Review: Clarkesworld #151, April 2019

Clarkesworld #151, April 2019

Original Fiction:

  • “The Last Eagle” by Natalia Theodoridou (science fictional short story)
  • “Ripen” by Yukimi Ogawa (fantasy novelette)
  • “Gaze of Robot, Gaze of Bird” by Eric Schwitzgebel (science fiction short story)
  • “Social Darwinism” by Priya Chand (science fiction short story)
  • “Skyscrapers in the Sand” by Y.M. Pang (science fictional short story)

The original stories in this issue of Clarkesworld include something I can’t see as SF, two pieces which provide only indifferent tokens of SF, and two more vigorously science fictional tales.

Ripen” feels like a strange hybrid of science fiction and fantasy involving an island of colorful people interacting with mainland tourists while menial colorless people try to get by. When a tourist and a colorful person with skin problems get involved with some colorless people on the illegal edge of the makeup industry, someone may get hurt. Akin to last issue’s “Smile,” the story is rife with uncorrected solecisms though they generally weren’t as bad as last month’s story, aside from things like someone demanding to see Madam’s crack. The story wasn’t especially interesting but I did appreciate the positively shifting appearance (beyond the skin-deep) of one of the characters.

Skyscrapers” is an unsatisfying elliptical short tale about an ill and/or older woman memorializing an old flame via a time capsule. The speculative element is that she’s doing so in an ecologically ruined Shanghai.

A female becoming a male and someone who may be male are searching for a third who, in turn, has gone looking for “The Last Eagle” and the pair find something. There’s very little story in these 6000 words and less science fiction with only the symbols of a future post-war period in which the third they’re searching for is an “Artificial.”

The protagonist of “Social Darwinism” is woman who has been modified to be an attention-whore. She’s offered advertising minutes if she’ll participate in the agenda of a shadowy group of differently modified people to sway public opinion to do away with her kind. It’s good that this story has integral SF elements (however thematically/symbolically deployed) but they are confusingly presented and the actual core of the story is repellently akin to a daytime TV show.

Finally, “Gaze of Robot, Gaze of Bird” is about a “complicated toaster” and a “knot of fuzz.” The former takes the latter to an alien world and begins to modify that world, along with its prokaryotic life. Along the way, we learn that the robot has been sent out by a species that has been wiped out long before our tale starts with a stuffed monkey as a sort of ideal of beauty and teleological goal for recreating the dead species. This is one of those stories where words fail me, but it’s certainly one of my favorite stories of the year, joining Auston Habershaw’s “Applied Linguistics” (Jan./Feb. 2019 Analog) and Tom Greene’s “Better” (Mar./Apr. 2019 Analog) in a triptych of recent rare examples of Real Science Fiction™. There is one overt didactic paragraph I wish could have been more dramatically integrated with the main story and one can certainly argue about the odd morphological rather than, say, genetic approach to the task and there is certainly an interesting moral conundrum for the reader to play with which can put a sinister interpretation on the events but the latter two are as much virtues as vices, being among the things which give the reader much to think about. This is a short story which operates on gargantuan scales of time and space, has an intriguing combination of hard-edged objective narration and earned, unashamed sentimentality, and has a protagonist in J11-L that is worthy of joining the pantheon of Asimovian robots. I vigorously recommend this tale.

Advertisements

Review: Lightspeed #107, April 2019

Lightspeed #107, April 2019

LS107

Original Fiction:

  • “The Archronology of Love” by Caroline M. Yoachim (science fiction novelette)
  • “Gundark Island, or, Tars Tarkas Needs Your Help” by Matthew Corradi (science fiction short story)
  • “The Seeds of War” by Ashok K. Banker (fantasy short story)
  • “A Conch-Shell’s Notes” by Shweta Adhyam (fantasy short story)

After five consecutive installments, the flood of novel out-takes apparently ends with “Seeds.” The other fantasy is a short fable in which a “Conch-Shell” allows people to choose their own adventures (including a man who slays a dragon but loses a girl, another who becomes a mayor and gets a girl, and a girl who won’t speak for herself or take responsibility for her own (in)actions) with the baldly stated theme of complaint that the shell “sang of the men’s work, their sacrifices, but not of the women’s” and a selfish and simplistic ending.

