Review: Apex #111

Apex #111, August 2018

Original Fiction:

  • “For Southern Girls When the Zodiac Ain’t Near Enough” by Eden Royce
  • “Prism” by Stefanie Elrick
  • “La Ciguapa, For the Reeds, For Herself” by J. M. Guzman
  • “Gasping” by Brandon O’Brien
  • “Jewel of the Vashwa” by Jordan Kurella
  • “The Barnum Effect” by Celia Neri

This Zodiac-themed “special issue” is guest-edited by Sheree Renee Thomas. All stories are short and all are fantasies (the last is a technofantasy). All but the first and last are in the first person. The first is in the second person and is one of three consecutive stories which refer to “you” heavily throughout the story. The first three are in the present tense while the next two are not purely, plainly, in the past. The second, third, and last are not entirely in English. The second is sprinkled with a sort of Spanglish, the third is is what I assume is a Dominican dialect, and the last is filled with minor ESL-isms and/or typos an editor and/or proofreader should have fixed.

Southern Girls” involves a woman, who seems like a placeholder more than a specific individual, getting a Tarot reading with an odd deck which speaks from and to a Southern nature. There is a magic voice doing most of the reading which could be stage magic and otherwise nothing fantastic occurs. “Prism” (Gemini) is a tale of twins (sort of) which tries to blend music, mirrors, and the occult into a revelation of self but is initially dull and consistently overwritten. (It also has an impressively dead metaphor: “The music is deafening, but now I can’t hear it.”). “La Ciguapa” (Libra) treats of the Dominican succubus but, like “Southern Girls,” seems to have stick figure characters in search of a plot as it more or less conveys that men are scum and “a Black woman” will judge at an apocalypse. “Gasping” (Aquarius?) describes “white people” finding a superficially human sea creature in Ireland and raising it in Tobago. The style did not make for an easy read. “Jewel” has a half-scorpion storyteller open with two lies before (possibly) telling the truth about her jealousy breaking a truce between the Scorpion Men and soft people who procreate with each other when they aren’t killing each other. “Barnum” (the protagonist is a Pisces) is about people developing an AI to write horoscopes but, when one of the developers survives a terrorist attack after following the advice of hers, she decides its sentient. The story’s biggest problems are its underlying silliness and its problematic English, though the protagonist seemed like an individual experiencing a bit of trauma and allowing need to collapse ambiguity.

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Review: Clarkesworld #143

Clarkesworld #143, August 2018

Original Fiction:

  • “The Veilonaut’s Dream” by Henry Szabranski (science fiction short story)
  • “The Anchorite Wakes” by R.S.A. Garcia (science fiction short story)
  • “Kingfisher” by Robert Reed (science fiction novelette)
  • “The Privilege of the Happy Ending” by Kij Johnson (fantasy novelette)

In “Privilege,” Ada and her talking chicken (and a damned fierce talking chicken it is) are driven from their home by the ravening horde of little monsters that periodically ravage the English countryside in the 12th century. Will they survive? Can anything be done about the nasty critters?

If someone were to intentionally write a story that would appeal to me less, they’d have their work cut out for them. This is a near-novella of a medieval fairy tale fantasy with an intrusive narrator  who constantly addresses the reader to talk about the storyness of the story while the sometimes archaic main narration uses a dozen words when one would do. However, none of this is unintentional and this sort of story does appeal to some so, if the meandering middle and handwaving ending doesn’t interfere, they might enjoy it. (Weird note: the start of the final action scene put me in mind of Aliens with a Chicken Ripley.)

Moving to the other novelette without escaping a fantasy feel, “Kingfisher” is a similar “short story in long story’s wordage,” so to speak. This takes the fun out of everything: a 700-word infodump a third into the story establishes that it’s set on a hyperfiber Beltrami pseudosphere starship which uses the cosmos for fuel (in the widest sense) in a striking way but this great setting is used to wander about with a feeble post-human sub who is slowly chasing after his repugnant “post-er-human” dom after they got separated a few zillion years ago. The whole thing feels like a middle with even less of an end than a beginning and with no characters to care about.

Anchorite” is a pseudo-Catholic science fantasy in which Sister Nadine is doing her hallucinatory religious things when she meets the Magic Child who is suffering domestic abuse before things absurdly transform into cosmic AI war. Though it has a science fictional kernel, the withholding of the nature of what’s going on, coupled with its muddy, unrealistic narrative approach makes it feel like fantasy and it essentially is.

Madeleine is a “Veilonaut,” or one who explores a veil-like rift in space beyond Pluto. Machines effectively fail to enter this veil (presumably because it’s dependent on a possibly naive version of the QM observer effect, which plays into the conclusion) so humans must explore it (fruitlessly so far) at great risk to themselves with people regularly “cut” or “lost” when the veil shifts: if they are partly in and partly out, they are chopped in two and, if all in, never return to the solar system. She’s a lucky one, being a veteran of many trips, but knows her luck may run out, especially when one of her two companions makes inauspicious comments before this story’s trip.

