Weekly Webzine Wrap-Up (2018-09-14)

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Original Fiction:

  • Mountaineering” by Leah Bobet, Strange Horizons, September 10, 2018 (short story)
  • The Congress” by Dave Kavanaugh, Nature, September 12, 2018 (science fiction short story)
  • Ancestor Night” by Nina Kiriki Hoffman, Beneath Ceaseless Skies #260, September 13, 2018 (fantasy short story)
  • It’s Easy to Shoot a Dog” by Maria Haskins, Beneath Ceaseless Skies #260, September 13, 2018 (fantasy short story)
  • Con Con” by Russell Nichols, Terraform, September 14, 2018 (science fiction short story)

[Still hanging on despite Florence, so here’s a quick “Wrap-Up” of this light (<12,000 words) week.]

In science fiction, it’s satirical con week! “The Congress” involves the sole incoming Interplanetary Congressperson showing up for work, learning an impossibly kept secret, and facing a hard choice. It’s obviously extremely contrived but, beyond that, few will approve of or even believe her choice as depicted. An arsonist can’t get a job at the “Con Con” (convict convention) as a “pop-up adman” with a “PR chip,” which means he’ll be sent back to “corporate” prison. Will an encounter with his cellmate, the identity thief, improve matters? The arsonist’s desperation and the plot’s viciousness are done well enough but the milieu is vague, the epilogue weak, and, as a literal character, the protagonist isn’t appealing.

In fantasy, it’s “inconclusive sibling stories” week! “Mountaineering” is an essentially mainstream piece which depicts a surviving sibling, who’s grown up worshiping  polar/mountain/explorer types and a deceased sibling, climbing a mountain while interacting with that sibling in a way that’s easily taken as psychological. The BCS stories are better, if not remarkable. “Ancestor Night” involves a group of siblings going to a ritual which involves interacting with their dead parents who are now located under a presumably perpetually frozen lake. The eldest sibling learns something shocking about his favorite sibling and makes a severe psychological adjustment. “Shoot” involves a sister wanting a dog and being followed by her younger brother while she searches for one. She finds a witch and makes a deal to get her dog but, when it comes time to make good on her end of the bargain, she has other plans. This has one extremely problematic protagonist along with a problematic “ending.”

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Weekly Webzine Wrap-Up (2018-09-09)

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Original Fiction:

  • Glass in Frozen Time” by M.K. Hutchins, Diabolical Plots #43A, September 3, 2018 (fantasy short story)
  • Seedlings” by Audrey R. Hollis, Strange Horizons, September 3, 2018 (fantasy short story)
  • Failsafes” by Stewart C. Baker, Nature, September 5, 2018 (science fiction short story)
  • Triquetra” by Kirstyn McDermott, Tor.com, September 5, 2018 (fantasy novelette)
  • Extinction Studies” by Brian Trent, Terraform, September 7, 2018 (science fiction short story)

The two flash pieces aiming at science fiction are both apocalypses of various kinds. In “Failsafes,” a woman has her cache of tech relics stolen but serendipitously finds more and serendipitously finds the thief. The new tech affects both their lives and likely more. (Speaking of serendipity, part of this is reminiscent of the time capsule article I linked to in the latest “Links” post.) In “Extinction Studies,” which appears to use older conceptions of tidally-locked planets and improbable biology, a hunter narrates the tale of how a death match was set up using the apex predators of the day and night sides, resulting in unintended consequences. (Despite the improbability of what happens, it’s completely predictable, perhaps due to the editor’s spoilery intro or due to over-used story conventions.)

I call both the remaining flash and very short stories fantasies but others may not. “Glass” is a superhero story in which the PTSD mother, who can freeze time but has become a control freak who refuses therapy, learns from the mouth of babes. “Seedlings” is about a woman who becomes a trans-species-ist by swallowing a cactus and becoming one, which is too progressive for her girlfriend to appreciate. This seems like it should be written as a New Wavy surreal tale but instead mentions “lab-grown plants” and is told in a doggedly prosaic way, which serves to underscore its unbelievable nature.

Finally, the novelette, “Triquetra,” is a lot like “Rapunzel” from a recent CRES and a few million other stories in that it corrects a fairy tale, this time Snow White. The step-mother has survived the wedding but it turns out that Snow White is neuroatypical and the Prince is a pedophile. He and the gatekeeper and the presumably masculine mirror are keeping Snow White down as she struggles against her daughter and step-mother until the three (with help from another Lady) find a new alignment. It’s an awfully long story for its content and I didn’t care for it but I did think the section of violence and madness was effective and people who like fairy tales, especially revisionist ones, may enjoy the whole thing.