The science fiction is much more interesting, but still problematic. “Archronology” is a story about romance and loss along with a dash of epistemology and stuff about a gizmo. When a colony dies, taking a woman’s beloved with it, she and others must use the gizmo (a sort of VR pseudo-time machine) and other methods to find out what went wrong. While the general concept of the gizmo is clear enough, details about it seem gratuitously nonsensical. The hyper-advanced tech is on a 1920s level, recording “light but not sound,” people can rematerialize into walls without further catastrophic effects, there’s no gravity (despite it being in a gravity field), “[t]hings you brought with you were solid, but everything else was basically a projection” and yet, despite bringing your heart and lungs with you, there is “no ambient noise, or even [your] own breathing and heartbeat.” Further, there are cases of purely logical incoherence. The main character was informed in messages that a parakeet on this colony world had died and that crops died and that more crops died and for some reason this didn’t concern her until people started dying. And it is only when reviewing the messages that she makes a connection between the non-human and human deaths. And, presumably, all the other people who have lost all their loved ones got similar messages and no one made this connection. Everyone just assumes the order of things they were told was reversed. “Yes, well, we were told a bird died and then crops failed and then more crops failed and then everyone died but we ‘assumed that the crops and animals had died because the people of the colony had gotten too sick to tend them.'” Further, it’s presented as a mystery but what happened is obvious from nearly the beginning. So, basically, things of this sort constantly took me out of the story which, despite an excess of crying, might have had a workable human-interest core and even some interesting stuff about aliens and knowledge.

Finally, “Gundark” is a sort of bildungsroman and meta-sfnal story about a strange kid’s effect on another kid’s life in the 1980s and the nature of science fiction, imagination, and life. I’m not sure how to evaluate this as a story because it punches too many buttons. It initially seemed topically interesting but fictionally weak as it wandered through a sort of slipstreamish pseudo-SF phase but it began to come together and reach a new level at the end (though I wasn’t happy with how it reassigned credit for some of our imaginative achievements). All I can say is that, for whatever reasons, it seems notable to me.

(Also, on an ideological rather than aesthetic level, I loved the ironic analysis in the section on the “college experience.” I think moving beyond this would benefit a great many people and the field.)

Month in Review: March 2019

85864

This post is a work-in-progress which recaps the three big printzines (plus two more which were reviewed for Tangent) and BCS, Clarkesworld, Lightspeed, and Galaxy’s Edge which combined to produce 82 stories for 330K words. Other than Galaxy’s Edge, I’ve yet to read the March stories from any of the selectively reviewed zines (and, since Tor.com neglected to produce a second bi-monthly issue, I haven’t read the March stories from it, either), so I’ll finish reading all that in April and update this post then.

Noted Stories

Recommended

Science Fiction

  • “Better” by Tom Greene, Analog, March/April 2019 (novelette)
  • “Contagion’s Eve at the House Noctambulous” by Rich Larson, F&SF, March/April 2019 (novelette)
  • “Instantiation” by Greg Egan, Asimov’s, March/April 2019 (novella)
  • “Second Quarter and Counting” by James Van Pelt, Analog, March/April 2019 (short story)

Fantasy

  • “Totenhaus” by Amanda J. Bermudez, Black Static #68, March/April 2019 (horror short story)

Honorable Mentions

Science Fiction

  • “The End of Lunar Hens” by M.K. Hutchins, Analog, March/April 2019 (short story)

Fantasy

  • Hellhold” by Sean Patrick Hazlett, Galaxy’s Edge #37, March/April 2019 (horror short story)
  • “The Mark of Cain” by John Kessel, F&SF, March/April 2019 (short story)
  • “Mr. Death Goes to the Beach” by Jack Dann, Asimov’s, March/April 2019 (short story)

Reviews

Magazines

Books/Other

News

Review: Berserker by Fred Saberhagen

berserker.jpg

Date: September 1978 (originally January 1967)
Format: Paperback
ISBN: 0-441-05404-8
Pages: 243
Price: $1.75
Publisher: Ace (originally Ballantine)

I was intending to re-read Nightwings and discuss it but caught a bug early this month and didn’t want to do that in that state, so picked up a different volume to correct a glaring omission in my reading which, coincidentally, also consists of stories published by Fred Pohl in the 1960s. (Some of them are online as part of The Berserker Wars, one of the needless, probably harmful, repackagings of parts of the series and are linked to in the individual story comments.)

Berserker collects the first eleven tales in the series of the same name, plus a twelfth “story” interleaved throughout, in which a pacifist alien presents all the others to us. All the stories have individual beginnings, middles, and ends but about half (and much the longer and better half) also tell a fairly unified main story with recurring characters (“Goodlife,” “Stone Place,” “What T and I Did,” “The Masque of the Red Shift,” “In the Temple of Mars,” “The Face of the Deep”) while several generally shorter, lesser stories tend to alternate with those (“Without a Thought,” “Patron of the Arts,” “The Peacemaker,” “Mr. Jester,” and “Sign of the Wolf”). Even though there is a unified story, it contains mild inconsistencies as exemplified by a belated effort in “Temple” to paper over the disappearance of the mind beams after “Thought.”) I’d recommend “What T and I Did,” “The Masque of the Red Shift,” and “The Face of the Deep” from the core group (but don’t read “Face” out of order) and “Patron of the Arts” from the others. “Masque” was rightly nominated for a major award and, inexplicably, so was “Mr. Jester.”

