Review: Apex #109

Apex #109, June 2018

Original Fiction:

  • “Three Meetings of the Pregnant Man Support Group” by James Beamon (science fiction short story)
  • “Suzie Q” by Jacqueline Carey (fantasy short story)

This could be seen as the “sex is bayud, m’kay” issue.

Suzie Q” is another puritanical story and another revenge fantasy in which a woman goes insane from sex and, eventually, people make the mistake of pissing her off one too many times. Very basically and easily plotted with a puerile and repressive attitude (towards bad sex, anyway, if not good violence). Bizarrely, the markedly superior story between the two is “Three Meetings,” which drops elements of Aliens, Butler’s “Bloodchild,” Barnes’ “Fifty Shades of Grays,” maybe Varley’s “Manikins,” and other similar “weird alien sex” stuff into a blender, though it leaves the lid off so that all the action, energy, and plot fly out, leaving just a really weird and creepy residue. The “skoick” have arrived on Earth and want our… men? Turns out Earthmen are easy, when the gender-incomparable aliens are capable of delivering “mind-blowing interspecies sex” (along with dribbles of tech), even when it results in becoming a gestating device for a mind-controlling alien parasite. Aspects of this are remarkable and, obviously, it has all sorts of gender/orientation/etc. resonances but it falls short of its predecessors, particularly regarding the heavy approach to theme and the previously mentioned plotting. Despite a couple of semi-random, semi-forced efforts to ramp up the tension, it lacks a real driving plot and is just the three scenes.

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Weekly Webzine Wrap-Up (2018-06-02)

Weekly Webzine Wrap-Up image

Original Fiction:

  • Cat and Mouse” by L.C. Brown, Cosmic Roots and Eldritch Shores, May 30, 2018 (fantasy)
  • Boxes” by J. Overton, Grievous Angel, May 30, 2018 (surreal)
  • Masques” by Mike Adamson, Nature,  May 30, 2018 (science fiction)
  • Black Friday” by Alex Irvine, Tor.com, May 30, 2018 (science fiction)
  • Tank!” by John Wiswell, Diabolical Plots #40A, June 1, 2018 (fantasy)

All stories are short; the DP, GA, and Nature are flash. All are in forms of present tense, the GA least consistently so. (Terraform is doing a two-parter so that’ll be covered next week.)

Of the week’s flash, “Boxes,” is bit of surrealism about a guy who collects suggestions from The Suggestion Box, “Tank!” is about a “non-binary” tank (I’m not kidding) being awkward at a science fiction convention, and “Masques” is a tale about a victim of a doctor who’d taken kickbacks to prematurely scrap injured bodies in order to upload their consciousnesses into artificial ones. The latter has some incorrect word choices and suffers from “‘hydraulic power hidden beneath svelte, ebon arms’ on the mantelpiece” but is otherwise not bad.

Cat and Mouse” is an odd case of synchronicity in that, despite differing (favorably) in almost every detail, this very short story is a lot like this month’s “I Sing Against the Silent Sun” in some core ways. In this, the authorities are again bent on silencing everything and the protagonist is again fighting back, but this is about a woman in New Orleans who makes magic trumpet music and has some of that vivid whimsy and narrative prowess I was talking about with the Ellison story.

I ain’t proud of what I do next, because my Momma, she taught me never to raise a hand in anger. But this ain’t no hand, it’s a trumpet case, and I whack him upside the head with it hard as I can swing. He goes cross-eyed and staggers like some kinda drunk, and now he really look at home on Bourbon Street.

That quote is worth a recommendation, though the story as a whole was perhaps a notch below that.

The week’s sole long short story (so to speak) tells the tale of a future family/”team” going shopping on “Black Friday“—which means being on mass media while shopping fully armed and ready to kill or be killed. A social satire much like Robert Sheckley’s “The Prize of Peril” (1958) or other “blood sport reality show” stories, movies, etc. In this case, the primary thrust seems to be a satire against supporters of the Second Amendment (presumably due to recent events), though consumerist culture and the violence that occurs on current major shopping days is another major focus. The satirical slant may cause an overreaction to the otherwise unremarkable tale either positively or negatively but, that aside, it’s competently done in terms of characterization and plot.

