Weekly Review: 2019-01-14 (Tor.com)

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Original Fiction:

Tor.com, January 14, 2019

2019 is still young and Featured Futures‘ structure is still in flux.[1] But Tor.com has a story to review, so I’m reviewing it.

Skidbladnir is an entity who permeates a concrete building, both of which swim under space like a seal under water while people play board games and watch videotapes on their way to tour or trade. “Engineer Novik” and Saga the janitor are the good, non-imperialist crew and a bird-being and a shadow captain are not good. Saga has discovered that, despite all her dreaming, Space Sucks, but she figures at least Skidbladnir doesn’t. When the entity starts sickening and the building starts breaking, there’s a simple struggle between the compassionate ones and the mercenary ones and then between Saga’s conflicting desires.

January’s almost wombatting a thousand as this is yet another ineffective conflation of SF and fantasy (almost entirely fantasy, yet billed as SF by Tor.com) and is slow and uninvolving, besides. It includes phrases like “only assumed her as a ‘she'” and “though they seemed gossamer” and uses the ol’ “You Can’t Fire Me, I Quit” when the ship “improbably” does something (when probability, in this kind of story, isn’t even relevant). Some may respond to this tale’s dark whimsy or appreciate its message but it will likely leave most others cold.

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[1] I was intending to cover BCS and Tor.com in these weekly reviews and, if neither published anything in a given week, I would review some classic stories (and had one ready for today). However, Tor.com promised (and now seems to not be fulfilling the promise of) bi-monthly issues and, on top of that, has published a story on a Monday instead of a Wednesday. If the bi-monthly thing happens, then I would review that, review all the BCS issues of a given month near the end of the month when possible, and perhaps keep doing an “all classic” “Weekly Review.” If not, and Tor.com keeps publishing on Mondays instead of Wednesdays, I’ll have to drop a week behind instead of trying to post a review the same day as every Tor.com release. Sorry I can’t give you more definite plans; we’ll just have to see how it goes.

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Weekly Review: 2019-01-07 (BCS)

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Original Fiction:

Beneath Ceaseless Skies #268, January 3, 2019

While I prefer my SF to be SF and my fantasy to be fantasy, the middle section of my “Year’s Best” post clearly demonstrates that I don’t have any problem with stories which play with genre or incorporate elements from other genres in an effective way but January 2019’s wombat is “the unfortunate mishmash of heterogeneous elements” with at least a fourth such story in three separate magazines. In “Godling,” a sort of steampunk science fantasy, a company is going out of business since an armistice has ruined the interstellar arms manufacturing trade. In turn, the “godling” who runs a company town is witnessing the ruin of it and her people, culminating with someone from HQ arriving to Unmake the town. Fortunately, though her iron icons which magically guard the town have been broken, she has plenty of paper and a few remaining people to help her make a lot of paper icons to do battle with the threat. The whole is utterly discordant and unconvincing. The much more conventional (almost too conventional) “Beast” also features a matriarch striving to save her people. The surviving members of her tribe have been chased into an unfamiliar land by attacking birds and it turns out they’ve basically been herded there by an old dethroned and imprisoned godling who is seeking escape by extorting three sacrifices of sorrow from the matriarch and her tribe. She, too, is ultimately driven to try to make a stand. The opportunity for a more complex and even sympathetic godling is there for the taking but largely ignored in order to get to the familiar and facile ending. Still, this tale was coherent and vigorous.

Weekly Webzine Wrap-Up (2018-12-28)

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Original Fiction:

Edit (2019-01-01): Added late Slate and Terraform stories.

Original Fiction, Special Edition:

All stories in this section are science fiction short-shorts from the “Future of Work” feature at Wired, December 17, 2018. (Oddly, these are on the same topic that has been the theme of Slate‘s SF series for the final quarter of 2018.) I found out about this thanks to Lauren J. Holmes’ “My 2018 in Books.”

This is the last “Weekly Webzine Wrap-Up” as such. Next year, I’ll be doing “Weekly Reviews” on Mondays (I think) of the prior Tor.com and/or BCS stories or, if neither have any original fiction that week, a review of a classic story. Any noteworthy stories from the other weekly-ish magazines will be noted elsewhere on the blog.

Winter” is a pleasant, if predictable, YA piece about a couple and their little girl who are shivering in the cold of a long winter when a stranger knocks at the door. Despite their dwindling resources, they invite him in and learn about the people and books of the Seasons, why Spring is so late, and more. In “Good,” a harried dad gets a mechanical “Elf” from a famous online business to observe his tantrum-throwing son and encourage him to behave better before Christmas and it works! At a cost. While I’m in 100% agreement with the message of this story, it’s clearly just a basic dramatization of that message and flash in spirit but 4,000 words in fact.

Robot and Crow” is about talking crows aiding an implausible robot in its efforts to prevent or treat infectious disease outbreaks. “Games to Play” is yet anothernother “cli-fi in reverse” tale from Terraform and feels like that slipstreamy surrealistic whatever that isn’t entirely SF or fantasy.