Given their reputation, I was astonished at how relatively inefficient and ineffective the Berserkers were. The New Wave of British Space Opera, with its Inhibitors and whatnot, were able to build on the Berserkers to great effect. That said, I still wouldn’t want Berserkers to be real and the stories are still often effective. Other influential elements that immediately spring to mind include an element in the later main stories which may have inspired a key element in Pohl’s masterpiece, Gateway; that the original Battlestar Galactica‘s Cylons and Baltar (a character introduced in “Stone Place” and featured in “What T and I Did”) comes almost lock, stock, and barrel from here; and that the conclusion of Han Solo’s Bespin adventure could have come from here. (Though it’s also likely all these things have earlier precedents from Wells’ Martians to Benedict Arnold to the girl in Simak’s Cosmic Engineers or even King Arthur.)

Without a Thought” (originally titled “Fortress Ship”) is almost like Asimovian military SF as there’s a combat puzzle to be solved. A pair of human ships have a Berserker vessel checked but are waiting on a third human ship to arrive and make it checkmate. In the meantime, the Berserker is using its mind control weapon on the nearest human ship which is crewed only by Del Murray and his aiyan, or dog-ape pet-ally. The Berserker sets up a contest by which it hopes to know if the human has succumbed to its weapon and the human has to use his own very limited resources and his alien buddy of limited intelligence to try to trick the machine into believing he’s still in possession of his faculties. The machine’s mind control weapon is a bit of magic but the parameters are laid out fairly and the story’s pretty clever.

Goodlife” is a much more substantial tale and not just because it’s a novelette. One of three humans is dying when they are captured by a Berserker who has raised a captive human, known as (an example of) Goodlife. That human brutally finishes off the dying man and the other two are brought aboard the Berserker vessel. The man, Hemphill, has a bomb but is holding off until he can use it for maximum effect. The “nature vs. nurture” elements aren’t bad and the depiction of the Berserker vessel is excellent but Maria, the female prisoner, is a bit too sentimental without sufficient motivation. The stark and dark conflict in which suicide bombing seems like a decent plan made me think of some Baxter stories, such as the Silver Ghost tales.

While positioned third in the book, “Patron of the Arts” was actually the sixth published. It’s a very effective look at Piers Herron, an artist who is jaded past the point of most mere mortals, which produces interesting results when he’s captured by machines making war on life. The only problem here is that the theme may a bit too explicit at the end.

The Peacemaker” (originally flipped around with the title “The Life Hater”) involves the murderous machines, as usual, but also with a seemingly insanely naive man who wants to negotiate a peace with them. This is less aesthetically significant than the previous two, settling for a decently presented ironic result.

More than even “Without a Thought” or “Goodlife” (which are stories with combat elements) “Stone Place” is the first clearly “military SF” tale. With nearly twice the length of any other story in the book and multiple aspects (including bringing Hemphill back from “Goodlife” for a minor role), it’s also one of the more ambitious tales. It mainly tackles the “Great Man” concept and the power of belief as well as detailing some internal conflicts in the Solar System which manifest even under Berserker threat. It also throws in a difficulty with a woman who’s been reprogrammed by the Berserkers to reject the leader she’d been betrothed to and who, instead, jumps into the arms of his lieutenant. This later part could have been mined for some powerful effects but wasn’t especially convincing. I also wasn’t convinced by certain gung-ho aspects which aim for the adrenalized thrill of approaching combat but which plummet into bathos. (After one man is skinned by the machines, humans yell “Death to the flayers!” and the narrative voice observes: “The shout ran like a flame through the corridor.”) Finally, there is one moment where the narrative voice also observes: “Now for a time the fight would be computer against computer, faithful slave of life against outlaw, neither caring, neither knowing,” which begs the question why humans present themselves to the Berserkers for combat at all. Still, the story does generally move along and provides some food for thought.

What T and I Did” returns to a much smaller tale, but brings back “Baltar” (here called both “T” and “Thad” and ensconced as human leader of several prisoners in a Berserker ship after the battle of the last story) in an interesting little psychodrama involving the minds of a traitor. In its dark psychological focus, it’s akin to “Patron of the Arts” (which comes right after it in the original order of publication).

