Selected Stories: March 2019

Past Dinosaur Fantasy Future Prehistoric

Noted Original Fiction:

I’ve previously noted “Hellhold” in “Selected Stories: 2019-03-31.” This post finally covers the rest of the selectively reviewed magazines and adds the three stories listed above, all of which (like “Hellhold”) are dark.

Skinwalkers” starts out feeling like the sort of overly descriptive and somewhat precious story I don’t usually like at all but that turns out to be contributing to a delightfully decadent description of an elaborately executed and exquisitely excruciating revenge. (Sorry. Anyway…) A creature has been killing off an alchemist’s “children” (homonculi) and wearing their skins to costume balls of sorts and a sort of cat-like death creature narrates how the alchemist reacted to this. Nothing is free and easy in this tale and its fantastical nature helps it to work where a more prosaic tale wouldn’t, so I enjoyed this, despite it being a bit slow and having a bizarre drop in diction when the word “sting” is used in its “crime” sense. “Hidden Places” is told in a circumspect and circuitous way which maintains clarity but serves to make this “post-apocalyptic werewolf tale” seem less cliche than it might have. It is reasonably gripping and judiciously splattery, though I do wonder why a guy who seems to be from Michigan speaks just like his Virgin Islands daughter. The two are trudging across the white snow, with the father attempting to return to a childhood haunt after having fled their island home with the notion that it will be safer at the end of the world. He’s mistaken.

Nightmare‘s other offering (“Example”) isn’t dark fantasy/horror at all, but a dystopian SF piece whose premise is either unbelievable, or it’s part of a much larger change which needs to be told in a much larger story but is an otherwise effective tale of an innocent man on a future death row and would have been technically “noted.” The Dark also produced a tale that was near-notable and would have fit Nightmare better than “Example.” “After Life” could have been a superb Vampire-Lestat-only-with-a-mummy story had it reveled in its good imaginative concepts more and focused on the righteous murder of a prosaic cardboard villain less. Even it isn’t precisely “horror” since, from its point of view, all is as it should be but the dark magic and violence give it a horror feel.

In “World Crumbles,” even the SF is dark and apocalyptic though the romance between Miranda, the painter with cyborg vision, and Elodie, the android programmer, provides the light worth holding to in the dark. Near-constant earthquakes (from sea rise pouring into the crust, from fracking, from fantastic symbolism?) cause literal, physical collapse and society has followed. The main problem with this is that the plot seems like it’s also not up to code and wouldn’t survive a real violent test and feels a bit piled on. This issue of Uncanny has several very “romantic” and/or dark and almost successful stories. “Every Song Must End” is a tale of a menage a quatre and is probably a reasonably good mainstream romance with an extremely thin gratuitous patch of science fiction tacked on. (It’s set on Earth but one of the four is interested in moving to the Far East or something, here called Mars.) “Vis Delendi” is an almost-delightful fantasy about a magic student applying for a high rank by raising the dead but is too predictable and “on the nose,” with an overly prosaic core.

Another SF tale which I feel like mentioning for some reason, despite not mentioning “officially,” is “The Librarian” from Nature, which features Bradbury’s fiction within its fiction, thus cueing the reader for a sentimental tale. It’s about the libraries of the future, or the lack thereof. It’s too sentimental and thin to be generally appealing, I suppose, but it captures some of the sadness (if little of the anger) that I feel about the increasing loss of physical printing.

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Selected Stories: 2019-03-31

Past Dinosaur Fantasy Future Prehistoric

Noted Original Fiction:

  • Hellhold” by Sean Patrick Hazlett, Galaxy’s Edge #37, March/April 2019 (horror short story)

I’m behind in this month’s reading of the selectively reviewed magazines and have only gotten to Galaxy’s Edge so far. It produced a mix of mostly okay stories, though it included a particularly bad one which shall remain nameless, and one notable story I will name.

In “Hellhold,” a middle-aged man who was born twelve years previously is being tried in Salem for witchcraft and he tells the story of how those years passed for him, beginning with pirates attacking his father’s ship and continuing on through a nightmarish and hellish journey to take a dread object to a dread place. This was obviously written with some effort at evoking the time and place but isn’t always pitch-perfect (or even grammatically correct in one instance, using “tread” for “trod”), uses perhaps overly familiar motifs, and the ending, depending on one’s reaction, may thrill or disappoint but this sea horror tale was entertaining and effective for the most part.

Selected Stories: 2019-02-26

Past Dinosaur Fantasy Future Prehistoric

Noted Original Fiction:

  • Early Adopter” by Kevin Bankston, Terraform, February 14, 2019 (science fiction short story)

The weekly stories through February were not very strong and, even with “Early Adopter,” I was not thinking I’d be noting it through the bulk of my reading of it. I’m still kind of astonished that I am. This is a Valentine’s Day romance story which involves a relationship experienced almost completely by gizmo with the implication that possibly giving away all your privacy and information to the Corporate Powers That Be might be a good thing. Also, it has a “Her:/Him:” narrative approach which should get old fast and one can argue that the ending is a hallucinatory nothing. That said, it is a positive high-tech vision of the future with some literary quality. This tale of two people who, through very thick and very thin, can nevertheless not really do without one another for long, achieves a cumulative impact over its large scope, somewhat in the way of Charles Sheffield’s Tomorrow and Tomorrow. So, definitely a mixed bag, but hard to ignore.

