Summation of Online Fiction: April 2017

I thought ralan.com might have been hasty in declaring Terraform dead but I’m calling it, too. Leaving aside comic strips, after four stories in January, there’ve only been two in each of February and March and none in April. The remaining dozen prozines brought us forty-two stories of 199K words.

In one of Dozois’ Annuals (I forget which) he says something about the industry going in streaks with some years producing no anthologies about wombats and others producing ten of them. The same is true of webzines on a monthly basis. As March was Horror and Tor/Nightmare Month, so April was Fantasy, BCS/Lightspeed, and Novella Month.

Taking the last first, Clarkesworld and Uncanny brought us the rare treat of webzine novellas, for which they are to be commended. Alas, both novellas were quite flawed and, ironically, one of the flaws was that neither had a novella’s worth of material but would have easily fit into novelettes. Still, I hope the novella trend continues. For the other two monthly statistical anomalies, almost all my recommendations were fantasy and almost all from two venues. Only one SF story really stuck out and not in an especially sfnal way (though, conversely, a couple of the fantasies had sfnal elements). Two honorable mentions were both SF, though, and both from Compelling. Deborah L. Davitt’s “Demeter’s Regard” is a tale of a human/AI romance onboard a multi-generational starship and Karl K. Gallagher’s “Samaritan” is a pretty upbeat tale of a Neo-Amish Boy in the Big Lunar City.

Recommended:

Science Fiction

Fantasy

Summation of Online Fiction: March 2017

Compelling was off this month and the other twelve prozines produced forty-nine stories of 168K words. Only three of those struck me as especially noteworthy but that was partly offset by several honorable mentions. Tor.com came alive (mostly thanks to Ellen Datlow) when most other zines were below their average. Like Tor, Nightmare was also a little more impressive than usual – and in a month when it had a lot of competition, as many zines seemed to want to include some horror in this spooky month of March.

Recommended:

Science Fiction

Fantasy (billed that way, anyway)

Honorable mentions:

Science Fiction

Fantasy

Both stories from Nightmare and the one from Apex are horror or akin to it. “Triptych,” especially, was close to a rec but an “idiot plot” and other issues hurt it. Similarly, “Nightshade” was an offbeat, enticing, almost Burtonesque tale but ended up being too beholden to incompatible fantasy conventions. Tor.com went on a “Women’s Day” binge of mostly unremarkable mostly flash pieces but a couple stuck out more than the rest, with the “hyperbrain” story “Margot and Rosalind” being my favorite. Another AI short-short, Norman Spinrad’s “Mr. Singularity,” was a bit too much of a straw man and not entirely convincing, but was interesting and idea-centric.

No Rec: Strike Thirteen, You’re Out

The sun set, casting the world into darkness. A thick, dense darkness, so dark that it would take extended sentences full of polysyllabic opacities to fully convey its impenetrability. Of course, that was broad daylight in comparison to my mind and heart, given that my wife had just committed suicide after killing my dog after that creature had been given rabies by my enemy and had eaten my daughter. So I set out to hunt that enemy down but tripped and suffered a compound fracture in the darkness. Now I lie here, writing this tale in my blood which is probably illegible because it’s hard to write in blood and very hard to do so in such dark, dark, darkness.

Okay, boys and girls! Just a tip: I’m tired of reading stories akin to the paragraph above. Usually, for the webzine stories, I just post about what seems good and let sleeping stories lie but I read thirteen stories of forty thousand words last week and, except for a downer of a forthcoming honorable mention, I didn’t appreciate any of it. So “I Die a Little,” and an all-horror issue of FFO, and an almost all-downer issue of Clarkesworld (and especially “Crown of Thorns” and “Real Ghosts”) and a boring Terraform and an all-downer BCS (with “Suddenwall” and “Ghosts of Amarana” duking it out with “Crown of Thorns” for most suicide-inducing tale)… I’m talking to all of you. Not singling out any one – anybody can do anything they want – but singling out every one for all writing the same story. Being down and dull and depressing with molasses-like prose doesn’t of itself make a story “adult” or “literary” or “good.” It just makes it down and dull and depressing with molasses-like prose.

While I’m at it, I don’t need to read so many Weird Westerns or VR/AI/holograms used as metaphors of familial isolation or so many superhero/comic book tales or so many postmodern cynical ironic satires of cliches which are far more cliched at this point than the original cliches themselves. And now I’ll leave you with some words from the philosopher of the gay science, the joyful wisdom (and a couple of tunes from other philosophers of joy):

All good things approach their goal crookedly. Like cats, they arch their backs, they purr inwardly over their approaching happiness: all good things laugh.

