Weekly Webzine Wrap-Up (2018-10-21)

Weekly Webzine Wrap-Up image

Original Fiction:

Since Nature hasn’t put up a new story for the second week in a row and Terraform‘s website seems broken, “AI and the Trolley Problem” is the sole SF story this week. It addresses an interesting problem (an AI deciding to kill some of its “own” people to prevent greater loss of life) but, by having the structure of an odd day in the life followed by a conversation between a “specialist in machine ethics” and the AI, it lacks full fictionalization and drama. Not to mention that, regardless of general morality, any AI that kills those it was designed to protect should be scrapped immediately.

MotherJumpers” has as its basic premise the exact same one of “Bluebellows,” published in the same magazine last year: people jump off slave ships and, rather than dying, are changed. This is written in an extremely thick Caribbean dialect and I even resorted to trying the podcast which did help but not enough so, while some of the underwater descriptions were imaginative and it may have turned out well,  I didn’t finish it.

BCS brings us a pair of fantasies of female friends falling out. “Crow Knight” is much the longer of the two novelettes and seems to have a rather reductive “tend your garden (because you can’t tend others’)” motif after detailing some abortive, misdirected, deceitful steps to deal with the ominous crow which pesters both the plain and morose knight and her angry, bitter, dangerous lady (or princess, one would think, as she’s to be queen). Though short of a full recommendation, “Zayred” was much more appealing. It provides enough in each scene to maintain interest while it unspools the story in reverse. In this case, the strategy makes each scene seem to deepen or intensify without making it seem too baldly put. However, the conclusion (or lack thereof) suffers from just that and from being apt enough, but unsatisfying. Still, the tale of a couple of war-bards (spellsingers) fighting to control the narrative after their deaths, and why they were doing it, was intriguing and possessed of understated style. Some may find the story to be more of an ego-struggle among villains than a social struggle among heroes but I thought the touch of gray could also be seen as an advantage. Without making it a preachy message, there’s also a good depiction of how The Powers That Be keep people at each others’ throats against their own self-interest and for that of the Powers’.

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Review: Galaxy’s Edge #34

Galaxy’s Edge #34, September 2018

Original Fiction:

  • “In Which Liz Builds a Robot with Unexpected Results” by Grayson Bray Morris (science fiction)
  • “Employee Theft Is an Ongoing Problem” by Brenda Kalt (science fiction)
  • “The Day Time Stood Still” by Shawn Proctor (fantasy)
  • “The Horn of Amalthea” by George Nikolopoulos (fantasy)
  • “Small Fortune and the Perpetual Luck Machine” by Alex Shvartsman (fantasy)
  • “Yet So Vain Is Man” by A. Merc Rustad (science fiction)
  • “Journey’s End” by Doug Dandridge (science fiction)
  • “Death, the Devil, and the President’s Ghost” by Larry Hodges (fantasy)
  • “El Paletero” by Sharon Diane King (fantasy)

All the original stories in this issue of Galaxy’s Edge are short stories and five of them are very short, with four weighing in at a thousand words or less while the other is about 1700 words.

Of the very short ones, “Amalthea” was the most entertaining to me. While slight and predictable, it was still a clever biter-bit about a man trying to steal the Horn of Plenty from the goat it’s attached to (not to mention Zeus). “Time” takes the familiar motif of losing a loved one (wife) and not wanting to lose another (daughter) so stopping time but then realizing there’s a cost. Unfortunately, the fact that the whole world except for the father and daughter is what’s stopped doesn’t make even fantasy sense and the story is button-pushing more than genuinely emotional. “President’s Ghost,” which aims for comedy, also feels familiar and also has problems with the odd notion that souls are separate from selves and can be both dirty and cleaned. Some President dies and has a conversation with the Devil while Death looks on before things take a sudden turn.

Turning to the more science fictional short-shorts, “Vain” is another familiar tale in which we find an alien on Mars and a corporation stupidly (unbelievably stupidly) transports it to Earth over a scientist’s objections and then that scientist, trying to minimize the threat, makes it worse. This is told exclusively through emails she sends, which feels like a narrative mistake. “Robot” is just what the full title says, in which a robot meant to clean and organize takes a broad approach to the task. Kind of a fluff piece, but readable.

Moving to longer science fictional tales, “Employee Theft” involves a linguist slipping into a group of spies, all disguised as custodial workers, with the former trying to record bits of alien language and the latter trying to steal bits of tech the aliens leave behind in their Floridian quarters. This background is no clearer or more plausible than it sounds and, while I was able to entertain the notion that it would get better as I read it, it ultimately didn’t and the ending was anti-climactic. “Journey’s End” is a shot at hard SF, dealing with a barely sub-light colony augmentation starship. Its skeleton crew learns by a sort of ansible that the colony has been attacked by aliens and they decide to divert the starship with some large-scale Macgyvering. Most everything that happens seems more or less coincidental or accidental and part of the conclusion between two loved ones is jaw-droppingly awkwardly put, at best, but it was otherwise readable.

Of the longer fantasies, “Paletero” is a vaguely Bradbury-ian tale that mixes darkness with wild whimsy and may be deep with symbolism which I missed but just seems like a couple of remarkably imaginative incidents, The “paletero” is basically an ice-cream man with a magical ice-cream cart. The latter incident is somewhat like “Time” in that it deals with a person wanting to reverse time and also discovering it’s complex. I thought this was overloaded with sensory details but many find that a virtue. Finally, the best story in the issue, by a small margin, is another comic fantasy like “Amalthea.” “Perpetual Luck Machine” deals with a woman trying to convince her grandmother that she’s ready to run their magic pawn shop but then encountering a gnome who wants a loan and will put up the PLM as collateral. This gnome is tricky, though, and she’s not getting the bargain she thought. This was smoothly told and effectively comical.

