Review: Tor.com, May/June 2019

Tor.com, May/June 2019

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Original Fiction:

  • “Murder in the Spook House” by Michael Swanwick (fantasy short story)
  • “Any Way the Wind Blows” by Seanan McGuire (fantasy short story)
  • “Skinner Box” by Carole Johnstone (science fiction novelette)
  • “The New Prometheus” by Michael Swanwick (fantasy short story)
  • “A Forest, or A Tree” by Tegan Moore (horror novelette)

Tor.com doesn’t seem to have been able to produce the May/June issue of Tor.com Short Fiction but five stories (plus a shared-world story) appeared on the site in those months. This “issue” is not as good as the last, but does have some interesting stories or elements within them.

Apparently, Tor.com is changing its physical corporate HQ. “Any Way the Wind Blows” is a vanity piece published to mark this event, borrowing aspects of Heinlein’s The Number of the Beast (in the sense of being set in a ship traveling through a metafictional omniverse) but replaces the four bantering geniuses with a cranky timeserving captain.

A Forest, or A Tree” probably has some symbolic sense that I’m missing. As is, half the short novelette involves four women hiking in the woods and talking… a lot… and it’s not exactly Tarantino-esque dialog. Then the horror finally kicks in as one of the hikers gets sick, another starts seeing things, and so on.

Skinner Box” is a tale that purports to be about a spaceship crew made up of an abusive husband, his wife, and the other crewman (who is the wife’s lover) and the plans of the latter two to kill the former. Readers will not be surprised that this isn’t entirely what’s going on. Examples of the several problems are that there are too many infodumps, neither the surface nor deeper premises make much sense, and the protagonist (the woman) is not an appealing lead character. (Reflecting on the many locked doors of the ship, she says, “I’ve never tried them more than once. I’ve never wondered what’s behind them more than once. Which, if I cared, is probably the most palpable metaphor for my entire life. Sad and bad and indifferent.”) There is some effectively portrayed claustrophobia and desperation, though.

Michael Swanwick contributes the best stuff with two tales in his “Mongolian Wizard” series. I’m barely familiar with the series but found a nice write-up to help me find my bearings in a world of combined magic and technology in which a sort of Napoleonic War is on the verge of turning into a sort of WWII via higgledy-piggledy timeline-mingling. “Murder in the Spook House” involves the main character, Ritter, investigating the murder of a major character. It doesn’t seem to be an especially weighty murder mystery, but it moves the war along and was brief, clever, and entertaining. “The New Prometheus,” as the title indicates, is a variation on Frankenstein, involving a superbeing created by the Mongolian Wizard. Ritter is tasked to deal with him and (despite not actually doing much, which is a problem) is treated to a strangely effective autobiography from the creature in which he describes how lonely it is to be a god.

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Review: Tor.com, March/April 2019

Tor.com, March/April 2019

Original Fiction:

  • “Knowledgeable Creatures” by Christopher Rowe (fantasy short story)
  • “One/Zero” by Kathleen Ann Goonan (science fictional novelette)
  • “Blue Morphos in the Garden” by Lis Mitchell (fantasy short story)
  • “Painless” by Rich Larson (science fictional short story)
  • “Mama Bruise” by Jonathan Carroll (horror short story)

The March/April edition of Tor.com Short Fiction contains three stories which fall on the positive side of the ledger to varying degrees and two clean misses. It also contains a lot of dogs and in-laws (with one story including both and only one including neither).

One/Zero” theorizes that all the current technological invasions of the privacy of citizens by multinational corporations is good for us and will eventually enable an “SI” to save refugee children and initiate an era of whirled peas. Unless it’s intended ironically, it’s an unconvincing story of simple idealism and is handwavingly plotted, not just with a deus ex ending, but a deus ex beginning, middle, and end. At one point, one of the two focal characters says, “I can’t imagine why I have custody of [a] superintelligence, but I don’t have time to worry about it, either.” And so it all goes.

The other miss, “Mama Bruise,” involves a woman’s dad, who ruined his life via drug addiction, being reincarnated as a magical dog set on making amends until things begin going wrong. This is a real mongrel of a tale. The idea strikes me as silly and there is some humor. But darkness is also intended. And something that goes beyond dark and seems unmerited. Meanwhile, there are marital issues and in-law issues and lots of anecdotes about the dog’s antics which just don’t seem especially focused and don’t drive the tale. It’s possible to create a funny, scary, personal/public mix of a fantasy/horror (see Buffy the Vampire Slayer) but this just seemed incoherent and ineffective.

Blue Morphos” also deals with marital problems and in-laws, but more directly. A woman has fallen in love with and has a child with a man but refuses to marry him because doing so would make her one of the family. And that family’s members do not die but give a whole new meaning to the notion that “we shall be changed.” They turn into parts of the family home or furniture or, in the case of the story’s opening death, into butterflies. The woman has problems with the in-laws and wants to die her way, a wish given more urgency because she has a terminal disease. It’s quite possible that I’m not responding to this story properly because I’m very tired of reading about women metamorphosing (usually into sea creatures or flying things) and this led with that, though it’s not specifically about that. It does a decent job of most of what it’s aiming at and the antagonistic relation between the woman and one in-law is done very well.

On the flipside, I may be responding too favorably to “Knowledgeable Creatures” despite its underwhelming ending because I greatly enjoyed most of the tale. A private eye (who also happens to be a dog) relates the story of the woman who came to him with the belief that she’d committed a murder. Via heavy foreshadowing which builds great anticipation and generally expert revelations of milieu, we come to understand that this is an alternate fantasy world in which the alchemist Newton and his mouse uplifted many animals. Or was it the mouse and his Newton? This is the crux of the conspiracy theory in this almost theocratic milieu which resulted in the heretic historian woman and another orthodox professor having their incident. The dog has already been fired from the police force due to his interest in the issue and is drawn into it again, despite himself.

It’s probably exactly the foreshadowing which is both a virtue and a vice of this story as it inflates the expectations for the ending. There’s nothing exactly “wrong” with that ending in the sense of being discordant but it’s too quick, predictable, and underwhelming. With a little tweaking, it might be an excellent opening to a novel but it’s not an entirely satisfactory story. It’s still worth noting for its initial delight and obvious skills, though.

Finally, I’ve previously reviewed and recommended Painless” at Tangent.

Review: Tor.com, January/February 2019

Tor.com Short Fiction,
January/February 2019

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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)

Weekly Webzine Wrap-Up image

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.