Weekly Webzine Wrap-Up (2018-06-23)

Weekly Webzine Wrap-Up image

Original Fiction:

  • The Metal Eater of Luminous Smoke” by Minsoo Kang, Strange Horizons, June 18, 2018 (fantasy short story)
  • Going Back for Hitler” by George Nikolopoulos, Nature, June 20, 2018 (science fiction short story)
  • Recoveries” by Susan Palwick, Tor.com, June 20, 2018 (science fiction short story)
  • The Sweetness of Honey and Rot” by A. Merc Rustad, Beneath Ceaseless Skies #254, June 21, 2018 (fantasy novelette)
  • Three Dandelion Stars” by Jordan Kurella, Beneath Ceaseless Skies #254, June 21, 2018 (fantasy novelette)
  • VRtual” by Rose Eveleth, Terraform, June 22, 2018 (science fiction short story)

The Sweetness of Honey and Rot, ” much like its title, is an unappealing mix of fantasy and horror elements. This is yet another present tense story of a heroine battling the evil empire, the latter of which is, in this case, a human-eating tree attended by sloths and other humans. The horrible fates that befall all who so much as think of going against the grain make the protagonist’s experiences utterly unbelievable. “Three Dandelion Stars” is trite in both relatively recent and old-fashioned ways: it’s another tale of the difficulties of lesbian weddings and is a “(swamp) fairy offers a wish” story. Like the previous story, this has horror elements and evil systems and, like many more, it’s a revenge fantasy/wish-fulfillment (and an uncommonly preposterous one). Since one character is nothing at all and the other is merely stupid, there are only “Eight Deadly Words” for this. The week’s other pure fantasy, “The Metal Eater,” is a readable tale with some metafiction (and interesting literary criticism) in it but mostly deals with a magical semi-Socratic character puttering about in a myth who must deliver yet more blows against the empire (in  this case, a wastrel of a new king). The main problem here is a lack of drama.

The three science fiction tales aren’t very. “Hitler” is a time travel flash piece which, yet again, has a time traveler wanting to kill Hitler. It contains an interesting idea but is delivered in a fairly predictable way in terms of the big picture and completely implausibly in terms of the details. “VRtual” has a woman working as a motion-capture body at a VR firm who meets an aggressive guy at a bar. It seems to argue the VR both really traumatizes her, yet doesn’t prepare her for reality. As a story, especially an SF one, it doesn’t do much at all. The week’s best tale is easily “Recoveries,” which handles its SF motif in a fantastic fashion (with a dash of horror) and takes awhile to overcome the off-putting nature of the protagonists, one of whom (Vanessa) is a court-mandated dry drunk about to complete her year’s sentence of sobriety and go on a binge and the other of whom (Kat) is her eating-disordered best (only) friend and the story’s narrator. As you get to know Vanessa, whose parents believed they were abducted by aliens and who did eventually permanently disappear, and Kat, who never even knew her parents, and how these and other issues play into the troubles of their lives, it becomes more intriguing. Vanessa’s reactions at the end aren’t entirely plausible but I feel like at least noting this tale. I enjoyed Dennis Danver’s somewhat recent “Adult Children of Alien Beings” and this, while different, has some similarity of appeal.

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Weekly Webzine Wrap-Up (2018-06-16)

Weekly Webzine Wrap-Up image

Original Fiction:

  • Flesh Moves” (Part 2) by Adam Rothstein and Brendan C. Byrne, Terraform, June 1 and 9, 2018 (science fiction novelette)
  • Quietly Gigantic” by K. C. Mead-Brewer, Strange Horizons, June 11, 2018 (surreal short story)
  • Further Laws of Robotics” by Josh Pearce, Nature, June 13, 2018 (science fiction short story)
  • Withholding Judgment Day” by Ryan Dull, Diabolical Plots, June 15, 2018 (fantasy short story)
  • The Worst Commute” by Aaron Gordon, Terraform, June 15, 2018 (science fiction short story)

The science fiction stories in this span were disappointing. The fantastic tales were much more interesting.