Finally, while not quite something I’d generally note, I still want to mention that Tor.com has published a story in January and now one in February which is not in the January/February Tor.com Short Fiction. Erinn Kemper’s “The Song” deals with the people involved in a future whaling industry which provides food for the rich. It’s a powerful expression of misery and horror but only offers nihilism. It also makes me think of Nibedita Sen’s “Leviathan Sings to Me in the Deep” (Nightmare #69, June 2018) except that the latter tale was a fantasy, was even more effectively written except for one flaw, had more interesting characters, and had similar or more interesting ideas. Still, anyone who was struck by either one might want to take a look at the other.

Edit (2019-02-27): Deleted comment about noted stories from Tangent reviews as that’s not relevant here (because I don’t ordinarily review CT and IGMS on Featured Futures). I confused myself with last month’s note about a DP story I’d reviewed for Tangent which was relevant (because I do ordinarily review that for Featured Futures).

Selected Stories: 2019-02-06

Past Dinosaur Fantasy Future Prehistoric

Noted Original Fiction:

  • The Crying Bride” by Carrie Laben, The Dark #45, February 2019 (recommended dark fantasy short story)
  • Quiet the Dead” by Micah Dean Hicks, Nightmare #77, February 2019 (recommended dark fantasy/horror short story)

Oddly, I’ve been more impressed by Nightmare than Lightspeed so far this year and Nightmare here racks up its second recommendation in as many issues. Even more oddly, I’ve been more impressed in general by February’s dark fantasy/horror than other fantasy or even science fiction and a story from The Dark is my only other recommendation so far this month.

Swine Hill, basically nothing more than a pork processing plant, is already well on its way to becoming a ghost town with people outnumbered by, and many possessed by, the “Dead.” Kay is possessed by rage and vengeance after her father has died and her mother’s left, leaving her to raise her two siblings. Oscar is born and dies each day and Mira is rendered unable to speak of some great mystery or trauma. After a co-worker disrespects Kay and she wreaks vengeance on him, she loses her job. The domino effect from this runs through the family and town, bringing matters to a head.

The characters are well-drawn, the dark fantasy/horror elements are powerful (especially the night in the bar and, even more especially, the morning after) and the dying town rings true. Up to that point, this is strongly recommended. After such an effective beginning with rising tension between the sisters, I personally felt the ending was too quick and incomplete and the last line was too easy. I feel like I see what it was going for and something it was trying to avoid and perhaps others will think the ending is perfect. For me, though, it results in only a mild recommendation.

The Crying Bride” is a monologue from an old woman who turns out to be the aunt of the listener. That niece is catching up on family history prior to her marriage to another woman and the tale she receives presumably shocks her. As the story opens, they’ve gotten to talking about ghosts and the aunt assures the listener that she doesn’t believe in ghosts because the family was never haunted by the one person who should have haunted them: the crying bride. What follows is a narrative of the lives and deaths on a family farm of a drunken uncle and his prematurely dead bride, a bitter mother, and a narrator who bonds with her special tree, flees to college to become “Janey Appleseed,” and returns to make even more of a difference than she already has.

While this tale’s details are often surprising, the larger pattern is fairly predictable, but in the satisfying way of the recurrent rhythm of good familiar music. It’s also yet another misandrous tale but its problematic narrator so ironically and lightly delivers its darkness that it makes for a compelling read.

Selected Stories: 2019-01-30

Past Dinosaur Fantasy Future Prehistoric

I’d figured these “Selected Stories” posts wouldn’t adhere to any rigid schedule but that there would probably be a couple a month, with one coming after I covered the early issues and the second coming after I covered the later stories but, in January, I took a break before getting to the monthly and most of the weekly stories and covering them in one post, so I wasn’t really expecting to do another one this month. However, two late-breaking stories of note require this post.

Noted Original Fiction:

  • Elementary School” by J. D. Trye, Nature, January 30, 2019 (science fiction short story)
  • Thoughts and Prayers” by Ken Liu, Slate, January 26, 2019 (recommended science fiction short story)

Thoughts and Prayers” uses multiple first-person narratives to depict the fates of the surviving members of the Fort family in the wake of their daughter’s death in a mass shooting. The mother, Abigail, is a “digital memory” person while the father, Gregg, is a “meat memory” person, driven by childhood events in his own family. Emily is the second child and Aunt Sara provides technical information. When Abigail seeks to weaponize Hayley’s death to bring about gun control and a wave of trolls swamp the initially positive reaction, the family suffers through a second nightmare which prompts Sara to provide Abigail with “armor” or a sort of individualized Bayesian troll-filter. Will it save them?