Review: Flash Fiction Online, June 2018

Flash Fiction Online, June 2018


Original Fiction:

  • “The Strawberry Queen of Irapuato” by Sarah Beaudette (science fantasy short story)
  • “Place Your Bets” by David Whitaker (science fiction short story)

GMO. What could go wrong? In “Strawberry Queen,” another present tense tale, Irina’s locked up with several other people who have mutated in various ways. They’re a pretty passive bunch but she actively wishes to escape. It feels more like a not-so-superhero story than science fiction and the milieu, mood, and/or premise is reminiscent of other tales from at least “The Discarded” (1959) to “The Glow-in-the-Dark Girls” (2018).

Stable empires are no good when you’re a high-risk capitalist and wish to stir up wars and economic turmoil so you can “Place Your Bets.” A financial consultant or the like travels to visit with such a man and, while disinterestedly accompanying him on a hunt, reflects on things. It might be too much to say this may have whiffs of Hemingway and Kipling but it crossed my mind. The theme was pretty overtly and simply presented, though.

Review: Nightmare #69

Nightmare #69, June 2018

NM69
Original Fiction:

  • “Leviathan Sings to Me in the Deep” by Nibedita Sen (dark fantasy short story)
  • “Red Rain” by Adam-Troy Castro (absurdist gore short story)

Did you ever read a story written entirely in second person questions? Did it really annoy you? Would you read it if you didn’t have to? Because “Red Rain” is such a story and involves apparently millions of people falling out of the sky to their deaths while “you” get drenched in gore as “you” try to duck and cover. This is conveyed by some inexplicable entity asking “you” a lot of questions which are essentially declarative sentences with an interrogative stuck up front and a question mark stuck on the end. This device and the unaesthetic lack of proportion combined to completely dissociate me from any effect this story might have had. I’m sorry, but I’d rather read John Shirley’s Three-Ring Psychus or something.

(Incidentally, one gets the sense these people are falling from great heights at great speeds but one person hits a power line and bounces off before landing and getting shredded when, even in a fantasy, he ought to have just gotten cut right in half—with guts spewing in both directions, presumably. And why stop with just one line? He could have gone through several like an egg in a slicer. Maybe there was some sense of limit or proportion to the story after all?)

On the other hand, for the second issue in a row, Nightmare has a really good story. “Leviathan Sings to Me in the Deep” tells the tale of a captain of a whaling vessel on a world that is and is not of our world and history. On this voyage, a scientist is busy trying to create a whale communicator of sorts, using parts of whales the ship’s crew have killed. Unsurprising but hauntingly effective descents into madness follow.

While there may be a a glitch or two in the narrative voice of the captain as recorded in his plain, direct, but beautifully written log, it is generally solid and his character is well-realized and effective with initially benign aspects growing to altered effect as the story progresses. The plain description of the whaling activities, however normal they may have been, produces a natural darkness before the unnatural darkness even properly begins. The ending contains its message but is relatively subdued rather than overt and, unlike most stories of this sort, is more concerned with empathy and equity than simple vengeance. There is a problem with the narrative device and the ending which does ask for some charitable work on the part of the reader to work around but, otherwise, this story was superbly done and captivating. I’m not one to say “I wish this was a novel” about a story since I think that tends to deprecate it as a story but this was definitely the sort of story that I could settle into and my only real complaint was that it did wrap up quickly.

Weekly Webzine Wrap-Up (2018-05-27)

Weekly Webzine Wrap-Up image

Original Fiction:

  • Salt Lines” by Ian Muneshwar, Strange Horizons, May 21, 2018 (fantasy short story)
  • The Guile” by Ian McDonald, Tor.com, May 22, 2018 (science fiction short story)
  • Yiwu” by Lavie Tidhar, Tor.com, May 23, 2018 (science fantasy short story)
  • DNA Exchange” by D. A. Xiaolin Spires, Nature, May 23, 2018 (science fiction short story)
  • The Wild Ride of the Untamed Stars” by A.J. Fitzwater, Beneath Ceaseless Skies #252, May 24, 2018 (fantasy short story)
  • The Ghostpotion Games” by Christian K. Martinez, Beneath Ceaseless Skies #252, May 24, 2018 (fantasy short story)
  • Posey Girl” by Julianna Baggott, Terraform, May 25, 2018 (science fiction short story)

Let the games begin! As usual, BCS presents us with two stories and, as unusual, Tor.com also presents us with two. All four relate to games/gambling/competition. Oddly, the other three of this week’s stories could be construed as being about cooperating.