A man’s stride betrays whether he has found his own way: behold me walking! But whoever approaches his goal dances. And verily, I have not become a statue: I do not yet stand there stiff, stupid, stony, a column; I love to run swiftly. And though there are swamps and thick melancholy on earth, whoever has light feet runs even over mud and dances as on swept ice.

Lift up your hearts, my brothers, high, higher! And do not forget your legs either. Lift up your legs too, you good dancers; and better yet, stand on your heads!

—Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra (Kaufmann trans.)

And for audiovisual illustrations… Continue reading

Summation of Online Fiction: February 2017

Thirteen February pro-rate webzines (the same as last month‘s list except that a new bimonthly issue of Compelling replaced the defunct Fantastic) produced forty-three stories of 196,912 words. I most appreciated six (amounting to 14% of the whole).

Recommended:

Science Fiction

Fantasy

There are several honorable mentions this month, so I’ll give them their own section. In principle, the only webzine stories I write up on this site are recs but you can read about the Lightspeed honorable mentions in my review of the whole issue at Tangent, if you wish. As far as the others, “Cupids” would appeal mostly to some women, people with an interest in postmodern mythology, or those who respond to its sense of humor (I like classical mythology and thought it was kind of funny) and “Thule” would have interest to some fans of Poe (he plays a large role in the story – perhaps larger than the author even intends, given its theme) and to those who can get through its over-engineering to enjoy its rococo prose and sneakily involving action.

Honorable mentions:

Science Fiction

Fantasy

Summation of Online Fiction: January 2017

I tried forty-three stories of 176,695 words from thirteen January 2017 pro-rate webzines (Apex, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Clarkesworld, Diabolical Plots, the final issue of the now-defunct Fantastic, Flash Fiction Online, Lightspeed, Nature, Nightmare, Strange Horizons, Terraform, Tor.com, and Uncanny). I didn’t finish four stories. Thirty-four ranged from bad to good with honorable mentions for “A Human Stain” by Kelly Robson (a horror novelette from Tor.com that at least sticks – like coagulated blood – in the mind) and “Playing for Keeps” by Judy Helfrich (a time travel short-short from Nature). I recommended five (12%). Those five, divided by genre and alphabetized by title are:

Science Fiction

Fantasy

Reading the 2016 “Best” Stories (Part 2)

Following on from Part 1, I’ve now read the eleven stories that only Clarke or Dozois selected. Part 1 left off with a question about whether multiple quality Dozois selections and a slower start from Clarke would continue.

As far as Clarke’s selections, I didn’t care for Margaret Ronald’s talky alien infonet tale “And Then, One Day, the Air was Full of Voices” and I previously ambivalently reviewed Lettie Prell’s artsy post-human “The Three Lives of Sonata James.” I couldn’t go for a full-tilt recommendation of Karin Lowachee’s “A Good Home” (paraplegic vet adopts PTSD android) or Sarah Pinsker’s post-apocalyptic “Sooner or Later Everything Falls Into the Sea” but they’re certainly reasonable selections to me and you probably wouldn’t go wrong to give them a try.

The only solo Clarke selection that really impressed me was Rich Larson’s “Extraction Request and that in a very specific way. It is undeniably effective but if you don’t wish to read nihilistic military horror SF (The Dirty Dozen economized to an Evil Eight and then dropped in a blender with Aliens and The Blob) then you can safely give this a pass. I wouldn’t have wished in advance to read such a thing but, as I say, it does effectively draw the reader in and is quite creative, especially in certain sadistic details.

I would also recommend Dozois’ selection of Rich Larson’s “Jonas and the Fox more generally but with reservations. Jonas is the older brother of Damjan. They’re living through a revolution when a distant relative, the Fox, who had helped start the revolution prior to being deemed an enemy by it, arrives and hides out with them. Damjan later falls to his brain-death and the Fox has his mind sideloaded into Damjan’s body to hide more effectively. Our story picks up at this point as starry-eyed and contrary (and guilt-plagued) Jonas and his parents and the Fox deal with their situation and try to survive informant teachers and bloodhound soldiers and so on. The reservations come from this being a gripping story throughout yet not especially satisfying in the end. The ending is certainly apt enough and prepped for but somehow the story overall feels like a slight letdown. Also, I’m perfectly happy to swallow the personality/consciousness/soul backups and several other things but, even in that context, the plausibility of aspects of what can and can’t be detected (at least three things) bothers me. Still, quite good and just as gripping as “Extraction Request” with psychological horror but without the visceral horror and nihilism.