Bolstering this week’s light coverage, Wired recently had a special issue with eight short-shorts on the future of work. It was disappointing to see so much on the downsides of automation and so little about non-automated future work or anything at all about enjoying an absence of “work” or otherwise writing outside the box but most of the stories are at least adequate and two were notable.

Real Girls” features a guy signing up to pretend to be a sexchat bot (which isn’t SF, really), “The Trustless” is another blockchain story which gives a whole new meaning to “code of law,” “Placebo” has a token human “overseeing” a death panel bot, “The Farm” has a journalist learning that, if you can’t beat the bots vetting your story into blandness, you might as well join them, “The Third Petal” is about medical care in dystopia, and “The Branch” is a gnomic piece on what are basically cyborgs unwinding at a library of the future.

The issue saved the best for last. “Maximum Outflow” takes us to a future in which everyone’s stuck inside closed-ecology cities which recycle almost everything. Everything except Unrecoverable Liquid Waste, which is a “blackbrowngray muck.” When Iggy’s mentor dies, he thinks there’s something wrong with the city and goes into its bowels with a diving expert friend. He dives into that muck to see if he can unclog the drain. Again, it’s predictable and, while this had the sort of smooth tech-wonky infodumps I actually like, some  may not. Some may also not feel it goes for the right ending. Still, it’s a vivid and unpleasantly plausible conception. “Compulsory” is a prequel (and my first exposure) to the famed “Murderbot Diaries” series. In this, the bot has its entertainment show interrupted by a worker’s imminent demise and must deal with corporate evil. The “murderbot” seems kind of magic to me – part human, part not, able to hack itself and everything else – but this was wittily told and entertaining, with a serious subtext.

Weekly Webzine Wrap-Up (2018-12-22)

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Original Fiction:

  • The Bonus” by Liz Maier, Terraform, December 16, 2018 (science fiction short story)
  • For the Last Time, It’s Not a Ray Gun” by Anaea Lay, Diabolical Plots #46B, December 17, 2018 (technofantasy short story)
  • Sequestration; Vitrification” by Allison Jamieson-Lucy, Strange Horizons, December 17, 2018 (science fiction short story)
  • Solstice” by John Gilbey, Nature, December 19, 2018 (science fictional short story)
  • A Circle of Steel and Bone” by R.K. Duncan, Beneath Ceaseless Skies #267. December 20, 2018 (fantasy novelette)
  • A Martyr’s Art” by J.P. Sullivan, Beneath Ceaseless Skies #267. December 20, 2018 (fantasy novelette)

Sequestration; Vitrification” introduces us to Lynn, a scientist who’s trying to genetically engineer diatoms to survive long enough for them to eat radiation and safely store it in glass-like structures while her artist friend deals with his boyfriend’s cancer and her roommate protests and so on. It basically deals with not committing suicide in a sickening world by fixing things in various ways. Despite this, depression dominates this under-plotted, though otherwise well-written tale.

Bonus” seems like it’s going to be yet another “sleepless” tale but just turns into an unremarkable tale about brainwashing. “Solstice” is a vague tale of an academic being invited to a seasonal party in the quantum magic room.

In “Ray Gun,” a shy guy is out on a date but there are a couple of problems. He doesn’t think she knows they’re on a date and she hates emotional displays so much that she turns a girl who’s crying at the next table into an Englishman with a stiff upper lip with her not-a-ray-gun. This is generally funny and has peaks of extra-funny but is perhaps a shade too long and, while the ending is fitting enough, it doesn’t “ooze glitter” or anything. Still, if the sense of humor hits you right, you’ll probably get a kick out of it.

Circle” is the first of two fantasy novelettes from BCS. In this grimdark tale, the Christians are Christianizing Prussia when a demon is let loose. After much buildup, they fight it and the story ends abruptly and easily. While the protagonist is a “Martyr,” neither she nor anyone else are Christians in the second tale. A goddess has died and left behind 100 tears which turn into a steady pool of 100 Martyrs, people who can transfer the injuries of others to themselves. Our heroine is contracted to serve a very nasty man and is put in a bind when another nasty man wants to acquire something valuable. Plans go awry, she’s forced to improvise, she orders a dinghy to “follow that boat!” and magically levels up, so to speak. Another abrupt and easy ending follows, though with a bit of an epilogue. A trace of ironic detachment makes this the minimally lighter tale. Either tale may suit fans of their types but neither seemed remarkable.

Weekly Webzine Wrap-Up (2018-12-15)

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Original Fiction:

  • How Pleasant the Red Bloom” by Lucy Harlow, Strange Horizons, December 10, 2018 (short story)
  • Cold Heart” by Victoria Dixon, Nature, December 12, 2018 (science fiction short story)
  • Warning Signs” by Emily J. Smith, Terraform, December 12, 2018 (science fiction short story)

Bloom” is not science fiction or fantasy but slipstream, with oppressed “Ciphers” and oppressing “Diviners.” An imprisoned Cipher plays cryptic mind and word games in text etched under a bed at the bottom of an oubliette. We receive this through colored fonts and typographical gimmicks which mostly represent struck out passages and ironic insertions. “Signs” lacks any control of its point of view, head hopping between a variety of women and a cardboard date rapist. It seems to advocate corporate demolition of the Constitution. “Heart” has an alien who communicates autonomically by heat and color. After he crash lands on Earth, a mixture of (mostly bad) emotions occur over years of captivity and attempts at communication. While the bare situation merits some emoting, this sentimental tale needs to be stronger to bear the amount it has.