Mr. Jester” is a bizarre bit of inconsistency, dealing with a light-hearted man rebelling against the very serious government of an isolated planet with the help of an improperly repaired Berserker which he’s been able to turn into a comic assistant. Perhaps one could applaud the reach of a series which includes genocidal machines and humor and perhaps this coincidental riff on “‘Repent, Harlequin!’ Said the Ticktockman” (published by Pohl a month earlier) would have worked in the abstract but it seems out of place in this book.

Poe! “The Masque of the Red Shift” slams things back into grim violence. Felipe Nogara has become emperor of humanity but perceives his half-brother, Johann Karlsen (featured in “Stone Place”), as a threat, so has frozen him (though not in carbonite) and told the galaxy he’s died of plague. The Berserkers also see Karlsen as a threat to them and want to confirm his death so, when a defeated and brainwashed rebel warrior and his sister are transferred to Nogara’s ship full of decadent revelers orbiting a “hypermassive sun,” they insert themselves in a most morbid and violent way. A very effective and exciting tale, albeit a bit conventionally puritanical.

Sign of the Wolf” is a sort of cute tale about a rustic shepherd on a planet that’s lost knowledge of its technological background stumbling into a situation in which a planetary defense computer wants authorization to defend against an attacking Berserker and he wants a god to help him destroy a wolf who’s slowly making off with his flock. The shepherd seems to not mind an inconsistency in the conclusion as much as I do, but it’s not a bad tale.

In the Temple of Mars” carries on the main story, with Hemphill (now an admiral) and a captain from “Stone Place” (now a journalist) taking a replacement vessel to Nogara but with the plan to divert and rescue an important person. Unfortunately, a group of secret police have turned to berserker-worshiping and a prisoner (now on the loose) has been brainwashed by them to kill Hemphill so that they can take the ship for their own purposes. The use of the female character is weak (as usual) and made worse by a rather ham-handed “Mars vs. Venus” motif (using Chaucer) but the story otherwise moves along at a good clip and holds attention (as usual).

I can’t get into “The Face of the Deep” at all without spoilers, really, so I’ll just say that it is in the main storyline and cleverly wraps up the volume with a nicely staged insight into human nature.

Review: Interzone #280, March/April 2019 (at Tangent)

The 280th number of Interzone contains two fantasies and three science fiction tales (including a novelette) which feature some religion, revenge, redemption, reconfiguration, and romance. While none appealed to me, all are substantial and some may appeal to someone.

Continue reading at Tangent.

Review: Clarkesworld #150, March 2019

Clarkesworld #150, March 2019

Original Fiction:

  • “But, Still, I Smile” by D.A. Xiaolin Spires (science fiction? novelette)
  • “When Home, No Need to Cry” by Erin K. Wagner (science fiction short story)
  • “Death of an Air Salesman” by Rich Larson (science fiction short story)
  • “Dreams Strung Like Pearls Between War and Peace” by Nin Harris (fantasy short story)
  • “Treasure Diving” by Kai Hudson (science fiction short story)
  • “The Thing with the Helmets” by Emily C. Skaftun (science fantasy short story)

(I would ordinarily have had this review done awhile ago but I’ve been under the weather.)

Smile” would seem to be matching a woman’s personal efforts to produce human life and her professional efforts to find alien life but I quit reading it a quarter of the way through. Since the author and editor are paid to produce English and failed, the review is that it doesn’t meet the minimum standards for a review.*Cry” would seem to take place in the same hospital as the prior story with associates similarly breaking rules for the protagonist. In this, it’s not a woman’s child, but the woman herself who is dying. She’s gone into space and had an Experience, developed cancer, and is now on Earth, waiting to die, but wants to go back to space. Many readers may expect one of a couple of interesting things to happen but will be disappointed. “Death” portrays a woman meeting a great guy and having a great relationship with him. Since this takes place in a dystopia of plague, unbreathable air, and wage slavery broken only by brief rentals of tiny cubicles in which people can watch gore and porn while not sleeping, it’s clear things aren’t as they seem. “Dreams” is not SF but is a steampunk fantasy/revenge fantasy in which a plethora of ethnic-like groups revolt against oppression. “Diving” has a familiar setting and involves a critter nearly getting eaten by a giant mutant anglerfish while diving for radioactive “treasure” and somehow surviving a breach of her pressure suit. The atypically hopeful elements which arise from all this might be welcome but aren’t convincing. “Helmets” is the real outlier of the issue. It doesn’t quite work but is better than the rest, unless “Death.” It’s reminiscent of “A Fine Night for Tea and Bludgeoning” by Beth Cato (Little Green Men–Attack!, 2017) with its bizarre juxtaposition of aliens and roller derby and other incongruities. The latter include eldritch helmets which elevate the roller derby girls to worthy adversaries of the invading aliens – but at a cost. This is the sort of thing that might be just silly enough to work for some readers but I guess I wanted it to be even sillier.


