Weekly Webzine Wrap-Up (2017-12-16)

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Beneath Ceaseless Skies and Nightmare were off this week, Grievous Angel didn’t have anything, and Tor.com is still “only sleeping,” so we only get singles from Diabolical Plots, Lightspeed, Nature, Strange Horizons, and Terraform. Those five stories give us two second-person present tense biter-bits and two cli-fi dystopias. Coincidentally (and thankfully) the one which is neither of these things is superb.

The Leviathans Have Fled the Sea” by Jon Lasser, Diabolical Plots, December 15, 2017, fantasy short story

After a bunch of whaling men got stuck in the sea ice, a bunch of whaling women took to the air and hunted the whales to extinction. The crew of one particular ship turns to hunting sirens and, after a catch, the captain’s life changes and perhaps the world does, too.

This gets points for juxtaposing some tired elements in a fresh way which creates an aura of interest but the moral of the story (one of two “humans suck and are destroying the world” tales in just this week) is too clear and too clearly moralistic and the pacing of the second half (and the whole resolution) falters.

The House at the End of the Lane Is Dreaming” by A. Merc Rustad, Lightspeed #91, December 2017, fantasy short story

This is partly a Lovecraftian Can’t-Choose-Your-Own-Adventure tale about a mysterious house, a mysterious book, a couple of sisters, and an incursion from Beyond. As such, this is one of this week’s two second-person present tense tales. This one has multiple “Act One”s interspersed with “Prologues” before finally moving on to additional acts but never relinquishes the fitful starts and stops and lather-rinse-repeat structures which it embellishes with collage elements of newspaper clippings and emails.

The artifice of the telling and the vagueness of the milieu and characters is all to the point as the story becomes a “godgame” tale (which makes it even less interesting than it had been, though it turns out have been the whole point) but it precludes any possible engagement (from me) and so (in my opinion) the story fails utterly. (And then the conclusion seems morally bankrupt.) This is another “wouldn’t have finished it except for having to review it” story.

Fifteen Minutes” by Alex Shvartsman, Nature, December 13, 2017, science fiction flash

In 2117, an AI keeps us monkeys around for sadistic entertainment, making us perform on the web for better food. So one man delivers a brief monologue about all this.

It doesn’t sound like much, but this is what I get for posting my “Web’s Best” early. This would likely have been in it (and may be in next year’s), especially at a mere 750 words or so. I can’t review this without spoiling it – even a hint could ruin it. I’ll add some spoiler notes in a comment to this post. All I can say for now is that its dark tone and conventionality are good things. Just please check it out and stick with it.

Sasabonsam” by Tara Campbell, Strange Horizons, December 11, 2017, fantasy short story

A man-eating tree-thing eats something which disagrees with it and we learn about pain, regret, infidelity, vengeance, and other fun things in less than 1800 second-person present tense words which feel like more.

An Incomplete Timeline of What We Tried” by Debbie Urbanski, Terraform, December 15, 2017, science fiction flash

This is not a story.
It is a list.
Like many stories this week, it makes reviewing an unpleasant task.

Literally: it’s a long (over one hundred item) list of inconsistently articulated statements in reverse order which decries our current and future actions regarding the environment and, while presumably intending to be cautionary, basically conveys an impression of hopelessness.

(And I assume this is by Debbie Urbanski. At the time of reading, Terraform had it as “Urbansk.” And golfing would be year “round” rather than “around” as an internal example of more errors.)

 

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Weekly Webzine Wrap-Up (2017-12-09)

ufo

(While no acknowledgement was required, thanks to comfreak for the great art.)

So far in December, Grievous AngelStrange Horizons, and Tor.com have produced no original fiction in English. The rest of the (semi-)weekly venues I cover were active and here are (mostly) brief reviews of their stories.

Low Bridge! or, The Dark Obstructions” by M. Bennardo, Beneath Ceaseless Skies #240, December 7, 2017 (novelette)

A newly married couple take a boat ride on their honeymoon where they are annoyed by a boorish author of ghost stories. This opens (and, indeed, closes) with nothing necessarily fantastic, is narrated in a mannered, Victorian way, and has unappealing characters, so is hard to get into. There is a dinner scene of somewhat spirited conversation and an exciting moment of a low bridge but a prophecy is given which leads to expectations which are disappointed. The culmination is trivial.

The Wind’s Departure” by Stephen Case, Beneath Ceaseless Skies #240, December 7, 2017 (fantasy novelette)

Not having read any Patrick Rothfuss, I don’t know if or how this is related but, when the protagonist is reading The Book of the Names of the Winds, even I couldn’t help but think of the title The Name of the Wind.