At first, I was thinking this was going to have to be really great to have any merit compared to Rogue Moon or even “Diamond Dogs” or any number of other contrived semi-magical “death machine stories” or Gateway with its similar lottery-like exploratory aspect but, even though it wasn’t great, it did end up seeming at least noteworthy for its clean, realistic narrative approach to its fuzzy subject matter and for effectively conveying the emotions involved in what happens with this trip’s complications.

Review: Lightspeed #99

Lightspeed #99, August 2018

Original Fiction:

  • “A Bond as Deep as Starlit Seas” by Sarah Grey (science fiction short story)
  • “The Atonement Path” by Alex Irvine (science fiction short story)
  • “Scavenge, Rustic Hounds!” by Manuel Gonzales (fantasy short story)
  • “A Compendium of Architecture and the Science of Building” by Kate Elliott (fantasy short story)

All four stories deal with dystopian societies though I suspect the last isn’t supposed to be seen as such and is at least humanized by one of the Powers That Be. All four stories are readable and most have their strengths but none really stuck out for me. Each pair billed as SF and as fantasy contains a long short story (6-7K) and a shorter one (2.5K).

Bond” deals with a woman selling her semi-AI ship, which she’s named Cleo. The “middlewoman” is the Abbess who runs the Henza (whose name may be inspired by the c.1400 German “Hansa”) which is an unscrupulous, slave-driving politico-religious order whose deity is a goddess of trade. The woman is so sentimentally attached to her ship that she’s insisted on a clause against scrapping it and also insists on meeting the downstream buyer. Finally, after getting some wisdom from a barkeep, she goes back after her ship and things do not go well.

The protagonist, Jeri, is the main problem with this tale. Her sentimentality, which would be sympathy-inducing in small doses, is extreme (or the ship is not aesthetically sufficient for the story’s demands on it). She’s incredibly naive if not downright stupid as anyone can immediately see the problem with her clause to a middleman and she’s supposed to be an experienced merchant yet either has no idea who she’s dealing with or is insane for dealing with them. She’s hasty and a poor physical specimen as she’s easily and immediately incapacitated at one point. And she ultimately drags the plot down with her as it’s somewhat ridiculous that the Henza wouldn’t “indenture” Cleo with governors as well as doing a better job of restricting Jeri, making the supposed “suspense” of the ending moot. Aside from that, though, it does a good job of metamorphosing key elements of our own society into a science fantasy one.

The Atonement Path” is a relatively short Robert Browning-like monologue (though it does have a couple of inserts which break the monologue in fact, if not in feel) in which a lawyer describes his society’s juvenile justice system to a visitor. Some effect is achieved through the matter-of-fact approval of the lawyer calmly narrating awful things but I’m not sure I followed the ending line.

Also short and confusing, “Scavenge” describes a woman warning her husband that “the creatures” have arrived and are carting people away. Despite their best efforts, concentrated on saving the at-risk husband, both suffer in various ways. This is yet another “Lightmare” story in which Lightspeed‘s supposed “fantasy” is far more horrific than anything in the companion issue of Nightmare. The problem is that everything is either elliptical symbolism or doesn’t make sense at all and changes the rules of its own game once, if not again, with no (logical or discernibly aesthetic) rationale.

Finally, while “Compendium” is a hierarchical medievaloid tale in which wise old guys can build men out of boys if the boys are properly respectful, industrious, and driven, it comes as a relief from the other three tales in having a form of kindness within it. When the seemingly innocuous old architect’s fire goes out and he finds a boy hiding in a workshop, both their lives change. The architect is a sort of grand poobah and the boy is a commoner, yet a powerful cold mage. The old man adds his guidance to that of the nearby Hogwarts which has been misusing the boy. Not very dramatic or suspenseful and feels like a piece of a larger story or series, but done well enough, especially if you’re interested in exactly how many dabs of butter are alongside the porridge and other such details.

Weekly Webzine Wrap-Up (2018-07-28)

Weekly Webzine Wrap-Up image

Original Fiction:

All stories are SF and all are short (one or two being flash, depending on your definition) in this very light week. All are also adequate but none are compelling reads.

Surrogate” starts as a rationalized seance with the dead through the magic of technology but actually focuses on the “medium” and her relationship with life and death. “Actionable Intelligence” has interesting thoughts on total war and a military command interested in perpetuating it vs. the soldiers in training who are interested in perpetuating other things, but it relies on a remarkably loose training process and isn’t so much a story as a fleshed out note on part of one. “The Starfish Girl” is a very near-future tale which is essentially mainstream and has no driving plot – just a couple of gymnasts waiting around for an IOC ruling about whether they can compete in the 2024 Olympics. The sole speculative element is that one has had starfish DNA CRISPR’ed in to help her recover from a paralyzing spinal break and the other has had her own DNA modified to help her recover from a blown-out knee. But whether prosthetic blades or DNA, society has already been confronted with these issues in both fiction and fact. Except for being fairly dull, it’s perfectly adequate but is easily skipped if you’re so inclined.