Weekly Webzine Wrap-Up (2018-08-31)

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Original Fiction:

  • When We Were Patched” by Deji Bryce Olukotun, Slate, August 27, 2018 (science fiction short story)
  • Unreal” by Judy Helfrich, Nature, August 29, 2018 (science fantasy short story)
  • The Kite Maker” by Brenda Peynado, Tor.com, August 29, 2018 (science fiction short story)
  • Cold Ink” by Dean Wells, Beneath Ceaseless Skies #259, August 30, 2018 (science fantasy novelette)
  • Periling Hand” by Justin Howe, Beneath Ceaseless Skies #259, August 30, 2018 (science fantasy short story)
  • Rapunzel: A Re-Winding” by Joan Stewart, Cosmic Roots and Eldritch Shores, August 30, 2018 (fantasy short story)
  • Across the Border” by Sahil Lavingia, Terraform, August 31, 2018 (science fiction short story)

The stories covered were generally readable though none stuck out. While very few were science fiction, only one was actually fantasy, either. “Rapunzel” was, as the title indicates, a fairy tale retelling which corrected the “evil” witch and the male “rescue” and it may appeal to people who like such things but I have to admit that I’m rarely interested in fairy tales whether new or old.

Despite this not being “science fantasy month,” BCS produced a pair of science fantasy tales. The long novelette “Cold Ink” takes a variant of The X-Files‘ “black oil” into a very English turn of a millennium and it may be a feature or a bug for the given reader that it’s hard to tell if it’s an alternate 1997 or a futuristic 2997 though, in ways, it feels only like the turn of a century such as an alternate steampunkish 1897. It’s action-packed and graphically violent but I’m not sure what it’s saying. I doubt it’s “broken people who mass-murder indiscriminately are bad but self-appointed moral arbiters of revolution who mass-murder are good” but that’s sort of what it seems like. “The Periling Hand” seems like it will deal with an amputee coming to terms with his changed circumstances but the inert protagonist is actually pulled into a political upheaval, much like in the other story and it, too, deals with body invasion. (Those last two aspects are similar to aspects of the “grains” stories of Sanford’s which have been published in the same magazine.) Of the two stories in this issue, this one is much more on the fantasy side of the spectrum with only some “screens” and vague, almost off-stage handwaving to make it clearly “science fantasy”-ish but it did read like that kind of SF that tries to seem like fantasy from the start.

Moving to what being published in Nature signals ought to be science fiction, “Unreal” is another “it has the word ‘quantum’ in it so it’s science fiction and not fantasy” stories. This particular flash piece focuses on an unreal universe in which the sisters Bertha and Mabel are at Iris’ place, complaining about filberts and other nuts as heads pop out of walls and bats fly out of announcers ears. “The Kite Maker” is a longer, lightly science fictional piece which deals with skinheads not treating immigrants well (the immigrants again being literal aliens, of course). The aliens’ home was rendered uninhabitable by their sun so they hit on the, um, odd idea of creating interstellar vessels which would disintegrate upon encountering an atmosphere which would not be fatal to them or burn them up or result in their deaths from falling or anything else. Fortunately, this works. Unfortunately, they are also bug-like and passive, so humans killed a bunch of them before being sated and trying to make the best of the situation. The protagonist is a kite maker and the aliens like kites, having lost their ability to fly due to our higher gravity and thicker atmosphere. (While higher gravity should make it harder and may suffice, a thicker atmosphere should make it easier.)

Border” is a very short and partly more science fictional story which also deals with immigration. It depicts a wall having been built and criticizes it and Americans but doesn’t belabor that point as it primarily advocates for the advantages of old tech in keeping people in touch in a private and personal manner. Finally, “Patched” describes a novel game of superconductive tennis refereed by a human and an oddly subjective AI but, by telling it from the AI’s POV, it’s unclear if the AI is a pathological liar or, regardless of the AI’s attitude, one of the human contestants really was viciously unsportsmanlike.

Weekly Webzine Wrap-Up (2018-08-25)

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Original Fiction:

  • What Man Knoweth” by Russell Nichols, Strange Horizons, August 20, 2018 (sf/f novelette)
  • Breakthrough” by John Gilbey, Nature, August 22, 2018 (science fiction short story)
  • Robot Story II” by Sheaquan M. Datts, Terraform, August 24, 2018 (science fiction short story)

The two science fiction short-shorts are remarkably similar in the key way of lacking plot, drama, and a climax, even in flash scale. “Breakthrough” is an initially pleasant tale of a retired academic returning to his old haunts to help some people who have discovered an anomaly in old data which may indicate evidence of a parallel universe but the “big reveal” seems insufficient for the conceptual background. “Robot Story II,” which has a man meet a robot family at a beach as an allegory of prejudice, is similarly fictionally underwhelming and, message aside, has a less appealing protagonist and fewer interesting science fictional grace notes.

