Review: Tor.com, April 2019 (at Tangent)

Here’s a somewhat unusual round-robin review:

(Stories reviewed by Mike Wyant, Jr., Jason McGregor, and Victoria Silverwolf)

Continue reading at Tangent.

Recommended:

  • “Painless” by Rich Larson (science fictional short story)
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Review: Tor.com, January/February 2019

Tor.com Short Fiction,
January/February 2019

tor-2019-01_02

Original Fiction:

  • “Beyond the El” by John Chu (short story)
  • “Deriving Life” by Elizabeth Bear (science fiction novelette)
  • “His Footsteps, Through Darkness and Light” by Mimi Mondal (fantasy short story)
  • “Circus Girl, the Hunter, and Mirror Boy” by JY Yang (fantasy novelette)
  • “Articulated Restraint” by Mary Robinette Kowal (science fiction short story)
  • “Old Media” by Annalee Newitz (science fiction short story)

Tor.com has at last produced the first issue of the bi-monthly presentation of their weekly(ish) web content. I’ve already reviewed the previously released “Beyond the El” and “His Footsteps.” (I’ve also reviewed “The Last Voyage of Skidbladnir” which, for whatever reason, was published on an atypical Monday as the first story of the year but isn’t included in this issue.)

As for the remainder, starting with probably the second-best story in the issue after “Footsteps,” “Circus Girl, the Hunter, and Mirror Boy” is a multiple first-person narrative from those three entities which describes how Circus Girl once lost her reflection to Mirror Boy before she escaped her horrible old life and made something of a tolerable one for herself. Now Mirror Boy’s back with word that they’re both being hunted. Circus Girl flees to a wise witch and learns some stuff before the final confrontation. The ending seems like cheating. While the story may be taking issue with bad apples and not the bunch, there’s a pervasive flavor of misandry. It’s odd that Mirror Boy is specifically characterized as an atypical entity that upends conventional wisdom and yet the Hunter is an unreasonable fanatic type we know all about. (Even odder given a “twist” in the story I won’t spoil). Finally, the multiple first-person, which at least gives everyone a chance to speak, is probably better than simple first-person but that old-fangled non-MFA third-person omniscient would have been best. Still, unlike a lot of SF/F mixups lately, this post-climate change magic world works pretty well and the fantastic elements are imaginative.

Old Media” opens with two guys making out and builds up a backstory of futuristic bondage of brown people in a climate-changed world to get across the notion that there are alternatives or additions to sex and slavery and the dangerous world outside, demonstrated via the love of the protagonist and a sort of robot. While the bulk wasn’t especially appealing, the ending makes the story clever and nice enough. (Incidentally, the “old media” refers to things like this story as seen from the future.)

Articulated Restraint” is basically identical to “The Phobos Experience” (F&SF, July/August 2018) set in the same alternate history by the same author except that, this time, the selfish female astronaut endangering people’s lives is hiding her sprained ankle instead of her vertigo. The main difference is that, while the other wasn’t great, it had an actual adventure with space pirates and everything while this is a “wet run,” so to speak, for the actual rescue operation in space in which our protagonist tests out possible approaches in a pool on Earth.

Deriving Life” involves, Marq, a narcissistic narrator whose lover, Tamar, has invited a sentient alien cancer to inhabit the lover’s body (somewhat akin to the better “Three Meetings of the Pregnant Man Support Group” and numerous earlier tales) and is now dying. To quote Marq, “Don’t I get to be broken about this? The worst thing that’s ever happened to me?” Yeah, especially with it being so great for Tamar. Marq is confused about why everyone keeps leaving. Marq’s a slow study and so the story doesn’t even really have much of an ending. The Old Standard Future was depicted in social epics of city slidewalks, robots, flying cars, galactic civilizations, etc. Now it’s self-centered microcosms of self-driving cars, climate change, a disproportionate focus on gender and sexual identity and made-up or altered pronouns and honorifics. Like several stories to a lesser or greater extent in this issue, this is a completely Current Standard Future story.

