Rec: “Fandom for Robots” by Vina Jie-Min Prasad

Fandom for Robots” by Vina Jie-Min Prasad, Uncanny #18 September/October 2017, science fiction short story

Computron is a sentient robot who was created in 1954 in this alternate history story. Years later, he is part of a museum and sometimes answers questions from the audience to demonstrate his sentience. When one questioner asks him if he’s familiar with an anime called Hyperdimension Warp Record which features a robot similar to him, he admits he is not but, later that night, checks it out. The story discusses his entry into the world of anime and fanfic along with his collaboration with a human fanfic writer.

This is a very different story from “A Series of Steaks” from the same author, which I recommended earlier this year, but shares the same sparkling wit. There seems to be an ambiguity in the title where it’s a primer for robots on how to get into fandom but is also speaking of people’s appreciation of robots. There are in-references such as Computron’s being part of the Simak Museum (and perhaps even the Ellison and Williamson references aren’t coincidental) though, oddly, there’s no Asimov reference. The robot is characterized in an amusing way, describing how he can’t possibly be frustrated by it not being time for the show to air, yet constantly checking the time all the same. The descriptions of the quality of much of the fanfic and the chat between a couple of fans were especially funny.

I’m not sure how to interpret the story’s core, though. It obviously deals with “futures past” and how that which seems futuristic at one time becomes dated at another. It also has a elegiac feel when describing how few people seem to care about the old robots and how low-priority the information on them is. But it seems to be a celebration of those images and concepts and perhaps a call to embrace them and continue to reinvent them. There are a couple of contrary notes in the Hexode destruction incident and maybe a subtheme that humans are best suited to write humans while robots are best suited to write robots. Be that as it may, this story entertained me, evoked sympathy for the character(s), and was engagingly written. My only non-thematic quibble was that “bjornruffian” seemed to accept Computron (with the nick/screen name “RobotFan”) as human too easily and thoroughly (Computron’s not unknown and it and the museum would be easily researched, even aside from RobotFan’s remarkable commitment to its robot “role” as “RobotFan”). All in all, another good tale from a likely rising star.

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Rec: “Penelope Waits” by Dennis Danvers

Penelope Waits” by Dennis Danvers, Apex #101 October 2017, science fiction short story

The first-person narrator is a twenty-six-year-old student who’s taking her classes just to get a better job, though she likes the dogs she washes now. She’s obviously someone whose potential exceeds her environment and experiences. When her insufficient boyfriend claims he’s been abducted by aliens, she doesn’t buy it but then she meets them herself and the grass suddenly looks a lot greener.

In a sense, this is all character and voice, as the narrator is almost the whole of the story and its greatest success. Aside from her, the story’s room is almost bare, having only the science fictional furniture of alien contact, like a fairly worn easy chair. However, the aliens do manage a bit of distinction and the Greek lit references are fun. I think the narrator will entertain many and her plight will speak directly to some.

Rec: “Claire Weinraub’s Top Five Sea Monster Stories (For Allie)” by Evan Berkow

Claire Weinraub’s Top Five Sea Monster Stories (For Allie)” by Evan Berkow, Flash Fiction Online, October 2017, short story

This story comes with the caveat that, despite its “fantasy” billing and the fact that it is steeped in speculative sensibility and wishful thinking, it is not fantasy. Further, it is one of many examples of the “beloved dies wrapped in metaphor” microgenre of which there are two examples in this single issue. But this is very much the better one (though the other wasn’t bad) and was emotionally effective. The narrator describes the beloved’s favorite stories of sea “monsters” and these are connected to a declining arc in the beloved’s condition, before coming together in a beautiful and fitting image in the final section. I almost wish the image had been the final element of the story without the verbal articulation that actually does close the story. Leaving that possible blemish and its genre aside, this is an excellent short-short.

Rec: “A Siren Song for Two” by Steven Fischer

A Siren Song for Two” by Steven Fischer, Flash Fiction Online, October 2017, science fiction short story

This is the first of two recommendations from the odd (and oddly effective) Valloween issue of Flash Fiction Online in which darkness and relationships are combined.

Some workers are off on a planet of ice where the melting and refreezing of the ice causes a vibratory effect like a siren song which causes people to wander off and die in the unforgiving climate. When a woman succumbs to the lure, her beloved goes out after her.