What this is related to is at least three other stories about a new god in the world and the wizard(s) who resist it. I’ve only read half of them and I recommended an earlier one (“The Wizard’s House“) in 2015. This one seems to suffer more from sequelitis, being more of a middle and relying more on past stories. These references can add to a larger, numinous effect from ominous vagueness or, being robbed of their context, can simply fall flat. I suspect this could be read in isolation but wouldn’t be a good starting place.

In this installment, Diogenes, the new wizard, is trying to honor his promise to restore the persistent wind, Sylva, to her body, which had been unmade by the previous wizard’s brother. He realizes that the only way to do this is to risk re-awakening the quiescent god. Adding to the difficulties is that there’s an Emperor waiting to be served. The ending wraps up only the most interior thread and sets the stage for further adventures.

This is a slow tale, with little happening in the first half, and never really becoming all that thrilling, but certainly becoming interesting in places due to wonderfully imaginative fantastic elements. Early on, there is another nice depiction of “the wizard’s house” and the second half, with encounters with gods, ascents to the top of the house, and various other things (along with references to the amazing flying jellyfish (that you need to have read a previous installment to appreciate)) keeps things spellbinding. The prose is clean and effective and the cross-bindings of the various characters and their promises and the costs of same is well-handled. If you’ve enjoyed any of the other tales in the series, don’t miss this one and, if not, try one of the earlier tales.

Hakim vs. The Sweater Curse” by Rachael K. Jones, Diabolical Plots #34A, December 1, 2017 (fantasy flash)

A guy cries a lot and vomits Lovecraftian sweaters for his boyfriend. Words fail me.

The Greatest One-Star Restaurant in the Whole Quadrant” by Rachael K. Jones, Lightspeed #91, December [7], 2017 (science fiction short story)

This peculiar tale involves escaped cyborgs finding themselves having to run a restaurant in order to hide in plain sight, with little material to work with and less knowledge of what their fully biological human customers like to eat. When one of them becomes fixated on getting more “stars” in reviews, things go off the rails.

The premise doesn’t grab me, much of the story is extremely unpleasant (with traces of bizarre humor to compensate), and the ending would have been much more effective if the main character had actually been appealing.

Please Consider My Science-Fiction Story” by David G. Blake, Nature, December 6, 2017 (science fiction flash)

This is a meta-story about an author having a meta-conversation with his imaginary/real AI writing assistant. It’s inconsiderable.

Which Super Little Dead Girl™ Are You? Take Our Quiz and Find Out!” by Nino Cipri, Nightmare #63, December [6], 2017 (horror short story)

This very short (c.2,000 word) piece is just what it says: a quiz. Given that, it does a remarkable job sketching the lives and deaths of four murdered girls but still doesn’t result in much of a story.

SWARM” by Sean Patrick Hazlett, Terraform, December 8, 2017 (science fiction flash)

An American/NATO soldier (who’s lost his daughter) is fighting, among others, a mobile minefield in the Russo-Ukrainian war (with children in the area). This is a little too caught up in its acronyms and tech and a little too conventional in its character/emotional efforts to make for successful fiction but it does paint an interesting picture of near-future combat and it’s good to see a story that recognizes the fact of Cold War II (even if it calls it the “Neo-Cold War”).

Review: Apex #103

 

Apex #103, December 2017

Cover of Apex #103

“Behind Her, Trailing Like Butterfly Wings” by Daniela Tomova (short story)
“The Edge of Things” by Katharine E. K. Duckett (short story)

At least in terms of the two original stories, Apex #103 could be the “quantum mechanics will get you in the end” literary science fantasy issue and that sort of pessimism and fuzziness isn’t often to my taste but both are readable and have their points.

“Behind Her, Trailing Like Butterfly Wings” by Daniela Tomova (short story)

A reporter from the “oasis people” is interviewing an electricity vendor of the “road people” in a time when “mouths” or “irregularities” open up, sometimes even in oases and often on the sides of the “road,” which is a path walked by the semi-mythical Wandering Woman. Her followers believe “mouths cannot open up where she walks.” These mouths are extremely unpleasant. The vendor describes the aftermath of a collapse of an oasis as:

“Nothing left but crumbs from houses and streets going places you don’t want to be. People half-glued to the asphalt, half inside a hole stretched in time. That second half still not having realized what happened to them. No government left to clean out the bodies, you see.