Weekly Webzine Wrap-Up (2018-12-08)

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Original Fiction:

In this sub-par week, the three single-story zines brought us two science fiction stories of under two thousand words and one fantasy of just over three. “Beginner’s Guide” takes the familiar idea of colony ships being leapfrogged by later, faster colony ships and puts it into a familiar cyclical/ironic monologue structure. The only unfamiliar thing is a reference to us as “carbon breathers.” “Mammoth Steps” is a sort of sentimental and undramatic cli-fi tale of an engineered mammoth and his human friend trekking south to meet up with some elephants. It’s nice enough in its way, but makes me think of a significantly lesser “Jackie’s-Boy” (Steven Popkes, April/May 2010 Asimov’s). Like several Diabolical Plots stories recently, “Prayer” is a religious story, this time involving a golem and a woman the golem describes as “wearing a black suit so rumpled and careworn it wanted to slide off on its own in search of a sewing machine” whose “bittersweet smile gripped [him] with the certainty of prayer” and whose “eyes resisted, as sharp as a dream’s leading edge.” She represents “some scientist’s career” and his boss represents those who want others “to serve our country” and they fight over him before he decides to trump them both.

BCS #266 is the “animal women in the woods” issue (with fawns and foxes), the “familiar BCS motifs” issue (with artistic revolutions and kitsune (Ainu/Japanese shapeshifting fox-people)) and the “‘creative’ English” issue (with phrases like, “[o]ne Forester must have stayed on the ridge to fool Cole that his ruse had worked” in one and “she laughed the once I asked” and “[t]he full of the storm is upon us” in the other).

After supposedly interesting things have happened and before more supposedly interesting things will happen, we have the actual content of “Forest Spirits,” in which nothing happens. Our two artistic revolutionaries are in a forest and we’re told that technology (here called “magic” and, like the action, little in evidence in this generally mundane, medieval forest) is bad, has ruined nature, and must be done away with. Two defenders of the status quo and their boars chase them in a remarkably lackadaisical way as they have time to wring out wet clothes, sleep, hug (making me think of “Escape now, hug later!”), and so on. Finally, when they are about to be caught, we see that the climactic moment will be the girl dancing, dancing with Mr. Deer, but that doesn’t actually occur in this story’s frame. Like many “art is revolution” pieces, this isn’t convincing.

Frozen” deals with a sister who’s gone away and a fox who’s arrived in a storm. The girl learns something about her mother and sibling and follows the fox into the woods where she learns more about her sister and makes a decision about her own life. The conflict here is between the cost of secrecy, the reaction of society (the village) if some of them come out of the closet, and familial desires to stay bonded. When in English, this is the stylistically superior of the two tales, though it seems too familiar and the ending is somewhat implausible (which is minimized by suspending the story before too many difficulties can be played out).

Weekly Webzine Wrap-Up (2018-12-02)

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Original Fiction:

This week’s all-SF batch of fiction includes two flash pieces and two mid-length shorts. Each pair contains a funny piece and a serious one.

In the serious flash, a poor woman is living “In the Forests of Memory,” a cemetery of the future in which the rich dead are remembered by holograms insofar as they are remembered at all. Things don’t go well for her but the story did well until it dove past the tragic mark into bathos. In the funny flash, the narrator tells you how to survive the “Tiny Alien Spaceships” in a nice blend of humor and horror. In the other comic tale, “Modest Success,” a radio personality who’s built a toaster-like robotic co-host to help him give love advice finds interesting parallels between their relationship and the relationship of a couple of aliens who arrive one night. But, when one alien is huge and angry, the advice had better be good. This could as easily be fantasy as SF and, in either case, depends a lot on whether the humor works for you.

“It puts the lotion on its skin.” The deadly serious “Overvalued” is a mild extrapolation in which, some time after 2024  (maybe 2032), a market betting on the earnings of people comes into being and one woman makes her money by finding overvalued people and shorting them. In this story, she finds that a teen prodigy is making strides towards curing cancer but is prone to depression and self-mutilation so the woman exposes her, making a killing. Literally, as the girl commits suicide and the company rakes in $32 million. The woman’s self-loathing and her husband’s disapproval cause marital problems and an attempt at a career change which may result in a bigger change than she expects.

There are a lot of little things wrong with this. A story that has a hitman and a financier should generally start with the hitman. As little time as possible should be spent on detailing what’s basically accounting. And Chekhov wouldn’t approve of this story. That said, it contains a disgusting and horrifying, but important, idea which is practically real now and likely will be completely real soon and does dig into the sordid nature of this well, not least by calling the girl an “asset” and an “it.” While I can’t fully recommend it, it’s certainly notable and, if it sounds interesting, give it a try.