What Man Knoweth” is difficult to categorize because its speculative element of telepathy is not presented in a convincing or rationalized way nor, despite the story’s strong religious elements, in a supernatural way and, aside from this single element, is thoroughly mainstream. A reporter has many personal issues including a failed romance and a preacher father who’s killed himself after being seen as insane. The reporter blames another preacher and operates more as a P.I. in an effort to ironically clear that preacher, a man he hates, of being an accessory to murder (due to supposedly being an “evangelepath” who should have known the murder in the perpetrator’s heart and prevented it) so that, somehow, his own father will be “vindicated” in some way. The story is very character-based, has a lot of dramatic material, and the irony of the first sentence never stops but the characters feel a little “templated” or composed of “armchair psychology,” the drama, especially towards the end, could be said to veer into melodrama, and the irony never quite irons the creases into smoothness, leaving the story feeling a bit incoherent.

Weekly Webzine Wrap-Up (2018-08-17)

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Original Fiction:

This week’s stories were a weird bunch with little, if anything, that could be taken seriously as science fiction and little, if anything, that was pure fantasy.

The least unsuccessful stories were science fiction satires. “Vegan” was a clever bit of ironic propaganda in which McFleshy’s tells us the truth (the McFacts!) about the vegan/Vegan conspiracy and how the company took over what was left of the world for the sake of humanity. As a guy whose “food pyramid” practically has meat as the base, this naturally doesn’t resonate with me, but it was smart and funny. Unfortunately, aside from the comico-historical infodump there was no plot and, aside from the Voice of the Narrator, there were no characters and it’s all just a bit silly. Less silly, but still going for humor, “The Preprint” tells us about the “machine at the centre of the Universe, the sole function of which is to create more time.” When the protagonist’s colleagues don’t believe him, he invents a space machine to travel to the time machine but the time machine is an AI and doesn’t like this, so sends him back to the past, where he’ll just be considered (even more of) a crackpot. It’s a little too contrived and the machine moves conveniently nearer or further from omniscience as needed but it’s an amusing gimmick. Finally, “The Treatment” is not amusing at all, but perhaps should have aimed for it, as it comes off as “Reefer Madness for the Opioid Age” with the only “SF” elements being a fictionalized drug and an extrapolation into bathetic dystopia with a nakedly emotionally manipulative ending.

Moving to fantasy, it’s possible “Tsunami” was intended as SF, dealing as it does with climate change (specifically sea level rise) but has people spontaneously sprouting gills and webbing and becoming vampiric merfolk who sometimes stick straws into people’s necks to feed. The conflicted protagonist meets a boy but her friends’ urge to make her feed complicates the relationship, turns things toward horror, and makes everyone repellent. In “Flight,” Earth’s climate has been ravaged even further and magic animals educate the last surviving human, a young girl, before flying in their shadowship to heaven. The novelette-length sermon could have easily been boiled down to flash.

The science-fantasy-like BCS stories open with another novelette, “Wyvern,” which does have more than a short’s worth of milieu but this milieu is not gracefully exposed. An unclearly articulated entity usually has four souls in one except that one has been stolen by the machaenists (mechanists or machinists, obviously) who uphold the remnant tech of the Ancients. Then there’s the girl and her dragon who are similarly symbiotic and similarly entangled with the machaenists. It all ends in a big fight. The story is violently technophobic and the ending action sequence is pure hand-waving authorial fiat. The milieu is more complicated than it needs to be but it won’t be wasted as this story doesn’t end but clearly leads to a sequel. I will give the story the one credit of having a good cinematic scene of a steampunk airships, old mechanical metallic plane-like vehicles, and a dragon all engaged in combat. Finally, “Shattered” also deals with symbiotic characters in combat when a large beetle-like creature (the narrator) and a woman fight the Evil Overlord. Again, this one had a scene of what must have been one heck of a fight but the action was hard to follow and the motivations were too generic to produce much interest.

Weekly Webzine Wrap-Up (2018-08-10)

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Original Fiction:

  • Copy Cat” by Alex Shvartsman & K. A. Teryna, Strange Horizons, August 6, 2018 (fantasy short story)
  • Home Cygnus” by S. R. Algernon, Nature, August 8, 2018 (science fiction short story)
  • Redlining at the End of the World” by Blake Montgomery, Terraform, August 10, 2018 (science fiction short story)

This week produced only three pieces, each of only one to two thousand words.