Review: Nightmare #73

Nightmare #73, October 2018

Original Fiction:

  • “The Inheritance” by Joanna Parypinski (horror short story)
  • “A Mother’s Love Never Ends” by Halli Villegas (dark fantasy short story)

This issue of Nightmare introduces us to Madeline and Miriam and, while only Miriam observes that a town looks “frozen sometime in the 1950s.” both stories have a little of that in them.

When a disturbing stranger appears on her doorstep talking about an impossible “Inheritance,” unhappy Madeline must decide whether to let him in. The tension of the meeting is done well enough and the nature of the “inheritance” is clever enough, but the woman is characterized too much to be Everyone yet too little and too negatively for much sympathy and the story is slight. In “Mother’s Love,” Miriam is riding the bus with her mother’s ashes and, while on the bus and at the various stops, experiences a surreal swirl of past and present and Never as intimations about her broken home and the games parents play arise and we learn about their effects. While overly disorienting on one hand, it was effectively creepy on the other, with an ending which may resonate for some.

Review: Apex #113

Apex #113, October 2018

Original Fiction:

  • “Bargains by the Slant-light” by Cassandra Khaw (fantasy short story)
  • “The Standard of Ur” by Hassan Abdulrazzak (fantasy short story)
  • “With Lips Sewn Shut” by Kristi DeMeester (fantasy short story)

Bargains” is an overwritten and talky flash piece in which a woman is having trouble with love and makes a deal with an atypical Devil to have her torso cut open and her heart slowly replaced. Some horror fans not put off by the excess verbiage and lack of action may find something here. “Sewn” is another “oppressed women/evil men” tale in which a (perhaps inadvertently) ambiguous mother both sews the daughter’s lips shut and works for her freedom while the evil brothers are also temporarily drafted until they become talking, free, happy, evil animal-men and chase the fleeing sister through the woods, which chase has at least one botched element which interfered with any even visceral excitement it may have had. “Standard” is a mishmash of tenses and POVs, not to mention probably a mishmash of science fiction and fantasy. In 2103, Iraqis have been brain-chipped to suppress sectarian hatred (damn specific chip, there). A blonde British boy arrives to decide whether Iraq is stable enough to merit the return of an ancient Sumerian artifact. The opening is interesting enough but, if it’s an SF story with a psychological twist, some things don’t work and, if the end is fantastic, it’s even more absurd. Despite that, it feels like it’s supposed to be a supernatural fantasy and, even if not, it’s certainly an unsophisticated “postcolonial” revenge fantasy.

Review: Clarkesworld #145

Clarkesworld #145, October 2018

Original Fiction:

  • “The Miracle Lambs of Minane” by Finbarr O’Reilly (science fiction short story)
  • “Sparrow” by Yilin Wang (science fiction? short story)
  • “When We Were Starless” by Simone Heller (science fiction novelette)
  • “Thirty-Three Percent Joe” by Suzanne Palmer (science fiction novelette)

The 145th issue of Clarkesworld brings us a short short and short novelette of independent tales and a long short and long novelette of what seem to be sequels of sorts.

Sparrow” is another second-person tale and another tale of “replacement by automation” which deals with a Chinese window washer and doesn’t seem to have any particular speculative element. “Thirty-Three Percent Joe” (who’s actually 67% Joe and 33% AI replacement parts) deals with a terrible soldier who has a worse mother and whose parts try to keep him alive despite her and the enemy’s best efforts. In alternating sections, we listen to the AI parts discuss how to save Joe during battles in Ohio and see Joe participate in them and in the kitchen, which last is the one place he’s actually successful thanks to the codes to the cooking machinery his central unit keeps giving him. This is all made funny, amazingly enough, but Joe isn’t much of a character and the story’s way too long for what it is.

Like the “Ultra Twist,” “Minane” makes tomorrow look like yesterday, only more so and not in a fun way. After a famine caused by sea-critters (likely the same as those in “The Last Boat-Builder in Ballyvoloon”), Ireland’s population is much reduced and there is a struggle between the imperatives of more food vs. more people. This tale is full of local color and a more general rusticity with much minutiae on farming, animal husbandry, and illicit doctoring, enlivened only towards the end with a moment of action. Even though “Starless” seems to be a sequel to “How Bees Fly,” I’m still not sure exactly what’s going on. Presumably it’s set on Earth and presumably the people with tails and carapaces are modified humans but they could be biomechanical or something else. Perhaps I missed something or perhaps it really is vague exposition but, if the latter, this rendition of the “post-apocalypse” tale combined with the “Promethean misfit aids conservative tribe” tale is a case of two wrongs almost making a right, as the weirdness of the exposition provides a gloss of dissonant freshness to the otherwise familiar tale.

Review: Flash Fiction Online, October 2018

Flash Fiction Online, October 2018

Original Fiction:

  • “Words I’ve Redefined Since Your Dinosaurs Invaded My Lunar Lair” by Stewart C Baker (science fantasy short story)
  • “I Will You Back to Time and Space” by Dafydd McKimm (science fantasy short story)

Both of this issue’s original speculative tales are readable but not much more than that. “Words” was listed as science fiction but is a superhero/supervillain tale in which the good guy’s bioengineered dinosaurs invade the bad girl’s lair just like it says in the title and a series of words like ‘justice” and “victory” form the narrative structural gimmick which enlightens us about the nature of good and evil… or egalitarianism and elitism, whatever. This doesn’t bring anything more to the table than the numerous other tales which have trod the same ground. Similarly, “Will” was listed as fantasy but is semi-contemporary and makes quantum noises about the gorilla companions each human (except the narrator’s daughter) acquires as it talks about the power of parental drives and is not as convincing as other similar tales.