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.

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Weekly Webzine Wrap-Up (2018-07-14)

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Original Fiction:

The weekly/irregular publications brought us three flash pieces and two novelettes this week. They were of unusually high quality with a recommended story, two honorable mentions, and one close runner-up.

Grievous Angel put out two pieces this week but I could only find speculative elements in “Goth Robots,” which is naturally a downer about fake faux tatoos. (Ink it black.) “Congratulations” is reasonably interesting as it uses a “Smart Vac” as a naive narrator to convey something much bigger than it would seem. “Your Face” is also a mostly elliptical tale which tackles things even closer to us in a dystopian noir crime story about bots, genetics, facial recognition, and more. I get the “second person-ness” of this story though I still could have done without it but, even so, it’s worth noting.

Moving to the bigger tales, “Last Banquet” is another food fantasy listory and even has exactly five dishes. Given that, I was thinking this would have to be a heck of a good tale to stand out from all the other similar stories recently. It’s not quite good enough to do that and I was really not pleased with the ending which was both awkward in terms of a couple of pieces of dialog and yet another simplistic revenge fantasy but it was good enough to hold my interest and move well until then. In the story’s only piece of speculation, the narrative device of backstory is made fantastic by having magic pastries forcibly move people into states of memories and we thus learn about the evil usurping Duke/Regent and the pastry maker and his beloved/narrator along with all the bad things that have happened and what, if anything, can be done about it.

Finally, “Chasing the Start” could almost be a mainstream tale in that it’s about an aged runner continuing to race against the young upstarts who wish to bring her down but it ultimately relies on its main speculative element while overflowing with other, almost gratuitous, speculative imagery and even ideas. Nearing the year 2400, people race through various timelines in the multiverse while wearing powered armor and every entity from one end of the Solar System to the other (except for Pluto – not Pluto) watches and cheers. The dangling mystery the reader chases is the question of what the protagonist is chasing and why, while a cabal of unscrupulous adversaries add surges of adrenaline. Well before the end, the end is no longer a mystery, but it still concludes satisfactorily and I enjoyed this one quite a bit. This managed to both have serious points and be fun and imaginative.

Weekly Webzine Wrap-Up (2018-07-07)

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Original Fiction:

  • Crimson Hour” by Jesse Sprague, Diabolical Plots #41A, July 2, 2018 (fantasy short story)
  • The Athuran Interpreter’s Flight” by Eleanna Castroianni, Strange Horizons, July 2, 2018 (science fiction short story)
  • Ded-Mek” by Matt Thompson, Nature, July 4, 2018 (science fiction short story)
  • Speak Easy, Suicide Selkies” by E. Catherine Tobler, Beneath Ceaseless Skies #255, July 5, 2018 (fantasy novelette)
  • The Scrimshander” by Damien Krsteski, Beneath Ceaseless Skies #255, July 5, 2018 (fantasy short story)

Tor.com is missing in action; Terraform‘s “story” is a “continuation” of an excerpt that I didn’t review last year so I’ll be skipping it, too.

In “Crimson Hour,” a father has lost his son to a vicious unicorn while the townspeople fete the Hero who afterwards killed the unicorn. The father blames the Hero for the son’s death and decides to try to kill him before we learn that all the arbitrary assumptions baldly posited by the story were red herrings.  In “Ded-Mek,” a woman has lost her son and spends the story going over repeated iterations of a distorted form of pseudo-scientific resurrection but it’s not about any of that because it’s all that there simbulizm. It’s actually about the evils of our godless technology or at least the blasphemous mentality behind same. In “The Scrimshander” it’s the father’s turn again to lose, not a son, but a daughter in service to a Dickensian indictment of the Powers That Be who distract the populace to stay in power while everyone else stays in misery.

In “The Athuran Interpreter’s Flight” (which is very hard not to read as “Arthurian” though it has nothing to do with it), we’re dealing with a pseudo-scientific cobbling together of “Earthian” and alien and machine with a somewhat dead child (or pair of them) being used as a bound doll translator by the evil “Earthian” businessman who’s trying to make a deal with the very aliens part of the translator comes from. Like “Crimson,” only more so, this story sets up parameters which it then proceeds to violate without explanation throughout the story and, like “Scrimshander,” it’s all simbulizm.