Weekly Webzine Wrap-Up (2018-09-22)

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Original Fiction:

The weekly-ish offerings of this week are above average, overall. Oddly, there are two food tales. While “Gourmando” is a flash piece which describes some cooking with only a perfunctory, common and, in this case, trivial “fight dystopia!” frame to “make it SF,” “Tamales” has humans and aliens living on a space station while the latter communicate with tastes and scents. There’s not much actual plot but the story does a good job of indirect exposition (neither relying on infodumps nor settling for obscurity).

In “Fisher,” a person is perhaps injured and, on recovering, sees a giant bear in an odd landscape doing odd things and has odd conversations with it. Gradually, despite amnesia, the protagonist discovers what’s really going on and that it is a matter of life and death. The desperate battle which ensues is remarkable. This fantasy is frustrating for me, beyond the obvious difficulty of summarizing it without spoiling any of its surprises. It’s second-person, present tense, which does it no favors, the style lapses with a single emotionally explicable but still jarring “fucker,” the protagonist is initially amnesiac but “you still remember your Descartes,” the beginning is essential but perhaps overlong, and the ending is complicated but not as smooth as it should be. But the story’s imagery is fresh, its revelations are effective, and its core is powerful.

The week’s (and, so far, the month’s) best story is “Nine Last Days.” A reference to the Fibonacci sequence indicates the story’s structure, the nine scenes of which follow LT through his life and familial generations as they deal with a strange alien invasion of plant-bearing pods. Though it opens with the invasion in 1975 when LT is ten and is thus a form of alternate history, it doesn’t share alternate history’s usual preoccupations or feel much like it. It does, however, carry us through past, present, and future while juxtaposing the familiar and the strange and saying something about the effects of time and change on people. The structure and pacing, characterization, and ideas are very good and the prose is enlivened with nice observations, such as LT spending time with his dad after his parents divorce: “LT and his father ate their meals in the living room, in front of the fire, wordless as Neanderthals” (which is poetically effective if scientifically controversial), and the house-building dad’s take on evolution: “Dad’s God didn’t improvise. He was a measure-twice-cut-once creator.” Firmly recommended.

Weekly Webzine Wrap-Up (2018-07-21)

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Original Fiction:

  • Jesus and Dave” by Jennifer Lee Rossman, Diabolical Plots #41B, July 16, 2018 (fantasy short story)
  • The Trees of My Youth Grew Tall” by Mimi Mondal, Strange Horizons, July 16, 2018 (slipstream short story)
  • Papa Bear” by Kurt Pankau, Nature, July 18, 2018 (science fiction short story)
  • Drawing the Barriers” by Tamara Vardomskaya, Beneath Ceaseless Skies #256, July 19, 2018 (fantasy short story)
  • Flesh and Stone” by Kathryn Yelinek, Beneath Ceaseless Skies #256, July 19, 2018 (fantasy short story)
  • The Nearest” by Greg Egan, Tor.com, July 19, 2018 (science fiction novelette)
  • Next Door” by Ryan Harris, Terraform, July 20, 2018 (science fiction short story)

Beneath Ceaseless Skies brings us half the week’s fantasy stories and they are about artists with cramped styles. “Drawing the Barriers” sketches an almost modern society which oppresses its magical people, resulting in a trio of rebels (the artistic mage, the lesbian mage, and the incognito mage) starting to strike their blows against it. “Flesh and Stone” is a vaguely Pygmalion-like tale about a sculptor making, falling in love with, and bringing to life, a statue for himself and one for his medieval nobility but lacking Aphrodite’s touch. For the other half, “Trees” has the oddity of tree-dwelling people but is otherwise not fantastic as it describes them having their habitats taken from them by evil white people and follows an old woman who loses and looks for her son while making her way in the city. The week’s best fantasy is the lightly amusing “Jesus and Dave” which describes how hard it is for Dave to maintain his atheism in the days after Jesus’ return but also describes how useful that might be.