[Refugees] said some of those people have started screaming now and they will be screaming long after what’s left outside is bones. To the inside only a few minutes, or maybe at most a couple of days if they are really unlucky, will pass before they die but a few minutes of watching your body decay and disintegrate, that is…”

He shudders.

Most of the story is just the conversation of the two people, though there is a harrowing scene of a real-time seizure of a couple of people by a mouth. The conversation does eventually reveal something of the reporter’s history and motivation and results in a revelation about the Wandering Woman.

The tale’s foreground or surface is mostly simple and vivid while its background or foundation is complex and surreal. There are moments of interest but not a lot of action or even much to firmly engage with conceptually. This was the more interesting of the issue’s stories and may appeal to some but still didn’t really work for me.

“The Edge of Things” by Katharine E. K. Duckett (short story)

The nameless protagonist is wandering through a surreal hallucinatory existence, sometimes tinged with horror, which resembles a party of strange people in a strange house. (At one point, a guest offers, “LSD?” and the protagonist laughs and says, “I don’t think I need any.”) Over the course of the story, she eventually makes some progress toward “going sane,” or “going mad backwards.”

This genre bender seems almost to say “idle minds are the devil’s universe” but I’m sure you can make it say any number of things. While I didn’t entirely, some may enjoy this trip.

Review: Flash Fiction Online, December 2017

 

Flash Fiction Online, December 2017

Cover of Flash Fiction Online, December 2017

This is a quickie. For whatever reason, two stories in this issue are billed as “literary” while one is the usual reprint, leaving only one to review. That is

“The First Stop Is Always the Last” by John Wiswell (fantasy short story)

This is a Groundhog’s Day with a woman who drives a bus and a woman coming from a very important funeral. The movie is, among other things, about a guy pursuing a girl and becoming a better person in the process while this is about a girl dealing with loss, worrying about her new job, and pursuing a girl almost incidentally. Adequately executed but the movie’s much better.

Review: Compelling #10

Compelling #10 (Winter 2017)

Cover of Compelling #10
“Inside-of-Body Experience” by Pip Coen (short story)
“The Virgin of Santos de la Tierra” by E E King (short story)
“Hostile Intent” by Mike Adamson (novelette)
“Museum Piece” by J. D. Popham (short story)
“Redo” by Larry Hodges (short story)

The tenth issue of Compelling (which ends the bi-monthly era and begins the bi-annual one) brings us five tales which include a couple of aliens, a robot, a future corporation, and a variety of religious experience. None are bad, and the last couple are the best.

“Inside-of-Body Experience” by Pip Coen (science fiction short story)

A woman and her crewmates must deal with her discovery that an alien (she says “parasite,” it says “symbiont”) has infiltrated her body and wishes to “share” the “vessel.” The opening first person narration of the paralyzed protagonist is initially confusing. The repeated “I did [something]… except I didn’t” which is meant to express her wish to talk, laugh, scream, whatever, and her inability to do so, gets tiresome. Finally, while the theme appears to be addressed by the end of the story, it feels like the plot is cut off abruptly. All that said, it’s readable and provides some things to think about.

“The Virgin of Santos de la Tierra” by E E King (science fiction short story)

This tale of a woman seeing the Virgin in the water stains on her building (and what happens to her city and beyond) initially had me wondering where the SF was but it finally appeared. This long flash/very short story is not especially related to Arthur C. Clarke’s “The Star” and not on par with it, of course, but it made me think of it in a way.

“Hostile Intent” by Mike Adamson (science fiction novelette)

Ruinous climate change is pushing corporations out into space while leaving the poor folks behind. A woman who lost her parents to a space mining accident has risen to a high position in one of those corporations when an attack is made on one of their space resources. Dealing with this attack is just the tip of the iceberg.

Despite the off-screen space action and the futuristic setting, this story doesn’t focus on its science fictional aspects and, partly because of something the author’s doing with the main character for plot purposes, she isn’t fully engaging, so the story’s basically about corporate shenanigans that have an interlocking puzzle-piece interest but not a lot beyond that. And ultimately, the theme, however worthy, seems kind of simple and labored. It’s not a bad story insofar as there are several points of interest to keep the reader going but it’s just not fully rewarding.

“Museum Piece” by J. D. Popham (science fiction short story)

After all its siblings have been destroyed as a threat to the human workforce (a second story partly concerned with future economics), an old robot makes its break for freedom against many obstacles. This action-adventure tale may not suit everyone but I liked it a lot. It was very exciting and the multiple stages of the robot’s efforts were very well conceived and described.

