Rec: “Thinking Inside the Box” by Michèle Laframboise

Thinking Inside the Box” by Michèle Laframboise, Compelling Science Fiction June/July 2017, SF short story

It’s a familiar setup when we see two human diplomats through the cognitive estrangement of alien perception but angels (so to speak) are in the details just as much as the devil. The aliens’ love of constant, arbitrary change is interesting and they are generally nicely judged, not being “bumpy forehead” aliens nor incomprehensibly bizarre for its own sake but merely comprehensibly strange. When things go haywire and the shapeshifting ability of the alien spaceship is damaged, the psychological and mathematical elements of the tale come even more to the fore and they are quite interesting. In a way, this is a very old-school tale—one might wonder why the alien engineers haven’t foreseen this potential problem and developed some kind of “VR” solution or something—but I like the “beings and ships” sort of flesh-and-steel pre-cyberpunk sensibility. And I’m not sure it’s not a flaw for a part of the ending to be dependent on insider information but at least very few SF fans will fail to get it. I enjoyed this one.

Rec: “Crossing the Threshold” by Pat Murphy

Crossing the Threshold” by Pat Murphy, Lightspeed June 2017, short story

This is billed by Lightspeed as fantasy but it’s only fantasy if you want it to be. It also discusses the scientific concept of entropy but isn’t really SF unless you really want it to be. This is sort of indicated in the story itself when, after meeting an old man stuck on a fence and helping him over, the protagonist/narrator says,

I realized that I could think about that old guy in two different ways.

Here’s option number one. He was an ordinary old man….

Then there’s option number two, an option that might occur to you in the dark of night a couple of months after your father died when you’re drinking red wine and reading an article about the devil.

I’ll grant that this story may not have the tightest structure or the most climactic of climaxes and that I’ve had a weakness for Pat Murphy stories for many moons now. Still, it’s a good, quirky, San Francisco treat and I hope folks will read it and enjoy it as much as I did.

Rec: “This Is for You” by Bruce McAllister

This Is for You” by Bruce McAllister, Lightspeed May 2017, SF short story

Another short-short (~1200 words). This one involves a boy, who has recently returned from an alien world, giving an extraordinary painting to the girl he has a crush on. Some people may grok it immediately but I don’t want to say more and risk spoiling it for others. While not the most unique tale in some ways and not exactly to my taste in every way, I thought it was very well done and I especially liked the understatement and indirection.

Rec: “Let Me Sleep When I Die” by Wendy Nikel

Let Me Sleep When I Die” by Wendy Nikel, Nature 2017-05-24, SF short story

Sorry, I’m running just a tiny bit behind, but I have read all the May prozine stuff except Lightspeed and Tor now. I’ve come across several “honorable mentions” but I particularly liked this Nature short-short about a horror of future war and how perceptions can change for some and not others. It’s not the hardest SF or most logically airtight premise but it’s a form-fitting epistolary tale which is effectively creepy and aesthetically thoughtful, so to speak.

Rec: “Sun, Moon, Dust” by Ursula Vernon

Sun, Moon, Dust” by Ursula Vernon, Uncanny May/June 2017, fantasy short story

Allpa’s dying grandmother leaves him a magic sword. When unsheathed, Sun, Moon, and Dust materialize from it and they’re all supposed to go be heroic warriors together. But Allpa is a simple, dutiful, potato farmer. The tale deals with his unenthusiastic participation in training and his varied relationships with the ill-tempered and bloodthirsty Dust, the somewhat remote Sun, and the sympathetic Moon.

This rural encomium, while thematically in Vernon’s comfort zone, is conceptually more of a BCS-style secondary-world pure-fantasy tale than the Vernon I’ve read which tends to be fairly connected to this world regardless of its fantasy elements. It’s also not her strongest, perhaps because of this. But her strongest is extremely strong and this is still pretty good. I particularly like her similes and turns of phrase, as in the scene where Moon is expressing his feelings about his own long-forsaken lands and Allpa reacts:

“You can stay here,” he said. The offer was purely instinctive, as if Moon was bleeding and he had lifted his hands to staunch the flow.