This works on a metaphorical level more than a literal one but it evokes a vivid environment with effective emotional desires – the sonic singing iceworld is striking and the feelings that the woman has for the sounds, and that the protagonist has for the woman, are plausible enough and powerful. I honestly can’t decide whether to recommend this or just give it an honorable mention and I usually err on the side of strictness but I just feel like pointing this one out.

Summation of Online Fiction: September 2017

With Compelling off, Apex doing a lot of reprints, and Tor.com worryingly publishing a single story, September would have been an extremely light month, but a double issue of Beneath Ceaseless Skies and the return of a lost zine helped compensate, resulting in thirty-seven stories of 149K words (plus one I skipped). Regardless, it was a very light month in terms of the proportion of the good stuff (though there was plenty of readable stuff). I’m not sure what happened beyond it being one of those freaky streaky webzine things. Speaking of, the returning lost zine is Terraform. Ralan.com declared it defunct a few months ago and, after waiting awhile to “make sure,” I declared it dead on April 27th and stopped looking at it. Recently, I happened to take another look and, naturally, they’d published another story on April 29th. But, other than excerpts, interviews, graphic stuff, etc., they did quit producing anything after that until August 24th. Since then, they have managed to publish a story coupled with an article every seven or eight days (two in August and three in September though, to keep the irony ironing, they don’t seem to be doing anything but another excerpt this week). So perhaps they’re back. Only one story was at all noteworthy but, since I gave Terraform‘s death an explicit notice, I feel like I ought to do the same for its rebirth. Now, on with the very short (or “little”) list…

Recommended:

Science Fiction

Fantasy

Honorable Mentions:

Science Fiction

Fantasy (both billed as SF)

The Fischer involves a precog who knows a nuclear war is coming, which can be seen as SF but the precog motif and style seem like fantasy to me. Not that we won’t have a nuclear war any minute but something about the specifics of this felt like an 80s story (aside from the 50s/60s psi thing). That said, it was well-executed and effective. The De Feo is this close to being a truly amazing story but its second half, despite dovetailing almost perfectly with its first half, is a completely different and much less interesting story. The first half is about a magical time traveler, with that and its style making it fantasy, while the second half is a species of mainstream or an obfuscation of the fantasy. Basically, it’s squeamish about embracing its true, tawdry genre. The thematic motifs of Ugo’s story should have been developed further and the final theme of the second half (and thus the whole) could have been embedded in that first half as a lesser motif or discarded. That would have the side effect of making the too-long c.7,200 word story a just-right c.5,000. Or perhaps I’m blathering nonsense. Point is that, for me, it was an initially captivating and ultimately unsatisfactory story.

The belated Terraform story is about a future in which dolphins are mayors of underwater big cities while a starship, crewed by humans and other animals, is catching up with Voyager to change its golden record. This can be interpreted a few ways but one which entertains me is the idea that the most enlightened, beneficial, and correct members of today’s society (who are vilifying people of the past) will one day find themselves vilified for their immoral anthropocentrism or whatever other failing the future may find in them. Either way, it’s a weird story.

Rec: “Though She Be But Little” by C. S. E. Cooney

Though She Be But Little” by C. S. E. Cooney, Uncanny #18 September/October 2017, fantasy short story

One day the sky turns silver and the Earth is magically transformed. For instance, sixty-five-year-old Mrs. Santiago becomes fierce eight-year-old Emma Anne. In this story, we follow Emma Anne and her sentient stuffed animals, her pirate frenemy, and her efforts to deal with the scary, deadly, mantis-like Loping Man.

Oh, he was enormous, colossal, an armored giant, but so very terribly compactable. Yes, and maybe that was where he went all day. Not away, but down, folded into leaf and twig and compound eyes, origamied into torpor.

Yes, verbing weirds language—sometimes to great effect.

This is very much like “Gallows Girl,” which I recently recommended, in that it may reduce to a “stick it to the man/grrrl power” theme (with an ambivalent connection between two female figures) but is also wrapped in a wonderfully inventive confection of imagination climaxing in a violent confrontation. However, it is nothing like it insofar as the imaginative details are different and this story has a great deal more whimsy, exhilaration, and lightness of touch. I enjoyed both in their ways.