This is not a perfect story, as I feel like Abigail’s case was weakly made compared to others’, despite not agreeing with her. Even the one deviation from having family members speak, when a troll is given the floor, makes a more forceful case. Sara is too obviously the incarnated infodump and the story drags in the middle with too much isolated exposition. The bulk of the story reads like recent history more than science fiction and even the SF is rarely more extrapolative than saying at 5:50 that the Six O’Clock News will be on in a few minutes. That said, it does reference some important, burgeoning technologies (the armor “algorithm had originated in the entertainment industry“), the psychology of the story is sound, the subjects are important, and the power of some of the earlier and most of the latter part is remarkable. I was worried that, as the story is partly about crafting an emotionally effective narrative to be “a battering ram to shatter the hardened shell of cynicism, spur the viewer to action, shame them for their complacency and defeatism,” it would also be just that. Perhaps it is, in a way, but gun control is not the primary target and it’s not that simple. Instead, it is part of arrays of reality, guns, trolls, and “freedom to” opposed to mediated simulacra, controls, armor, and “freedom from,” which doesn’t conclude as comfortably as many might like.

(Edit (2019-01-31): I do not recommend the companion article. Having finally read it, it may demonstrate my misunderstanding of the story, but it seems to have been written according to a script which is independent of the story and is unconscious of the ironic result.)

On a completely different note, in celebration of 150 years of the Periodic Table, Nature‘s Futures department sends us to “Elementary School” where we learn about a number of new elements with fascinating and hilarious properties. It’s no story, but it’s entertaining.

Selected Stories: 2019-01-23

Past Dinosaur Fantasy Future Prehistoric

This is the first review in a probably semi-regular series which notes stories from the “selectively reviewed magazines” (magazines which, as of 2019, I read but don’t review in full).

Noted Original Fiction:

  • All Show, No Go” by Alvaro Zinos-Amaro, Galaxy’s Edge #36, January/February 2019 (science fiction short story)
  • I’ve Got the World on a String” by Edward M. Lerner, Galaxy’s Edge #36, January/February 2019 (science fiction short story)
  • Skinned” by Rich Larson, Terraform, January 10, 2019 (science fiction short story)
  • VTE” by S. R. Algernon, Nature, January 23, 2019 (science fiction short story)
  • What It Sounds Like When You Fall” by Natalia Theodoridou, Nightmare #76, January 2019 (recommended dark fantasy short story)

(The recommendation for “The Man Whose Left Arm Was a Cat” by Jennifer Lee Rossman, Diabolical Plots #47, January 2019, would appear here but I reviewed it for Tangent.)

Galaxy’s Edge #36 is above average. Three of the eight original tales are between four and six thousand words and all have their interesting points. “Show” sticks out for me. In it, a first-person narrator finds out that the family robot can do a lot more than would be expected, including creating atomically (though not sub-atomically) identical copies of things. This being in an SF magazine, the plot naturally involves duplicating rare pulps for fun and profit, thanks to the robot’s hedonistic programming. Meanwhile, the narrator has to deal with her(?) antagonistic father when things go well and a bunch of irate customers and the cops when things go wrong. Aside from the pulp references, this is not an overtly “retro” tale but reads like classic SF. However, I find the quantum elements of the story as problematic as they are clever and, even aside from the duo’s main difficulty, I’m not sure how they actually got away with things to the extent they did. Otherwise, this is an unusual, fun, modern robot story with some meaningful character relations.

The five tales which are about two thousand words or significantly less are generally much less interesting but “String” has fun word play and is an excellent analysis of the foibles of string theory, though the story takes it in an opposite and fantastic direction. As short as it is, it’s still a little long and maybe the protagonist could have done something more with his breakthrough, but the tale is entertaining and has some substance.

Turning to noteworthy stories from other magazines, “Skinned” shares some thematic preoccupations with the same author’s “Smear Job” in last month’s Analog and also unsurprisingly makes me think of Rjurik Davidson’s “Skins” (Cosmos, 2015) and other stories about people wearing other bodies. This particular flash piece focuses on the “wearing,” in which the body you choose can be a fashion statement and the main character thinks she’s made a daring choice by taking a man’s body off the sex offender registry and making modifications to it for her own purposes. Neither her hopes nor her fears prepare her for the actual results.

VTE” here stands for “Vicarious Trial and Error” and simultaneously discusses and is a sort of macroscopic double-slit experiment as a scientist dines with another man. I don’t think such extrapolations are plausible and, since there’s a “get out of jail free” card involved, it seems like the plot could have been more foolproof (though pravda has been as strange as this fiction), but it’s still a fun and thought-provoking tale.

In “Fall,” it’s Uncle Pete’s funeral, so he gets dressed for it and the family accompanies him to his grave. Angels have fallen and they’re a lot like birds and vermin but sometimes bring valuable trinkets with the junk they collect for people who are nice to them. Pete’s due to die because he’s lost his job helping his younger brother, the father of our young narrator. Dad is also unemployed except for shooting angels which gets him pennies a dozen. The narrator deals with family life, talks to the buried but not-yet-dead uncle, and interacts with the angels. This is a creative and powerful (though nihilistic) tale of multiple losses (or falls).