Flesh Moves” is about a murderous psychopath trying to scam the system that’s scamming everyone, using fellow drug-addled “truckers” who accompany the self-driving vehicles which ship “pax” from place to place. Its fractured, staccato, jargon-filled faux-Burroughs cyberpunk “style” makes it frankly unreadable and it’s never a good sign that the reader’s disappointed more characters don’t die. “The Worst Commute” is an initially decent take on the privatization of the subways (which is becoming a reality in Chicago) but is lacking in story as a “commie” pisses off a “subbro” and becomes a indentured servant for violating the mysterious Terms of Service. Finally, “The Further Laws of Robotics” is another piece which lacks story despite its initial, appealing, gimmick. A robot is about to blow up a particle collider and kill a lot of people, causing Detective Warren to try to stop him, resulting in an entertaining bout of number theory argument dealing with numbers other than Zero through Three.

Quietly Gigantic” is about a lunatic lesbian housesitting for ten days with a cat and a roach problem. The style is initially appealing and the calm, matter-of-fact narration sprinkled with bad craziness conveys an effect almost like an elevator steadily rising but for moments of stomach-floating drops, which threaten to grow worse. I was never sure if this was fantasy or going to become outright horror (it’s ultimately just surreal and can be rationalized as mainstream with an insane narrator). Unfortunately, I came to feel it was too long and lost confidence in its having any plot. While an end game was clearly in mind, the extent seemed made up of strung together incidents which could have been decreased or increased and the whole thing felt like an accordion stretched to arbitrary length. What turned out to be the ultimate thrust of the story, however symbolically creative, was also trite and somehow smaller than the story had led me to expect.

While still not earth-shaking (except in an apocalyptic sense), my favorite story of the week was “Withholding Judgment Day.” A weird order of monks “expects” Judgment Day in shifts due to a biblical verse that can be interpreted to mean that Judgment Day works like a watched pot. While the world at large is often enough, the monks are really set on not letting it boil, as souls still need to be saved before the big day. Unfortunately, on a day in which the most of the world is distracted by a historic World Cup match and others have other issues, even the triple-redundancy of the monks is not sufficient as they don’t really expect the world to end. Unless I’m not reading the “2:56 PM GMT” section properly, it doesn’t seem “paradoxical” like the others but actually inconsistent, and the story’s ending may be clever but is still a little flat, but it was an entertaining tale with a good narrative tone.

Twenty-Eight Offbeat Science Fiction Books

Inspired by Catherynne M. Valente’s “10 Essential Offbeat Science Fiction Novels,” I thought I’d add some (eighteen) of my favorite weirder books (aiming for novels but ending up with a couple of omnibi and a couple of novella-duos).

Alternate Realities (2000) by C. J. Cherryh. Cherryh is known for gritty realism more than being offbeat but this omnibus contains her oddest, most experimental novels. Wave Without a Shore (1981) is a personal favorite, about art, philosophy, and invisible people, but the Arthurian spaceship of Port Eternity (1982) and the alien mentalities conveyed by odd typography in Voyager in Night (1984) are also interesting.

Carmen Dog (1988) by Carol Emshwiller. Feminist trapeze dogs only start the surrealist meltdown which is nevertheless quite pointed.

The City Not Long After (1989) by Pat Murphy. Like her Californian compatriot, Lisa Goldstein (see below), Murphy writes a somewhat hopeful tale of surrealist revolution.

The Dead Trilogy (1998) by Richard Calder. This set of novels from 1992, 1994, and 1996 are somewhat like Spinrad’s The Void Captain’s Tale in that I ordinarily have little patience for ultra-dense “style” books and this isn’t even about orgasmic starships but, rather, about sorts of sex dolls. A truly bizarre set but one which drew me in and kept me involved—an honest lunacy rather than just outre for outre‘s sake.