Review of Galaxy’s Edge #33 for Tangent

The thirty-third issue of Galaxy’s Edge contains four reprints and nine originals. Of the latter, the Davitt, Kleijne, and Spires are strictly flash fiction, while the Nikolopoulos and Birch are less than two thousand words, and the Nickel and Leen are less than three. The heftiest stories are the Hodges at four and the Roberts at six. Five of the tales are fantasy and four are forms of SF. Regardless of genre, almost all are humorous or at least light and nearly as many provide some degree of enjoyment though those looking for tales of great complexity, depth, and angst will need to look elsewhere.

Full review at Tangent: Galaxy’s Edge #33, July/August 2018.

Honorable mention:

  • “Resigned” by Floris M. Kleijne (science fiction short story)

Review: Clarkesworld #142

Clarkesworld #142, July 2018

Original Fiction:

  • “Gubbinal” by Lavie Tidhar (science fiction short story)
  • “A Gaze of Faces” by Mike Buckley (science fiction novelette)
  • “The James Machine” by Kate Osias (science fiction short story)
  • “For What Are Delusions if Not Dreams?” by Osahon Ize-Iyamu (science fiction short story)

Perhaps the most accessible short story is the adequate science fictional romance story “The James Machine” which, aside from being four times too long, feels like a Flash Fiction Online story. A dying husband and his wife try to make an AI emulation of the husband and she decides that, if you love someone, you must get them free will. The somewhat less accessible “Gubbinal” is set on Titan and features a woman who is hunting for artifacts left by Boppers (sentient, organic-like machines) when she comes across an injured Ermine (a person modified to live on Titan and other worlds without mechanical aid) and they both set off to explore until pirates have other ideas. This underplotted tale, which seems to be a small piece of a larger story, also seems to want to combine Rudy Rucker and Wallace Stevens in ways not entirely clear to me, but it was interesting. The least accessible, most perplexing short was “For What Are Delusions if Not Dreams?” which deals with a human being treated like an element of a computer or an element of a computer being something like a human. Either way, it would seem to be a metaphor for individual humans caught in the inhuman emergent System of modern society. It’s much softer and quieter than an Ellison story but appropriate that, after his death, it’s reminiscent of such tales as “I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream.”

The novelette, “A Gaze of Faces,” is another example of the stories particularly focused on the cognitive estrangement and dark, unpleasant moods that Clarkesworld is especially fond of. It probably slots near “Gubbinal” in disorientation and near “Delusions” in dark mood. This was the strongest tale of the issue in many ways but had some significant weaknesses. The “estrangement” is produced from simple inversion. The story opens with undefined terms: “I was sixteen when the viz came. The spiral went crazy for a while, shooting, soldiers at the corners.” Then “viz” and “spiral” and the other layers of confusion are basically “de-estranged” by unspooling a series of simple infodumps interspersed with good action scenes. On top of that, the infodumps teeter on the edge of two different connotations of “incredible,” almost leading to a sense of wonder as they expand the scope of the story and its depth of time but almost leading to a sense of ridiculousness as well. Ultimately, the background seems to fall to the latter sense. So now that I’ve begun without a synopsis, I’ll infodump it: on an essentially uninhabitable world, a “vault diver” pokes around in the remnant VR system of the colonial starship and “spiral” of a habitat that was built from it, looking for things of value. He’s tasked with training a young girl and, together, they discover something of importance which changes their understanding of their history and worlds. The numinous alien facehuggers they all live with are quite creepy (though also a plausibility problem) and the brutal, violent, decayed civilization they inhabit is powerfully portrayed. Without seeming to do much to achieve it, the main characters are appealing enough. It’s just that the deep background which produces this powerful foreground doesn’t work. It’s an “honorable mention once removed,” so to speak.

Review: Flash Fiction Online, July 2018

Flash Fiction Online, July 2018

Original Fiction:

  • “‘-Good.'” by Sunyi Dean (science fiction short story)
  • “Untimely Frost, Unlikely Bloom” by Hayley Stone (fantasy short story)
  • “Gathering” by Jonathan Louis Duckworth (fantasy short story)

‘-Good.’” and “Untimely Frost, Unlikely Bloom” are two more in the flood of FFO‘s present tense stories about death. In the first, a spineless woman who says “I don’t know” to everything and whose husband fills in the answers for her, is being asked to be the surrogate mother of that husband’s clone now that he’s dying. What will she say to that? In the second, a fairy tale woman involuntarily kills everything she comes into contact with, including guys she invites to sleep with her. What will become of the child she gives birth to? It’s hard to care about any of the characters in either of the stories, or their situations. “Gathering” is actually in past tense and is about death on a much grander scale. It’s a surreal dreamlike (or nightmare-like) piece about birds trying to build a destructive device and an artist whose work becomes real in weird ways coinciding in an unfortunate way. It didn’t click for me but was the most interesting tale of the issue.