Copy Cat” bizarrely insists on all the things its cat protagonist can’t do (because it’s a real cat) in this fantasy about an impossibly intelligent cat doing impossible things. The significance of this contradiction, if it has any beyond a failed attempt at humor, escapes me. It also bizarrely suggests that we should enjoy a protagonist and his Leningrad cop friend singing “old Soviet songs” which goes beyond the bizarre and into bad taste at this time. “Home Cygnus” is a sequel to “In Cygnus and in Hell” which again stars Dorothy and carries the narrative to her choosing what to take with her on her interstellar voyage and deciding that some of the best things are not material. Unobjectionable, but unremarkable. “Redlining” is a very dull piece written as either an overlong news article from 2190 or an essay which lacks depth. It promotes the mistaken and divisive narratives which assume there are no poor white people (or rich black ones) and that racism is only a Southern issue. In this unimaginative piece, almost two hundred years from now, authorities in Texas, after Georgia’s example, will discriminate in favor of “wealthy white neighborhoods” and against “poor black ones” when it comes to protecting them from rising sea levels.

Weekly Webzine Wrap-Up (2018-08-04)

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Original Fiction:

  • Where the Gods Went” by J. Drake, Cosmic Roots and Eldritch Shores, July 29, 2018 (science fiction novelette)
  • Medium Matters” by R.K. Duncan, Diabolical Plots, August 1 , 2018 (fantasy short story)
  • The Tail of Danny Whiskers” by Fawaz Al-Matrouk, Nature, August 1 , 2018 (science fiction short story)
  • Loss of Signal” by S.B. Divya, Tor.com, August 1 , 2018 (science fiction short story)
  • A Legacy of Shadows” by Christopher M. Cevasco, Beneath Ceaseless Skies #257, August 2, 2018 (fantasy short story)
  • Old No-Eyes” by Christopher Mahon, Beneath Ceaseless Skies #257, August 2, 2018 (fantasy short story)
  • 2157” by Grant Maierhofer, Terraform, August 3 , 2018 (science fiction short story)

With seven stories, it seems like something ought to stick out but this is one of those unfortunate weeks where nothing does.

Medium Matters” is 2300-words of a brief question about exorcising ghosts and a long answer written by a deranged paranormal advice columnist with relationship issues. The theme of BCS this issue is “6000 word stories written by people named Christopher.” “A Legacy of Shadows” is a really ham-handed Message in which a guy has spent his life killing members of the species who killed his parents. He’s hired by the villagers of a half-Weird Western/half-medieval town to kill the local half-breed but, when his attempt to kill him goes awry, he realizes he’s been “stuck in a rut” and Learns Better. Nice Message; unsuccessful story. “Old No-Eyes” is not such a nice message as the simple, pseudo-Asian tale set in a room tells us that even becoming a transcended immortal ego-less person still apparently leaves room to harbor grudges and be vicious and evil. Maybe this says something about the cosmos but the story isn’t striking for anything besides brutality.

Three of the SF tales range from 2600 words down to 900. “Loss of Signal” is another Message (and quite a contrived one) about a young man with mother-issues who had a degenerative disease. This caused him to have his consciousness loaded into a spaceship which will perhaps show that disabled people can circumnavigate the Moon just as well as others have. (Last year’s “An Unexpected Boon,” from the same author, carries a similar message in a much more appealing and straightforwardly fantastic piece.) “Danny Whiskers” is another Message involving a scientist who’s modified a cat to be intelligent (which apparently comes with the ability to speak through a cat’s throat and mouth for free) despite laws to the contrary and their attempt to escape from the US to Canada. The cop who holds their fates in his hands delivers the moral of the story. You might be interested in “2157” if you enjoyed “Flesh Moves” in the same magazine or want more violent dystopian logorrhea; otherwise, you won’t.

The story that kept me the most off-balance this week was the “quarantine world” science fiction novelette, “Where the Gods Went.” It opens in a virtually incoherent way and spends its first 4900 words coming to make a little sense before the main story is covered in the last 2900 words. So it went from seeming like a bad opening to seeming like a good, in media res, no-infodump, sink-or-swim opening, to clearly being a ridiculously long prologue that could have been exchanged for an opening paragraph or for a few judicious sentences of backstory interspersed through the main story. That main story is summarized by the narrator’s “close third-person” on the Captain of the sabotaged spaceship: “All he had to do was bring back fuel from a death-trap of a planet and induce seven cut-throats to help save the captors hauling them in to judicial death while keeping an eye on a possibly insane first mate who would pilot an ancient rust-bucket of a fueler, [and] guide them through nightmare land…” That nightmare land does indeed turn the story into an SF horror tale which carries its own Message about where the gods are and what the significance of that is, delivered through the foils of the skeptical, rationalist ship’s doctor (who is a sort of Cro-Magnon for some reason) and the “possibly insane first mate.” The conclusion is also unsatisfying, as it seems to have no concern that a saboteur selfishly endangered everyone and consigned spear carriers to far more hideous deaths than they would have received in their “judicial deaths.” Still, while this tale, which hovered between TV sci-fi awfulness and van Vogtian good craziness (which some people might see as a distinction without a difference), wasn’t successful, its type of lack of success was certainly more interesting than that of the others’ this week.