Divide and Rule (1948) by L. Sprague de Camp. I’m cheating here (and not for the only time) with a book composed of two novellas (“Divide and Rule” (1939), “The Stolen Dormouse” (1941)) but when people joust in the future and “kangaroos” ride motorcycles, category is a secondary consideration.

Dracula in Love (1979) by John Shirley. Almost every book Shirley’s written could be on this list, especially those around this time: Transmaniacon, Three-Ring Psychus, City Come A-Walkin’, etc. I don’t even remember this one that well but I’m listing it because I just remember thinking this danced on a sharper razor’s edge of “terrible” and “brilliant” than any of his other works. I can’t even remember if this is accurate but it’s the kind of thing that sounds right—from a two-star review from Goodreads: “The adventures of a vampire in love and his living, prehensile penis with yellow glowing eyes.

The Dream Years (1985) by Lisa Goldstein. “Everyone switch drinks!” Lisa Goldstein romps through time with surrealism and revolution always at the forefront. The evocation of the genuine surrealists of France in the 20s and the events of the 60s are particularly good but, unbound, she includes a futuristic component, as well.

The Green Millennium (1953) by Fritz Leiber. Fritz Leiber has done it all. Straight SF, fantasy (ranging from sword & sorcery to practically inventing urban), horror, humor, non-fiction, etc. In this one, an almost Phildickian protagonist meets a green cat and things just get weirder from there. This is a particularly offbeat book because it’s not written in an avant-garde style and isn’t artsy-surreal but is a tough, gritty noir sort of book – with fluffy kitties and farcical humor.

Gun, with Occasional Music (1994) by Jonathan Lethem. Speaking of noir: gun-toting, cigarette-smoking kangaroos.

Knight of Delusions (1982, revised from Night of Delusions (1972)) by Keith Laumer. Yet another book with noir traces. I hesitated to include this because I re-read it not too many eons ago and it seemed much more repetitive and less mind-blowing than I recalled but it was still plenty weird and I include it just for that first mind-blowing experience. The cover with the fish and the alien lighting the protagonist’s cigarette convey a lot but not the twists and turns and funhouse mirrors and inversions and…

Norstrilia (1975) by Cordwainer Smith. Everything in Smith’s Instrumentality of Mankind universe is offbeat, with uplifted animals suffering Kierkegaardian spiritual angst in a Sino-Romanesque future. This is the only novel set in that universe, originally published in two halves as The Planet Buyer (1964) and The Underpeople (1968). Stroon!

The Paradox Men (1953, aka Flight into Yesterday) by Charles L. Harness. I suppose this isn’t especially offbeat but is just a good old-fashioned van Vogtian adventure in time and space but, again, that’s plenty weird enough. This is another book which I enjoyed very much on a re-read but not as much as the first time. The first time, this probably came closer to making my head explode than any other book.

Rogue Ship (1965) by A. E. van Vogt. Like Shirley, most everything this wildman wrote could go on this list, especially The World of Null-A), but something about folded-up paper-thin spacemen frozen in time sort of sticks out. (This is fixed up from the 1950 title story (aka “The Twisted Men”—arguably all that’s required), 1947’s “Centaurus II,” and 1963’s “The Expendables.”)

The Solarians (1966) by Norman Spinrad. Like Shirley and van Vogt, most of Spinrad’s works qualify. He’s written a science fiction novel as though it were written by Hitler and others about hippies after an apocalypse, starships powered by orgasms, the power of the media in politics, mind-control cults, and mass-movement networked electronic voting… wait. Something about those last three… Anyway, I pick this one just because it’s like somebody gave John W. Campbell, Jr. a giant bag of Acapulco Gold. One of the most bizarre collisions of the Golden Age and New Wave I’ve witnessed. Harlan Ellison, in an otherwise complimentary piece about Spinrad, described this book as “so bad it cannot be read.” Spinrad’s first professional publication appeared in Campbell’s Analog but, if Campbell read the novel, I don’t doubt that he agreed. But, to me, it’s bad in a good way.