“Redo” by Larry Hodges (science fiction short story)

Mesen, the giant alien caterpillar, has been taking a census of the Earth as it was when he arrived through the magic of his redo device. With certain provisos, it resets the Earth back to how it was. Thus people on Earth have passed over 80,000 years into the galactic future in ten minute increments without ever knowing it. So it happens that he meets a woman who seems to be his best interview until the interview quickly turns into his worst. An alien invasion fleet is just one of the many issues. But with the magic of the redo device and a lot of ingenuity, he and his new human friend can try to save the day.

There is a loopy part in the late-middle of the story which isn’t a lot of fun to read and something I can’t put my finger on isn’t entirely satisfactory but this is a heck of an idea which is generally executed well and the story is pretty amusing, not least due to a very charmingly conceived alien. I kept having the feeling that there was an internal logic failure or other flaw and then kept rethinking it and realizing the story had it right, as far as I could tell. So, again, not actual hard SF (or “plausible”) but with a lot of the mental fun of it. Good stuff.

Edit (2017-12-01): add bi-annual note, modify markup.

Summation of Online Fiction: November 2017

As I mention in the relevant recommendation, I belatedly discovered that the SFWA had added the flash zine Grievous Angel to its list of pro markets, so I caught up on it. Even with its intermittent microfiction help, this was a light month in which I read about 135K words from thirty-five of thirty-seven November stories. This month’s recommendations and honorable mentions, especially for science fiction, are also fairly light. There were still several good stories, though, and the 238th number of Beneath Ceaseless Skies was especially noteworthy.

Recommended:

Science Fiction

  • Odd Hours” by Tony Pisculli, Grievous Angel, SF/F short story (rec)

Fantasy

Honorable Mentions:

Science Fiction

Fantasy

From the backlog of Grievous Angel stories, “Candont” stuck out, which I discussed in the “Odd Hours” rec. I don’t ordinarily read reprints but Flash Fiction Online had the Lina Rather, who’s impressed me before and it was a quick flash from 2017, so I gave it a try and it’s worth a mention. (She also had a story published in The Arcanist which was fine, too, but a shade below “Night.”) “Night” is about a starship survey mission becoming a colonization mission when Earth wipes itself out but they don’t have much of a chance until an astronomical coincidence occurs. This story works on a symbolic level much more than a literal one but is evocative. “Fire” is an “if this goes on” which takes us to the ultimate conclusion of asteroid mining and is nicely bittersweet. “Arsia Mons” starts with the spectacularly unpromising premise of battlebots on Mars and makes a story of it which reads very quickly despite its length.

“Faerie” is the second Kayembe story I’ve read this year which is very good in many ways yet has a very damaging hole in it. The protagonist calls on supernatural aid but what ultimately occurs could have been done more cheaply without it. As a horror story, it’s also better suited for Nightmare than Lightspeed. All that said, it has compelling characters and situations and is well-written, much like her earlier “idiot-plot” “You Will Always Have Family: A Triptych” (which was published in Nightmare). This one also deals with a family: a little girl, her parents, her sister, and the sister’s very disturbing new husband. As “The Siret Mask,” recommended from the same BCS issue, had thievery and identity revelations, so “Serpent” has scam artists and revelations of motivation. The characters aren’t as appealing, the plot is somewhat simpler, and the style is a bit more Victorian but it’s a solid read.

(Postscript: Tor.com would have ordinarily released a story today but apparently ended its year, if not its life, about three weeks ago. Terraform may release a story tomorrow but hasn’t for a couple of weeks, so I’m not holding my breath, or this post.)

Edit (2017-12-01): update number/word count of stories read to reflect that Terraform did release that story.

Rec: “Three May Keep a Secret” by Carlie St. George

Three May Keep a Secret” by Carlie St. George, Strange Horizons 2017-11-20, fantasy (horror) short story

Scarlett had been told a ghost story by her friend, Sammy, and swore never to tell it to anyone else. When Scarlett breaks that promise and drunkenly passes it on to her new friend, Matt, both find themselves haunted in different ways. Ultimately, the story, its hauntings, and its secret become a matter of life and death (again).

There’s something “Afterschool Special” about this in the sense that it’s targeted at kids and they’re supposed to say, “I’ve learned something today,” after reading it. Also, there’s a glitch that bugs me when the protagonist breaks her phone and then, without explanation, is using a phone right after that. That said, this is a remarkably fast-paced and action-plotted story (especially for Strange Horizons) with a weighty theme and is generally effective and powerful.