The week’s science fiction is quite imbalanced, being made up of two minor flash pieces and a novelette (near-novella) that is the week’s best story. “Next Door” is about keeping up with the Joneses even in a nearly uninhabitable future of nukes and pollution while “Papa Bear” drops a confusing mainstream bit about dementia into an irrelevant dystopia. Even “The Nearest” isn’t free of a bit of “mainstreamism,” as it deals with a real condition with only a slight, but important, science fictional twist and is set in an interesting technological near-future which isn’t especially vital to the story but it’s so detailed, concrete, engrossing, and downright scary that it works. A cop is dealing with a batch of missing persons cases when she’s assigned the case of a missing mother and the woman’s murdered husband and two children. With drones, black boxes in cars, and other such mechanical aids to her investigation, she tries to figure out what happened and why. Things kick into overdrive when she wakes to find a stranger in her bed and a mechanism in place of her son. The tale becomes a neatly balanced descent into the paranoia of “The Invasion of the Soul Snatchers,” causing the reader to wonder who is crazy and who is sane. There are some acronyms (SOCO, CSF) I had to look up that should have been properly introduced and I don’t think the cop’s final approach was wise or would have worked out the way it’s depicted but these are relatively minor blemishes in an otherwise tautly executed tale that doesn’t play around with narrative or stylistic gimmicks and doesn’t need to. Good stuff.

Weekly Webzine Wrap-Up (2018-05-19)

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Original Fiction:

This was “the journey is better than the destination” metafiction week. It was also an inordinately good week; staggeringly so, given the theme.

Shirin’s Door” and “Graduation” aren’t especially metafictional though the first is part of the microgenre of time-dilated protagonists witnessing the time-lapse of history through repeated visits to a spot and adds nothing to that microgenre, while the second is a sort of Sunnydale High/Cthulhu Mythos story about a couple of students nearing graduation in a world populated by Lovecraftian critters. They have a near-death experience which partially mentally fuses them. The characters, milieu, and tension in this are winners along with the wry “dramedy” tone but the climax is lacking and the end moral is a bit bald. So it’s ultimately weak but is a hell of a lot of fun on the way.

After the Dragon” isn’t thoroughly metafictional, either, except insofar as it’s a microfiction sequel to the “hero slays the dragon and gets the girl” story which takes issue with the “happily ever after” (also its own microgenre) which, even for 233-word microfiction, is more of a note on an idea for a story than a story.

The half of the stories that are thoroughly on theme begin with “Narcissus,” which depicts a crazy person swamped in the virtual reality of social media. While its abundance of periphrasis may contribute to its depiction of insanity, it makes for labored writing and laborious reading. Also, I’m not sure how science fictional it is, given that its happening subjectively now and the whole point is subjectivity.

In “Variations on a Theme from Turandot,” Liu is seen to be a character played by a Soprano but that actress is like a vessel which becomes unmoored during performances of the opera and begins shaping it differently (or being shaped by a certain “Liu-ness”). She may be impelled by a wish to save “her” own life contrary to her fate in the “real” opera or to save the Stranger’s life or even to help the Princess but, whatever it is, it takes some effort—efforts which are appreciated by the audiences of the metamorphosing performances.

As is probably obvious from the synopsis, readers unfamiliar with the opera would do well to check up on it and some of its backstory before reading this. As is also obvious, with enough iterations (a theme and sixteen variations on it, plus three intermezzi, a cadenza, and a coda), one can achieve almost any result and that, coupled with the ontological uncertainty of the characters/people results in a lack of tension. Despite those blemishes, my lack of interest in Puccini operas, and my tendency to dislike such recondite metafictions, I did somewhat enjoy this well-done, rather clever piece about human bondage and artistic compulsion which was much more sharply drawn and “realistic” than such metafictions usually are. While some may share my reaction, I suspect most readers will be less ambivalent: many will be bored to tears and many will be enthralled and moved.

Finally, Jojin is a member of “Grace’s Family” and he narrates the tale of Grace’s exploration of star systems which add to the “infosphere” while also participating in tales within the tale. Grace is the ship intelligence and Joj, mom, dad, and sis are the crew. Mom and the younger sister (who used to be the older brother) are bots. Dad’s losing his mind, perhaps from age (Grace is over a thousand years old and most of the family are decades or centuries older than Jojin’s nineteen (which often seems like nine, perhaps partly because “Grace kept things simple so as not to confuse us”). When Grace is contacted by Mercy and diverts to meet with her and have a sort of starship infosex, which involves trading mom and dad for a new crewmember, Orisa’s arrival changes a great deal in the crew dynamics and in Joj, himself.