Dozois’ other selections were pretty solid. I was least impressed by Maggie Clark’s “A Tower for the Coming World” (interconnected sketches dealing with a variety of people connected to a space elevator) but it wasn’t bad. Eleanor Arnason’s “Checkerboard Planet” wasn’t great, but was a pleasant good ol’ planetary exploration tale starring her recurring Lydia Duluth character. Like Larson’s tale, only more so, Mercurio D. Rivera’s first contact tale, “Those Brighter Stars,” suffered from a somewhat unsatisfying ending (albeit by design) in a tale of abandonment on both small and large scales but was mostly brisk and vivid.

James Patrick Kelly’s “One Sister, Two Sisters, Three” – a tale of siblings, jealousy, mortality, religion, and the Fibonacci sequence – is an embarrassment for me since I have to confess I don’t get it. It seems really superb until the end where I think I understand what happened and why but then simply do not understand the lack of response to it in the denouement. I understand why there wouldn’t be much focus on a certain kind of response but an absence? So I don’t know what to say about it. If the whole thing does hang together and is as good as the bulk, it’d certainly be recommended.

Along with the Larson, the other tale I can clearly recommend is Ted Kosmatka’s “The One Who Isn’t which stays confusing and disorienting for almost too long but finally crystallizes into a remarkable story. As such, it’s one I hate to say anything about because even a simple characterization would spoil the journey. The setup “starts with light. Then heat.” It goes on with a woman “in a porcelain mask” testing a child on his perceptions of colors. Given his inability to distinguish blue and green, she informs him he’s “getting worse.” Then she tells him a bedtime story and I encourage you to go find out about it.

For awhile now, I haven’t been thrilled with Dozois’ annuals but, if the parts I’ve read are at all reflective of the whole, this seems like a very good anthology. One of my major complaints has been an excess of depression, death, destruction, and dystopia in the annuals of late. This certainly has some of all that but in more tolerable quantities and with a lighter or more nuanced touch. Of the nineteen stories from the volume I’ve read thus far, I especially liked eight of them and disliked or wasn’t interested in only a handful with the rest at least being okay. That’s a pretty strong batting average.

Next up, the Horton and Strahan solo selections to finish up this little project!

Edit (2017-01-29): And here’s that conclusion.

Reading the 2016 “Best” Stories (Part 1)

I’ve finished reading the stories with multiple “year’s best” appearances as listed in Links to Stories the Big SF/F Editors Picked As Their Favorites of 2016. My reactions pretty thoroughly undercut the gist of Year’s Bests and My Recommendations, that gist being that I was on the same page with the big editors with just a couple of reasonable exceptions.

It’s not that I hate the stories (I actually like a surprisingly high percentage of them) but that I don’t love them and wouldn’t have recommended very many. At least, I don’t think I would have. Given that I come at these stories as “bests” there is an assumption that someone thought they were good which is a bias in favor of them coupled with a higher chance of unfair expectations and disappointment which gives them an extra liability. It’s hard to say what my reaction would have been if I’d encountered them in the wild.

First, my idiosyncrasies: I didn’t read the de Bodard as I seem to have some blind spot there (at least with the Xuya stories) that I’ve experienced often enough to cause me to give up. And I’m not sure I’ve ever enjoyed a Tidhar story but have come close enough to keep trying but this one wasn’t especially close. I much prefer Dickinson’s SF to the fantasy story from this list. The three or so Miller stories I’ve read have been about the same, though this one probably was the best but seemed derivative of a derivative (Miller via Watts via Campbell). The Campbell and Watts were sufficient.

As mentioned in the second post linked above, I didn’t recommend the Gilman when I read it last year, but its pick (by Clarke, Dozois, and Strahan) is explicable to me. (Even so, that doesn’t much affect the irony of preferring the stories two editors selected to those three or four editors selected.) The Valentine was perhaps in Gilman territory and the DeLancey was good, but read like an excellent episode of a TV show more than a great story.

I’m not sure if I would have recommended Nina Allan’s “The Art of Space Travel (Dozois, Strahan) but I certainly would have thought about it. Stories published as science fiction which have titles like this and turn out to be about the head of housekeeping of a hotel wondering who her father is tend to really disappoint and annoy me but Allan had previously caught my attention for her somewhat oblique stories and this is another one of those. It is a long story and has relatively little action, yet reads quickly. The protagonist is compelling (her blindness to the obvious strains credulity but Allan doesn’t seem to be hiding it from the reader and it would obviously look different to the protagonist) and the story is about a sort of space travel, ultimately, and in a broad way. All in all, I’m glad I read it, so I suppose that’s a recommendation.

Carrie Vaughn’s “That Game We Played During the War (Dozois, Horton) is also in that borderland of good/honorable mention/recommendation. Taken literally, as actual capital “S” science fiction, this is quite a silly story. Two societies of apparently basically the same species in the same part of a world have just concluded a war. One of them is telepathic and the other is not. If you swallow this premise for its metaphorical purposes, you get a very nicely done story about a non-telepath and a telepath who had been each others’ prisoners at various times during the war. During one of these times, the telepath had learned chess from the other. The game and their situation is then exploited for its thematic richness. Again, not an action-packed riot of hard SF adventure, but an interesting tale.

