fantasy short story)

Real” dragoons the reader into being the audience for a woman’s gossipy monologue about her and others’ relationships in which the SF gimmick of a magic procedure that turns people’s faces into blobs is used to touch on identity, isolation, and protective measures to say, with Buckaroo Banzai, “Wherever you go, there you are.” There’s a good phrase or two and some people may enjoy this sort of thing but, if it doesn’t sound like your thing, you probably won’t.

A couple of stories touch on addictions of sorts. “Deals” deals with a woman making risky deals with a snake (which has been a common thing in this world, which is otherwise like our own, since Eve) to gain everything from good grades to the attentions of another woman which, as only part of her gambling habit, leads to worse and worse things for awhile. Among other things, the story’s a fuzzy blend of genres, it’s in present tense, it includes a revolting section (#8), and it’s in the form of a list. Just as “You Never Even Called Me by My Name” is the “perfect country and western song,” this is the perfect Lightspeed story! Even more fuzzy a blend is “Spiral,” which is in the fantasy section but could just as easily be in the SF section if you treat its “galaxy boy” as an alien indistinguishable from magic. As Juvenal said, “tenet insanabile multos scribendi cacoethes” (“the incurable itch of writing possesses many”) and a budding author tells us all about his encounter with the magic alien transsexual virus muse who has quite an effect on quite a few college students. This isn’t in the form of a list but is in second person in addition to being in present tense.

Reversing “Spiral,” “Horror” is billed as SF but it’s not remotely, being another of the many transmutations of “1950s sci-fi movies” into “2010s retro-stories.” This one is a weird sort of coming of age tale set in the summer of ’55 on the East Coast and deals with a boy meeting a girl and having a wonderful relationship except that not all is as it seems. What makes this work is a great narrative voice and a generally reasonable sense of time (though “cancer” was not a word used in polite company). What makes this not work is its sledgehammer foreshadowing (when nothing that happens is surprising anyway – the daughter of a mad scientist parties at a beach with teens and…) and its excessive end. But, aside from those two issues (the last of which might not bother some), it’s an engaging read. I still think it, along with aspects of “Deals,” would be a better fit for Nightmare or, at least, in the case of this one, for the fantasy section.

(While I’m quibbling, when I started reviewing Analog for my old site a few years ago, I used to take detailed notes on most of the grammatical and proofreading issues that bothered me. Such problems in webzines are so overwhelming that there’s little point and I only emit random distressed noises every now and then and, to be fair, Lightspeed is not the worst offender, but I feel like complaining about the Great Disappearing Adverb again (“your [literature!] professor taught you to read slow and careful”) and other things like “you scramble to stuff you and your roommate’s laptops under your coat…”)