The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch (1965) by Philip K. Dick. Y’know… PKD. Nuff said. Tough to pick the most offbeat but, damn…

Tomorrow and Tomorrow and The Fairy Chessmen (1951) by Henry Kuttner (as by Lewis Padgett). Kuttner wrote plenty of offbeat stuff from drunken amnesiac inventors to hyper-accelerated evolved cats but when “Tomorrow and Tomorrow” (1947) opens with “He knew it was a dream when he shot Carolyn through the head. But not until then,” it’s a sign of the Cold War paranoia to come and “The Fairy Chessmen” (1946) immediately tops it with “The doorknob opened a blue eye and looked at him.” The latter is not just the weirder, but also the better, story of the two.

What Mad Universe (1949) by Fredric Brown. SF is real. Oh, the comedy! Oh, the horror! Dark, sharp-edged satire.

Wolfbane (1959) by Frederik Pohl & C. M. Kornbluth. Speaking of satire, few of Pohl and Kornbluth’s works are ordinary and everyone should read The Space Merchants. In terms of this list, a case could be made for Gladiator-at-Law but I feel like the wider scope and sense of mystery (Pyramids have carted the Earth out of the solar system) of the basically non-satirical Wolfbane make it offbeat even compared to their other works.


Note: I’m not going to redo this to include a nineteenth title but between writing and posting, I’ve realized I failed to include any one  of White Light (1980), Spacetime Donuts (1981), Master of Space and Time (1984), or most anything else Rudy Rucker’s written. If I left those off, there’s no telling what else I left off. And, of course, there are authors I haven’t even read (books of) who presumably have very offbeat volumes such as R. A. Lafferty. So I hope this list has lots of good and weird stuff but, in terms of comprehensiveness, it ain’t very. Feel free to add more in the comments or write your own blog posts to help fill it out.

Weekly Webzine Wrap-Up (2018-06-09)

Weekly Webzine Wrap-Up image

Original Fiction:

Belated Original Fiction:

  • Safe Surrender” by Meg Elison, Slate, May 29, 2018 (science fiction short story)

(I didn’t get word about the Slate story until this week, so it’s a little late. Terraform didn’t release the second part of their story until today, so that will be a little late.)

This week’s fantasy stories include a couple of tales of woe set in secondary worlds reminiscent of North Africa or Arabia from Beneath Ceaseless Skies. In the first, actually named “A Tale of Woe,” Rana is a Soother for the Goddess of Sorrows who must deal with trouble in the highest place of a great city. While loosely readable, the plotting is convenient, the psychic combat isn’t convincing, Rana is not appealing, the concept of the Goddess seems inconsistent, and the story is rife with grammatical errors, typos, or at least non-optimal expressions (“an inhale of breath,” “beggars and the infirmed,” “sold for so cheap,” “sowed” (for “sewed”), “to kidnap she and her family,” “[p]ulling her scissor,” “had Elder Awan’s voice not rang across her thoughts”). “The Weaver and the Snake” is a riff on “Ozymandias” with a Great Destroyer in the form of a giant snake which has been eating all the cities of the desert and, among many troubles, has been making the great weaver doubt her reason for being.

Far superior to these, though initially oblique and still a bit lacking dramatically, is “Like Smoke, Like Light,” (possibly a fable of female agency). In it, a woman who has “betrayed” her family becomes enmeshed in a familial offshoot’s similar web of bondage, bringing meals to the head of that family, who has interred himself in a magic maze guarded by monsters and ghosts in order to remain undisturbed while he repeatedly visits with the ghosts of his wife and child. When an accident occurs during her navigation of the maze, one of the ghosts becomes a bit more dynamic, followed by further change.

Of the week’s four science fiction tales, two are very short. “Gift for His Beloved,” at about 270 words, is very short. It describes a husband getting anniversary gifts for his wife after the apocalypse and is quite clever and would be very effective but the discontinuity between parts makes the climax seem to happen too abruptly. “Mirror” takes the notion that doctors make the worst patients and adds that they can make pretty bad doctors, too, and that this could have profound effects in the future for one post-cryogenically thawed doctor/patient.