For much of this story, I had that “I kinda know what’s going on but definitely not entirely and, either way, it’s all making my head feel funny” sensation which is one of the many reasons I got into this stuff in the first place. The parts where Joj gets into a big ball or “roller” that he’s designed and takes it onto the ship’s hull for a jog and other more casual moments and references make the story sparkle with wonder. But, of course, familiarity (and ignorance) breeds contempt and Joj is usually bored, to the point of considering leaving the ship (which is no utopia) and becoming planetbound (which is even further from it). During its course, it felt like there were many directions the story could have gone but it opts to go in a very common one which is perfectly congruent with all that had come before except in terms of the bulk’s freshness and the end’s familiarity and the fact that the latter somewhat undercuts the former. This is more like “Graduation” in terms of “journey vs. destination” and not as consistent as “Variations” but, either due to my bias or its intrinsic merits, seems to operate at a higher peak level than either and was my favorite story of the weekly offerings.

Weekly Webzine Wrap-Up (2018-01-20)

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Original Fiction:

  • “This Sword for Hire” by Gregg Chamberlain, Ares, January 12, 2018 (fantasy novelette)
  • “Ice” by Diana Silver, Cosmic Roots and Eldritch Shores, January 14, 2018 (fantasy short story)
  • “Brooklyn Fantasia” by Marcy Arlin, Diabolical Plots #35B, January 15, 2018 (fantasy short story)
  • “The Glow-in-the-Dark Girls” by Senaa Ahmad, Strange Horizons, January 15, 2018 (science fictional short story)
  • “Chocolate Chicken Cheesecake” by M. J. Pettit, Nature, January 17, 2018 (science fiction short story)
  • “The Owner’s Guide to Home Repair, Page 238: What to Do About Water Odor” by Vincent Michael Zito, Nightmare #64, January 17, 2018 (horror short story)
  • The Ghoul Goes West” by Dale Bailey, Tor.com, January 17, 2018 (fantasy novelette)
  • “Benefactors of Silence” by Nin Harris, Beneath Ceaseless Skies #243, January 18, 2018 (fantasy short story)
  • “Nneamaka’s Ghost” by Walter Dinjos, Beneath Ceaseless Skies #243, January 18, 2018 (fantasy short story)
  • “The Eyes of the Flood” by Susan Jane Bigelow, Lightspeed , January 18, 2018 (science fictional short story)
  • “Dream Job” by Seamus Sullivan, Terraform,  January 18, 2018 (science fictional short story)

There aren’t a lot of wombat stories this week[1]. The only significant theme is that there aren’t really any SF stories (only horror, fantasy, and fantasy-tinged SF-ish stories) and they’re almost all negative/down stories but that’s not unique to this week. There are, however, a lot of short-shorts of less than 2000 words (or just over), so I’ll begin with those.

An AI robot makes “Chocolate Chicken Cheesecake” on a reality cooking show that’s supposed to prevent the Apocalypse. A woman with an addictive personality gets her nightmarish “Dream Job” selling her sleep to others. (I’ve read this story before but I can’t remember the author/title of the predecessor.) Lightmare and Nightspeed bring us two sub-2000 word stories written in second-person present tense, beginning with the even more nightmarish “The Owner’s Guide to Home Repair, Page 238: What to Do About Water Odor” which doesn’t help a guy dealing with the horrifically foul-smelling water coming out of the pipes in his house (the ending is clear by the middle and the story is arguably non-fantastic horror) and concluding with “The Eyes of the Flood” which is a post-apocalyptic story about someone being fantastically changed by the experience. “Benefactors of Silence” may be a leftover from BCS #242 as it also deals with music but, specifically, with two people of opposite allegiances aiding and/or tormenting each other after a war. Finally,  “Brooklyn Fantasia” cracks the 2K barrier with nearly 2300 words spent on describing a griffin, a dream-thingy, and an animate rock going apartment hunting. The first couple of hundred words seem like they might begin a charmingly eccentric story but the other two thousand don’t do anything at all. None of these appealed to me, but the horrific ones were fairly effective at specifically being horrific if not generally as stories.