DNA Exchange” describes the fight between a mother and a daughter over the latter’s acceptance of a boy’s cloned ear onto her body which escalates when the mother discovers the return favor. “Posey Girl” features a violated yet virginal sexbot comforting a not dissimilar boy. “Salt Lines” is a not dissimilar story dealing with a gay man seeking strange solace as he’s not only isolated from his family but being followed by a “jumbie” (spirit/demon).

Both BCS stories involves two females (or characters with female names) standing out from a pack who are competing in games for the favors of a Queen or Empresses. In the light “Wild Ride,” rodents are catching and racing not-quite-falling stars for the Queen’s hand while a moon dances about. In the darker “Ghostpotion Games,” psychic witches mix ghosts to create “pieces” to use as maze runners to win a Wish. Both are quite clever with their fantastic conceptions but seem structurally and/or thematically derivative of 1974’s fractured fairy tale, “Atalanta,” earlier versions of which, of course, date back to at least Greek times. Also, the proofreading in the second is terrible, with something being “a earnest” melancholy and someone not having “flare” and something being “thrice-damn.”

All the preceding stories are under three thousand words while the two remaining are five to six thousand. The contest in “The Guile” is between a magician (prestidigitator, not sorcerer) and an AI as the former tries to perform a trick the latter can’t explain, akin to other human/AI contests such as Deep Blue with chess or Watson with Jeopardy. The English author does a good job with the distinctly American narrator and deftly acknowledges his debt to Priest’s The Prestige but I was less impressed with the rest of this referential/meta-fictional tale which, even though it’s not entirely the point, once again relies on an AI running on MS-DOS. In “Yiwu,” the contest is between anyone buying a lottery ticket and the universe in this tale which is set in China in a surreal future which reads like it was written by Philip Kafka Dick (and explicitly references PKD and van Vogt). A seller of lottery tickets is perplexed when one of his patrons wins without any of the discernible effects other winners experience (such as turning into “a black-headed ibis” and flying away). After a trip through a variant of Joseph K’s castle, the lottery seller embraces the prosaic—which is magical in its way.

Review: Galaxy’s Edge #32

Galaxy’s Edge #32, May 2018

Original Fiction:

  • “Just One More Kitten GIF” by Effie Seiberg (fantasy)
  • “Diamonds in the Rough” by Alex Shvartsman (science fiction)
  • “The Violet Hour” by Laurence Raphael Brothers (fantasy)
  • “Emergency Evaluation for Penny Ante, as Recorded by CAL-Q-TRON of the Benevolent Order of Heroes” by Karlo Yeager Rodríguez (fantasy)
  • “Being a Giant in Men’s World” by Walter Dinjos (fantasy)
  • “Chocolate Chip Cookies with Love Potion Infusion” by Leah Cypess (fantasy)
  • “Reality Show” by Brian K. Lowe (science fiction)
  • “Jackbox” by Brian Trent (science fiction)

All stories are short (most very short: three are around 1K and three more are under 2K) and most are humorous. There are reprints, though, and among them are Joe Haldeman’s novella, “None So Blind.”

Of the originals, “Diamonds in the Rough” is the longest SF story at 4K. This would seem to be set in the past, shortly after “perestroika,” (though it could be today) and involves a neophyte Russian gangster participating in his boss’s arms deal with a couple of people who are not normal arms dealers. It has a kind of “B movie” feel which may be intentional and may be a good thing or bad thing depending on your point of view.

In “Jackbox,” a soldier encounters a corpse whose combat suit, or the remainder of it, is still operational. While in shock, he characterizes himself with memories and anticipations of home. This story’s effort at misdirection is flawed but it has an interesting vibe of, for example, the “B-17” scene in Heavy Metal. Far more than a vibe, “Reality Show” is a rerun of the South Park episode “Cancelled” but not as funny. When “Earth” is cancelled, an agent picks up Marty’s contract because his violence is ratings gold.

Moving to the fantasy, “Chocolate Chip Cookies” is one of a couple of short-shorts with formerly unconventional structures. In this, a blog post with comments tells the tale of a witch sharing her recipe and working on an antidote. “Emergency Evaluation” (what is it with very short stories often having very long titles?) is humorous superhero fiction written in the form (literally) of a job evaluation of  a newish sidekick. Penny’s a great superhero but not a great sidekick and she doesn’t appreciate her mixed evaluation which requires her to remain a sidekick for a while longer.