The two longer tales deal with protagonists caught between worlds who are seeking a sort of home.

In “Safe Surrender,” the unnamed protagonist is a “hybrid” or “hemi” of human and alien “Pinner.” Like many hybrids, she was given up for adoption—in her case, on the day of the first assassination of a Pinner by a human. She spends the story trying to find out about that night, her parents, and who she is. Maybe I’m not doing my part and working hard enough but the Pinners seemed under-explained (both in themselves and regarding the SF, if any, of the hybridization) and the terrestrial milieu seemed sketchy. The conclusion didn’t really resonate with me either. Otherwise, the line by line writing, protagonist, and mood seemed well done.

Meat and Salt and Sparks” deals with Cu, an ape who was illegally uplifted in a torturous way and, after being emancipated, has become a detective, partnered with the human, Huxley. When an “echogirl” (someone who basically rents out their bodies for other peoples’ vicarious experiences) commits a murder, she and Huxley investigate. The case becomes more complicated and personal than she expected and it eventually both traumatizes her but changes her in other ways as well.

This is almost a masterpiece of writing in the sense that it nearly disguises how little sense it makes. Huxley is unappealing and, aside from a natural sympathetic response to her experiences, Cu isn’t made to be especially intrinsically compelling, either. While I have to talk around things to avoid spoilers, the nature of the perpetrator is immediately obvious despite the motive for the murder seeming very stupid. Nevertheless, the murder doesn’t thwart its objective, yet is completely unnecessary to it. The protagonist doesn’t actually do anything; it’s the perpetrator who does. How the perpetrator ever came to have its perspective on things is inexplicable and, while there could be a reason it thinks its actions will be effective, it’s never given in the story and makes the perpetrator seem possibly quite stupid (again) and quixotic. This aims for an emotional effect akin to “Rachel in Love” (Pat Murphy, Asimov’s,  April 1987) and, in an odd and restricted way, is a fine read but all its problems prevented it from hitting that high mark.

Review: Apex #109

Apex #109, June 2018

Original Fiction:

  • “Three Meetings of the Pregnant Man Support Group” by James Beamon (science fiction short story)
  • “Suzie Q” by Jacqueline Carey (fantasy short story)

This could be seen as the “sex is bayud, m’kay” issue.

Suzie Q” is another puritanical story and another revenge fantasy in which a woman goes insane from sex and, eventually, people make the mistake of pissing her off one too many times. Very basically and easily plotted with a puerile and repressive attitude (towards bad sex, anyway, if not good violence). Bizarrely, the markedly superior story between the two is “Three Meetings,” which drops elements of Aliens, Butler’s “Bloodchild,” Barnes’ “Fifty Shades of Grays,” maybe Varley’s “Manikins,” and other similar “weird alien sex” stuff into a blender, though it leaves the lid off so that all the action, energy, and plot fly out, leaving just a really weird and creepy residue. The “skoick” have arrived on Earth and want our… men? Turns out Earthmen are easy, when the gender-incomparable aliens are capable of delivering “mind-blowing interspecies sex” (along with dribbles of tech), even when it results in becoming a gestating device for a mind-controlling alien parasite. Aspects of this are remarkable and, obviously, it has all sorts of gender/orientation/etc. resonances but it falls short of its predecessors, particularly regarding the heavy approach to theme and the previously mentioned plotting. Despite a couple of semi-random, semi-forced efforts to ramp up the tension, it lacks a real driving plot and is just the three scenes.

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)

Review of Clarkesworld #141 for Tangent

This issue of Clarkesworld includes three novelettes (one approaching novella length) and two short stories (one approaching flash brevity). They feature robots (with or without AI), magic aliens and post-humans, and surrealism. While this issue is not wall-to-wall depression and dystopia, only one of the stories comes close to being light on its feet. Or foot.

Full review at Tangent: Clarkesworld #141, June 2018.