Weekly Webzine Wrap-Up (2018-01-20)

Weekly Webzine Wrap-Up image

  • “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.

[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.


Rec: “Party Discipline” by Cory Doctorow

Party Discipline” by Cory Doctorow, Tor.com 2017-08-30, SF novelette

Lenae and Shirelle are a couple of students who are about to graduate into a world of haves and have-nots where their odds of ending up “not” are very, very high. With a positively rebellious attitude, some technical know-how, and a lot of unusual friends, both old and new, they try to strike a blow against the empire.

This is similar to, and not as good as, the author’s earlier “The Man Who Sold the Moon” and probably to much more of his work (this may be related to other stories, for all I know) but it’s still such a complexly imagined milieu with such appealing characters and engages in the concrete near future (present, really) with such “hopeful dystopianism,” so to speak, that I just feel it merits wide reading. It is too long and the ending, while correctly trying to avoid extremes, isn’t entirely satisfying, but its virtues more than outweigh those quibbles.

Rec: “The Library of Lost Things” by Matthew Bright

The Library of Lost Things” by Matthew Bright, Tor.com 2017-08-23, fantasy short story

Thomas Hardy (no relation) applies for a job at the Library of Lost Things under false pretenses. The Library is a special structure which contains a ring of portals through which Collectors bring things from various times and places to be stored by Indexers in the rest of the Library. He pretends to be a drab philistine in order to become an Indexer and gain access to a volume his father (who committed suicide when Tom was a boy) had written. Along the way, he tries to handle the Librarian, deal with Gadzooks the Collector, and navigate a relationship with Jean Genet. Not to mention bandying arcane sesquipedalian words with the rats.

With an ostentatiously literary work like this, I feel like I have to quibble about something being “poured” over when it should be “pored” and about “boyborygmus” being used when it should be “borborygmus” (though that may just have been a typo). And a work which makes fun of people who dislike present tense and second person and uses the Librarian as a symbol of the soulless gatekeeper of objectified things whose spirits are ignored and as a superego (when the Librarian might be more justly idealized as a conservator of and guide to knowledge) is not really my kind of thing, generally. That said, this work is not written in second person present tense (and perhaps comments on Forster with its “And then”s) and does bring its surreal milieu to a tangible life. It’s also full of nice touches like throwing in a dozen obscure words in seemingly idle rat chatter, some of which are indeed fairly random, but a couple of which have significance and one of which is key. The core seems to be about expressions of love which most or all good stories are in one way or another. (And, while not especially connected, I can’t believe Borges’ “The Library of Babel” isn’t at least hovering around the edges of this.) “The Library of Lost Things” certainly wouldn’t appeal to everyone but I think it would to many, some of whom might be surprised by it.

Rec: “Uncanny Valley” by Greg Egan

Uncanny Valley” by Greg Egan, Tor.com 2017-08-09, SF novelette

Adam Morris struggled up from nothing to become a big-time writer/creator in Hollywood before dying. This story’s protagonist is the new Adam: about 70% of the original’s consciousness sideloaded into a humanoid robot. The missing material is partly due to technological limitations and partly due to what the new Adam discovers were intentional “targeted occlusions.” Between a legal system that doesn’t recognize the new Adam as a person, angry descendants of the original Adam contesting the will, difficulty making a life on his own, and a sense that the original may have created a “director’s cut” of his life because of a very nasty skeleton in his closet, the new Adam is having a hard time. Full of questions, he becomes a sort of detective, investigating himself to find out what’s missing and why.

This novelette’s eleven sections, which are full of fresh, clever metaphors and expressions, keep the tale moving, seamlessly weaving in new information and complications and backstory. The main character is very well drawn, as are his loved ones and even the minor characters such as Sandra, the tech/handler. The only thing I could think to say against it, without risking spoilers, are that sideloads and edits have been covered frequently (though rarely as well). It’s a very skillful exploration of people through technology and possibly the best story so far this year.

(Digression: what odds? The flux of the web and my game of catch-up has resulted in reading consecutive stories by Vernor Vinge (from Nature), Stephen Baxter, and Greg Egan (both from Tor.com). All are pretty big guns in my book and most live up to that here. I’ve already recommended the Vinge and now the Egan. This particular Baxter is more in the ballpark of an Honorable Mention, though. He might be given points for cleverly weaving together Mythago Wood (by Robert Holdstock, to whom the story is dedicated) and Wells’ The Time Machine and “The Crystal Egg” but it’s hard to find much in there that doesn’t seem to derive from the unlikely pair of Holdstock or Wells. And he might be given points for making such an interesting middle of a story but the opening runs in place for too long and the close is pretty predictable. Still, people who, unlike me, are fans of retro-pseudo-AltHist “SF” may like it a lot. And given all that, for me to like it as much as I did means the story’s strengths are very strong.)