Moving to fantasies structured more as stories, “The Violet Hour” is a Weird Western with a hollow earth, a lady centaur sheriff, and a new sheriff from the States going below to work out how they’ll co-administer their regions. Mrs. Miller gets involved right away when some giants are busting up a faun’s bar. “Kitten GIF” says idle brains are the devil’s workshop and, when Jen is snagged by a demon for being such a great procrastinator, she has to think fast to avoid becoming a lobotomized net surfer for eternity.

Most of these stories are fine though not all suited me and different people will like and dislike different ones but the one that stuck out a little more than the others was the longest fantasy of the issue (3K), “Being a Giant in Men’s World,” in which a giant recounts his struggles to get along in a Nigeria which is not made for him. The plotting is a little lacking and it could use more “oomph” but the wry, mellow tone of the unhappy protagonist is appealing and the story is amusing and charming.

Review: Apex #108

Apex #108, May 2018

Original Fiction:

  • “Stars so Sharp They Break the Skin” by Matthew Sanborn Smith (science fantasy short story)
  • “Mother Jones and the Nasty Eclipse” by Cherie Priest (2700 words)
  • “Cherry Wood Coffin” by Eugenia Triantafyllou (fantasy short story)
  • “Fifteen Minutes Hate” by Rich Larson (science fiction short story)
  • “Cold Blue Sky” by J.E. Bates (science fiction short story)

The original fiction in this month’s Apex is entirely in present tense and more than once in second person. Therefore, despite having linked to it in my last “Links” post, I’ll link to this gem again: Michael Swanwick cites Ursula K. Le Guin on present tense (with a teaser on second-person). Leaving technique aside, the issue brings us sharp stars, nasty eclipses, cold skies, coffins and hate. Whee! Let’s go!

In the center, there’s an interesting little flash piece about a guy who’s making a “Cherry Wood Coffin.” Coming deaths seem to impel him to start work and the wood, itself, tells him what to do. This is going to be a small coffin so it’s no surprise when a young mother arrives and tries to bribe the worker into doing away with the coffin. She learns why that’s a bad idea.

On either side of that are slightly longer pieces.

Mother Jones” is no story at all but simply an elliptical op-ed on politics, apparently triggered by current affairs, in which “I” monologue at “you.”

The “Fifteen Minutes Hate” is a puzzler for me. It riffs on Orwell (and Steve Allen’s “The Public Hating”) to tell us about a woman’s cilia-bearing phone crawling over her to wake her up and inform her she’s about to become the focus of the Hate. I was expecting her to have done something trivial, thereby pointing up the ludicrous nature of the Packs that patrol our internet and society. It also occurred to me that she might have actually committed some capital crime, thereby conveying an idea that, even then, vengeance is not justice, hate poisons the hater, etc. Instead (without spoiling the specifics) she’s done something that actually is reprehensible and non-trivial, even if it is in comparison to “some government infoscandal, [or] a nuclear aggression in Mashhad.” The point would seem to be on the vicious mobs but the point would have been sharper with a different protagonist and/or situation.

On either side of those are two tales that are longer still (though still just 4-5K words).

Stars” deals with a veteran of the psychic wars (to borrow the Blue Oyster Cult song title), who is recovering from a mysterious additional ailment, accompanied by a mysterious person for whom he has strong ambiguous feelings and it mostly comes clear in the end. It uses present tense with little justification, though a theoretical reason is asserted at one point, and shifts person with even less, though it is all intended to convey the psychic trauma the veteran lives in (rather than, y’know, just conveying the psychic trauma the veteran lives in). This will likely suit some people but did not work for me.

Cold Blue Sky” was certainly the tale I most enjoyed reading from this issue. The problem is in what the ending means. It opens with an “anthrobotic” model waking up when the cops come for her and we learn that’s she’s “evidence” in a crime. We learn the nature of that and more about her, her society, and the people who bought her. It’s told in a tense, clipped, fast-moving way that provides excitement and narrative thrust without actually being all that action-oriented and the first person narration, coming from the robot, creates an interestingly objective subjectivity. However, like “Stars,” this is in first person present tense which is either disastrous or quite clever, depending on how we’re supposed to take the ending, This story has generally been done before and I don’t know that it adds a lot even under a charitable reading but it was fine content.