For longer short stories, I reviewedThe Glow-in-the-Dark Girls” for Tangent. “Ice“[2] describes a sort of wind-spirit bonding with a boy who is looking for his father as a member of an expedition to the North Pole. Much like the horror stories, this has an effective element, here conveying the white, cold, snow-covered environment (and it was a good time to read it as we’d just gotten five or six inches of snow here which is unusual to say the least), but it’s underplotted and undermotivated. (At one point, there’s a signal from Fred when the spirit asks, “Why was I helping [the boy]?”) In “Nneamaka’s Ghost,” the narrator has been exiled after being blamed for being responsible for the princess’ death. The ghost of the princess visits him and promises him great rewards if he will return to the village and steal her body (a month dead) in order to resurrect her (and threatens him if he won’t). Despite his fears, he agrees. Unsurprisingly, things don’t go as planned. This would have been more effective in third-person rather than first, but was reasonably effective in places.

Finally, there are two long novelettes to discuss.

Ares releases print issues and presumably will release #5 at some point but also releases some individual stories directly to the web. Last week, they published “This Sword for Hire,” which I missed. It takes place in a sort of alternate history England with horse-drawn carriages, elves, and noir-PI-flavored duelists-at-law (not to be confused with Pohl & Kornbluth’s gladiators-at-law). A beautiful blonde barmaid rushes into the protagonist’s office and pleads with him to save her fiancee, who has been maneuvered into a duel he can’t win. The story opens with a somewhat clunky feel and ultimately pulls subsections of the Code Duello out of a hat and drops into an overly easy ending but was fairly entertaining.

This week, Tor.com finally returned from its lengthy, unexplained absence and gave us “The Ghoul Goes West.” If my math is right, the narrator’s older brother, Denny, died in 1983 and, ten years later the younger, Ben, decided to pen the tale[3]. Denny and Ben both loved movies, with Denny going to Hollywood to be a script writer and Ben going south to be an academic. Things didn’t go so well for Denny and Ben heads out to puzzle out what happened. Among other things, he learns that Denny continued to share Ben’s fascination with Bela Lugosi, Ed Wood, and Wood’s entourage. Where it led Ben to try a thesis on Wood, it led Denny to contact with another dimension (via a magic video rental store) in which Lugosi didn’t die in 1956 but went on to make Wood’s The Ghoul Goes West in 1957. This story tackles dreams, shattered and otherwise, and reactions, and possibilities.

Few stories have balanced so precisely between a recommendation and an honorable mention. The embedded review of Dracula is dead-on. There are moments of great power, such as the “already dead” brother watching that movie for the first time and the “unfathomable dream” of the other brother years later. I even admire the avowedly problematic ending. However, the story, while always intriguing, is a bit loose in places and probably will not enthrall people who aren’t interested in Wood and Lugosi and Tinseltown, especially since the single fantastic element doesn’t appear until two-fifths in. More importantly, there is something odd in writing off a guy who is a scriptwriter (if even of a crappy sitcom) at the age of about twenty-five. He’s ahead of many others and it’s akin to writing off Tom Hanks as a failure at the time he was starring in Bosom Buddies. And this plays into the general irresponsible attitudes that “Hollywood killed him” and suchlike. The prematureness and passivity bother me. But it’s still at least a pretty good story and is head and shoulders above anything else I’ve discussed so, with those reservations, if it does sound interesting to you, I do recommend it.

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[1] “Turning to the nonseries anthologies, we are reminded once again that anthologies come in bunches—or, at least, that often a number of anthologies with similar themes seem to come out all at the same time . . . so that, say, there’ll be no anthologies about wombats, and then suddenly there will be three of them. No one knows why.” —Gardner Dozois [which I generalize to any random fictional floods]

[2] This is translated from the Dutch and I don’t ordinarily review translations but it was CRES‘ first story of the year and I wanted to go ahead and get started.

[3] My guess is that this was “written” in 1993 as the latest possible date Tim Burton’s Ed Wood wouldn’t need to be discussed in the story.