* The first two thousand words contained at least:

It was like those old nursery rhymes where one thing compiled on the next compiled on the next and became a monstrous sentence with qualifiers abound.

It was while thinking this… that the strange anomaly caught my breath.

An anomalous pattern of radio signals. It wasn’t like anything I’ve seen before.

pocketed the stickers fast like they were contraband [no “like” – they were contraband]

The nurse must have watching over me, rooting for me. She didn’t mention to anyone else about the miscarriage… She had simply logged in the necessary checkups…

“If only FTL drives were invented,” I said. “Then we course through to the outskirts of the universe and seek out more lives.”

“Just be lucky we have even enough power to get to Proxima Centauri. So much of our energy put into keeping the seas at bay and the skies barely breathable enough to live. We’re really hanging on a thread…”

While the most extreme example, it was not the only story with special English. For instance, “Dreams” has someone “wrought with fear” (barely possible but more likely “wracked”) and has a “heart beating like a caged bird” in which the figure is so dead no real effort is made to say it properly. (The usual simile is more along the lines of “my heart struggled within my ribs like a caged bird.”) And “Treasure” has “radiation that turned poison over prolonged exposure.”

Review: Lightspeed #106, March 2019

Lightspeed #106, March 2019

LS106

Semi-Original Fiction:

  • “On the Shores of Ligeia” by Carolyn Ives Gilman (science fiction short story)
  • “My Children’s Home” by Woody Dismukes (science fiction short story)
  • “Self-Storage Starts with the Heart” by Maria Romasco Moore (fantasy short story)
  • “A Hundred Thousand Arrows” by Ashok K. Banker (fantasy novelette)

As a notice, rather than a review, “Arrows” is the fourth of at least five consecutive out-takes from a “Burnt Empire” novel and takes 40% of this issue’s “original” word count. Also, “Ligeia” is a reprint of a 2018 story originally published in a Chinese magazine, leaving just over 10,000 words of indisputably original fiction in the other two stories.

Home” has steampunk robots and adults, who were once vat-grown children, raising other vat-grown children. There are no females anywhere but D-13 is considered an attractive boy by D-6 and the adult of the house as well as a strange bureaucrat who intervenes to take D-13 away, after which the adult and D-6 react. I could find no real logic in this story and the ending, such as it is, seems like an unwarranted assertion rather than a natural result of events.

Self-Storage” starts poorly with an unappealing protagonist (James) bemoaning the loss of his only friend who’s gotten married, had a kid, and stopped wargaming with him. (The homoerotic element which is brought into the open near the end is obvious from the start.) The fantasy gimmick is that emotions can be stored so that they won’t affect those who store them but it’s expensive. With a little effort and some chewing gum and baling wire, James creates a low-cost DIY version and, with the help of a new business partner, makes the lower-cost service available to others. In this middle, the story became more interesting. But repression is bad and, after an encounter with the old friend (which leaves us wondering why James loves such a jerk, albeit a partially correct jerk) things get worse before an all-too-easy ending which is arguably worse than the beginning.

Finally, I’m not sure whether to review “Ligeia” (the reprint which was billed as an original) because it falls in the cracks in an odd way. On the one hand, it’s a reprint and from a translation and from 2018 but, on the other, this was presumably how it was originally written and it appears in English for the first time in 2019. However, I did read it and the review is simple. On a literary level, almost any propaganda so obvious (or a story so warped for publication) is a failure. In this, an American has gotten a job at the ESA and is exploring Titan via semi-AI robot. The US is scheduled to launch a manned mission to Mars. The US mission fails, the ESA robot gets stuck, and it’s Chinese drones, which have secretly made their way to Titan, to the rescue! I could also complain about how the protagonist initially “sounded like a blithering fanboy, he knew” until he encounters a sign of what may be life and then he “put on his best professional voice” or how the robot was supposedly designed to exhibit curiosity after the fashion of a human but “lurched forward, resuming its biology program, untroubled by the appearance of little flying machines where none should be” (machinery is evidence of biology!)

(As far as the propaganda, it prompted a digression which really doesn’t belong in a review, as such, so I cut it, but I should write another post devoted to the subject soon.)