There is also humor such as when Dust is wanting to kill Allpa and be done with him, else they’ll have to wait in the sword for the next owner to unsheathe them:

“And look at him, the wretch, you know he’ll live to be ninety!”

Rec: “Seven Permutations of My Daughter” by Lina Rather

Seven Permutations of My Daughter” by Lina Rather, Lightspeed April 2017, SF short story

Still pouring. (Coincidentally, it’s literally pouring where I am, with flood warnings and everything.) Lightspeed achieves the remarkable feat that BCS just achieved of impressing me twice in the same month. And Lina Rather has now impressed me twice in three months. I first noticed her February FFO story, “Marking the Witch” and I was wondering if she could do it again without doing it again, so to speak.

Rather than a fantasy about a romantic connection, this is a sort of SF story about a familial connection. Something horrible is going on with a woman’s daughter (Elena) and that woman (Sarah) happens to be a mathematician/physicist who has been and is exploring the worlds of the multiverse in order to find a pattern in which the daughter and family are happy. She hopes to see that it’s possible, understand it, and perhaps apply it.

The structure of the “permutations on a theme” is very familiar and even the “scientist uses special knowledge to pursue a personal goal fervently” is familiar. But, somewhat as the virtues in “I Have Been Drowned in Rain” compensated for the familiarity of some of its elements, so the emotional freight of this story (which it shares with “Marking the Witch” but even exceeds) serves to make this story special. It’s so easy for stories aiming for passion and emotion to fall flat on the one hand or to seem overwrought on the other. It’s so easy for stories about pain to be aesthetically painful for the reader. But this story excels at finding that emotional pitch where the character feels genuine and she really, really wants something and it’s easy for the reader to sympathize.

Also, somewhat akin to “When We Go,” it has a strong, direct style which I appreciate. For a sample of that and the emotional pitch, I like lines like, “I will tear space and time apart for you, Elena. I will remake the world for you,” placed in stories in which they seem appropriate and credible. Further, the last line is superb.

Rec: “When We Go” by Evan Dicken

When We Go” by Evan Dicken, Beneath Ceaseless Skies #223 (2017-04-13), fantasy short story

My last recommendation had “rain” in the title and, when it rains, it pours. Here’s a second excellent story from the same issue.

The Bronze Faces have been killing off the protagonist’s people in general – and her family, specifically – and she believes the gods have abandoned them. In vengeance, she has been hunting the gods down and killing them with the World Serpent’s Fang, asking them a last question: “Why did you forsake us?” With no satisfactory answer, she intends to hunt down the last: Coyote, the trickster. So, naturally, things are not as they seem.

The people are being driven to the edge of the western sea and the bulk of the story takes place in their refugee camp. (The other story in this issue has a similar locale with at least one common bit of significance, but with a very different scope and mood.) One of the many strong elements of the camp sequence is the “fire singing” in which young warriors tell of what their passing will be like. “I will soar like a sparrow when I go…. My enemies but tiny specks, I shall rise until they are nothing when I go.” Both on this scale and a social and cosmic one, as the title indicates, this is a tale of death/change.

This theme and the imagery of the story is complemented by its style. As readers of this blog may know, I’m not a big “style” guy, generally favoring simple clarity. Most of what passes for “style” slows the pace or produces obfuscation or a lilting, mincing, weak feel or any number of other failings. This story has a definite style, but a style I enjoyed, being just elevated enough to avoid plainness but remaining direct and achieving power. In addition to the line above, I’d like to quote a couple of paragraphs to illustrate this but they’re too near the climax, or another bit which achieves one of several frissons of awe after the protagonist has dealt with Death but it’s too extended, so perhaps this paragraph will suffice as an example.

I’d felt neither hunger nor exhaustion since the Field of Husks, the emptiness inside me lost against the vast hollow expanse of a thousand worlds fallen to rot amid the roots of the World Tree. I’d left more than my blood upon that long crawl down to the Serpent’s lair, the jagged tangle of obsidian roots carving away whole parts of me. And yet, something tightened in my chest as I surveyed the valley. The smoke on the air, the faint calls of herders, the distant glimmer of fires—I needed no rest, I needn’t even stop, but it would be nice to ride toward the camp for a while, to pretend I was coming home.