Rec: “The Martian Obelisk” by Linda Nagata

The Martian Obelisk” by Linda Nagata, Tor.com 2017-07-19, SF short story

The world is ending, not with a bang, but a whimper. Or, as Susannah puts it, time is a torturer, drawing out its painful death. She, herself, has lost one child to a nuclear strike and another to a plague, and a husband to perhaps a broken heart. But she does have one project. It’s possibly futile or quixotic but definitely important to her, as well as to her financial backer. The four Martian colonies have failed, but they’ve purchased the last one and are using its AIs, robot, and supplies to construct a giant obelisk as a long-lasting token of humanity’s former existence. Some people on Earth object to this project and, when activity occurs on an ostensibly dead Mars which may interfere with the project, things kick into a higher gear as she fights to save her project from possible hackers. Then, without ever deviating from her core drives, things nevertheless change radically.

While I understand that, in this universe, we may have jumped straight to Mars without ever returning to the moon and thus would have no infrastructure there, I can’t help thinking how a much better and even longer-lasting obelisk could be built on the moon. But that’s not really the point. (And I, unsurprisingly, don’t care for the possible symbolism of the obelisk in this story.) I also can’t help but thinking the ending sequence shows some strains of contrivance. It’s not preposterously rigged but it also doesn’t seem to flow with natural and necessary inevitability. And I certainly had to fight with an antipathy towards apocalyptic stories as a class because this one seemed to give off signals that it would be different from most of them. (It obviously rewarded that feeling.)

Those (partly irrelevant) quibbles aside, this was an excellent story. It was effectively dramatic (using the “lightspeed lag” to good effect, for example) and thematic (getting its point across in a way that, though it was clearly “getting its point across,” was plot- and character-driven, so aesthetically justified). I suspect I didn’t respond to it as emotionally (at least on certain “pressure points”) as some might but I did find it emotionally effective in terms of humanity in general and others might respond to it all. But it’s a tough story with fairly high idea-content at the same time so it’s thought-provoking and philosophical as well as emotional. As I say, to juggle all this with only a necessarily unappealing start and some strain in the end is quite an accomplishment.

Rec: “Sweetlings” by Lucy Taylor

Sweetlings” by Lucy Taylor, Tor.com 2017-05-03, SF novelette

I’m impressed that this science fictional horror story doesn’t have one of those annoying “trigger warnings” prefacing it. It’s an intermediate-future tale of climatic disaster which has resulted in a few weird folks clinging to an unpleasant life in what used to be the inland (now ocean-front) Southeast. Fortunately, things go downhill from there. In all seriousness, what could have been a dreary, dull “cli-fi” tale becomes a gripping, transporting tale of vivid, energetic horror, largely centered on a somewhat rubberized science of very fast evolution. Rather than preaching “Quit screwing up the environment,” this story is a story first and foremost, which leaves the reader saying, “Holy $#!^, man, let’s really quit screwing up the environment!” My only quibble with the story is that, after being quite deliberate and explicit, it has an oddly rushed and almost coy ending, at least comparatively. But even that is still fairly effective and the whole tale is quite an experience. I wouldn’t be surprised if some folks intensely disliked this but, if it sounds intriguing at all, give it a try. (To be fair, I should note that the story doesn’t initially read too much like horror and it does create a very interesting trio of main characters, so has things that will appeal to general speculative fans… and which make the horror all the more effective.)

[I was going to post this and finish up Tor.com‘s May offerings yesterday but my ISP screwed up my internet connection for over a day. Technology willing, I will get caught up soon.]

Rec: “The Last Novelist (or A Dead Lizard in the Yard)” by Matthew Kressel

The Last Novelist (or A Dead Lizard in the Yard)” by Matthew Kressel, Tor.com 2017-03-15, SF short story

There’s not much to say to summarize this tale. In a future age of neurals, a novelist of pen and paper and self-typeset books who has a terminal condition travels to Ardabaab to work on his last novel while awaiting death. He meets the personification of youth and hope and talent in “Fish,” a young girl who becomes his muse and illustrator and typesetting assistant. All of this goes to answer the question about why and how we persist in doing the things we do.

It’s irrelevant but I can’t help but notice the oddity of reading this, which may well have been written on a word processor, on a webpage.

It’s unpleasant, but to get the quibbles out of the way, the dying author’s writing (given in alternating italicized sections) seemed oddly worse than the rest of the story, being more mannered and flowery. The girl is implausibly innately talented for a real character vs. a symbol. Most importantly, I find it hard to believe we will “wiki” in the future any more than we “gopher” today and that anyone will be from Google Base any more than they will be from AOL Orbital. A similar problem is exemplified by the locals offering the protagonist “braino and neur-grafts and celebrilives.” Everyone from Cordwainer Smith to Bruce Sterling can write lines almost like that but which have an elegant ring of native sfnal authenticity which this lacked.

All that is fundamentally insignificant, though. The characters are likable or explicable and the two main ones have a charming sort of plausibly implausible chemistry. The story is just the right length, with just the right pace (leisurely, but not slow, with an ever-present sense of the ticking clock), and comes together beautifully in the end with some emotional and thematic weight. Basically, other than stumbling over some of the odd diction mentioned above, this was a delight to read.