Paolo Bacigalupi’s “Mika Model (Dozois, Strahan), however, is certainly recommended. Sexbot stories are nothing new and this is a very brief handling of the subject but idea- and emotion-packed concision is a virtue to me and this additionally has a rather extraordinary event near the end. My only problem with the story is that, no matter what you think of the status of the robot regarding her sentience, liability, or crime, there is a crime the other main player in the story should have been charged with, but I can’t get into that without spoilers. Either way, it’s a very effective dramatization of a very interesting issue.

Finally, there’s Steven Barnes’ “Fifty Shades of Grays (Dozois, Horton). It’s a story about aliens who arrive on Earth and don’t want to blow us up or steal our resources or even invite us into a galactic federation. They just want to have sex with us. Problem is, they are really, really ugly. But, after our ad exec protagonists succeed in their job to “make ugly sexy,” it turns out the aliens are pretty sexually satisfying, too. This has apocalyptic ramifications (in the nicest way).

My reading of this was a comedy of errors. I went to this story directly, so didn’t realize it was part of Lightspeed‘s “People of Colo(u)r” issue. While I know there is a Steven Barnes and there is a John Barnes who both write science fiction and one collaborates with Niven and I have a couple of books by the other, I can never keep them straight for some reason and thought Steven Barnes was John Barnes until I got to the author blurb at the end. (And the errors may still not be over: I get at least some aspects of the punning title but have never read or seen Fifty Shades of Gray so, if there are any important allusions to that in this story (beyond the bondage references), I’ve missed them.)

I tend to read (or want to read) the science fictional aspects of SF much more literally than seems fashionable. So I just read this story as a wildly conceived, briskly told tale of one of the stranger alien invasions ever and enjoyed it immensely. The ad execs reminded me of Pohl and Kornbluth’s classic The Space Merchants, the ugly aliens and the efforts to make them acceptable reminded me of Foster’s The Man Who Used the Universe. The blurb eventually informed me that Steven Barnes has written for television which may help explain the lack of faux literary pretension and the vigor of the dialog and storytelling, though this story is far more than your average TV fare.

So then I got to the end, saw the author blurb, and realized one mistake, then read the “Spotlight” interview and it told me that the story was written “for a non-white audience” and was supposed to depict “the sickness of being human and trying desperately to fit in with a dominant culture.” Some of that further puzzled me until it dawned on me that this may have been from the PoC issue so I looked and, indeed, it was. In retrospect and knowing that this was for an ideological issue of a magazine, I see that there were all sorts of racial references in the story and that they should apparently have greater weight than I realized but, even on a re-read, I still see many things in the allusions and symbolism that don’t fit and/or are offensive if they do. To me, if the aliens have to symbolize anything, they’d better serve as corporations which, after all, are the ugly things advertisers sell and which provide the products we “need” and which wish to dominate all things. Either way, as a didactic piece it becomes much less interesting and more problematic as a story but is still obviously loaded and interesting (however much one may agree or disagree with it). As a story, it’s much more interesting and enjoyable to me. And, again, either of those ways, it’s certainly a fascinating and provocative something that shouldn’t be missed.

(This doesn’t really fit above or bear mentioning, but it bothers me (and, given my recent Elvis birthday post, that should come as little surprise). The lead alien calls himself “Elvis” and it’s explained that the aliens learned about us by picking up 50s television broadcasts. There are innumerable SF stories involving Elvis so I just took it as one of those quirks. My only problem with the story, on a first reading and apart from the “transmissions” cliche itself, was that the alien Elvis was depicted as wearing the rhinestones of 70s Elvis. While the aliens certainly could have continued to follow his career through the transmissions of Aloha from Hawaii and beyond, this was never made explicit and it still gave the appearance of an error in the story. Beyond that, if we’re to take this story as a racial metaphor, then the alien’s being “Elvis” could be more significant than I initially supposed. If anything, in racial terms, Elvis could work as a symbol of interracial harmony. Yet now I have the disturbing feeling that he may have been intended as a symbol of the current meme of “cultural appropriation” which I wouldn’t appreciate.)

An interesting thing to me about these four stories is that, while Horton and Strahan picked two each, Dozois is the only editor common to all four. Also, while I often like a lot of Clarkesworld stories (and really hate an occasional one) Clarke is the only one who picked none of these (or any twofer story). Next up will be the stories that only appear in one anthology, so we’ll see if those trends continue or change.

Edit (2017-01-21): Reading the 2016 “Best” Stories (Part 2)