Finally, “Suicide Selkies” presents us with yet another selkie story which stretches a short tale out to the edge of novelette length by telling us of an interminable series of mostly disconnected suicides by oppressed women who are magically transformed by the sea while discussing the main tale of a magical fat circus lady and the selkie who comes back to reclaim her fur. At least this ultimately faces up to the world though it spends the vast bulk of the story seeming like it’s trying to sell suicide.

Despite unconvincing contrary notes at the last minutes of most of these stories, the overall tone of misery and death is loud and clear. Even if that’s what you’re looking for, there are technical problems with most of them as well.

Weekly Webzine Wrap-Up (2018-06-29)

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Original Fiction:

  • Report Any Suspicious Activity” by Pat Tompkins, Grievous Angel, June 24, 2018 (science fiction short story)
  • Hima” by Sam Muller, Cosmic Roots and Eldritch Shores, June 25, 2018 (fantasy short story)
  • Traumahead” by Jeremy Szal, Nature, June 27, 2018 (science fiction short story)
  • A Brief and Fearful Star” by Carmen Maria Machado, Slate, June 27, 2018 (science fiction short story)
  • The Need for Air” by Lettie Prell, Tor.com, June 27, 2018 (science fiction short story)
  • Preemptive Strike” by Jessica Maison, Terraform, June 29, 2018 (science fiction short story)

The fiction from the weekly/one-shot webzines wasn’t very appealing to me this week, unfortunately.

Report” is one of three flash or near-flash pieces to cover. Its bulk is a nicely described but trivial scene of a woman using pen and paper on an airplane and then delivers the climax almost like a punchline but there’s no humor and the two parts, while the former hints at the latter, don’t mesh well. The other is related to Slate‘s quarterly theme of “memory” despite appearing in Nature. “Traumahead” describes an alien gathering up the memories of fallen comrades on a battlefield while looking for his daughter so he can merge her and not have to rely on his own fallible memories. The unmotivated and irrelevant misanthropy of having it be humans committing xenocide is distracting and the whole is so stylized and mannered that the surface action can’t be taken seriously. “Preemptive Strike” is almost two thousand words about what might happen if the mental healthcare system could be changed and gun laws couldn’t. It’s not a very sophisticated story.

Hima” is a retelling of Snow White and delivers a sensory overload of birthday parties and the like as the titular character refuses to play by fairy tale rules. “Fearful Star” is supposedly attempting to be science fiction but feels little different from “Hima” except that it’s even more overwritten. Both stories feature essentially only a mother and daughter and are set in the past. In the latter, I couldn’t find any science at all but the companion article talks about “a nascent, uneven, and controversial scientific field known as epigenetic inheritance” of memories, which I have heard of (and am not impressed by) but, even if you make the generous concession that that’s science, the story doesn’t make clear that this is its subject or do anything interesting with it, at least as far as I was concerned. Others may find it more appealing. “The Need for Air” actually includes a son to go with the mother in another two character story involving maternal conflicts or related problems. Its milieu is even fuzzier than that of “Fearful Star,” but involves a mother who is interested in living in and translating to a VR while doing some tests for some AIs. She incidentally (very incidentally) raises a son who doesn’t want to be in a VR or uploaded. Things eventually get worked out (for broad values of “worked out”).

Weekly Webzine Wrap-Up (2018-06-23)

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Original Fiction:

  • The Metal Eater of Luminous Smoke” by Minsoo Kang, Strange Horizons, June 18, 2018 (fantasy short story)
  • Going Back for Hitler” by George Nikolopoulos, Nature, June 20, 2018 (science fiction short story)
  • Recoveries” by Susan Palwick, Tor.com, June 20, 2018 (science fiction short story)
  • The Sweetness of Honey and Rot” by A. Merc Rustad, Beneath Ceaseless Skies #254, June 21, 2018 (fantasy novelette)
  • Three Dandelion Stars” by Jordan Kurella, Beneath Ceaseless Skies #254, June 21, 2018 (fantasy novelette)
  • VRtual” by Rose Eveleth, Terraform, June 22, 2018 (science fiction short story)

The Sweetness of Honey and Rot, ” much like its title, is an unappealing mix of fantasy and horror elements. This is yet another present tense story of a heroine battling the evil empire, the latter of which is, in this case, a human-eating tree attended by sloths and other humans. The horrible fates that befall all who so much as think of going against the grain make the protagonist’s experiences utterly unbelievable. “Three Dandelion Stars” is trite in both relatively recent and old-fashioned ways: it’s another tale of the difficulties of lesbian weddings and is a “(swamp) fairy offers a wish” story. Like the previous story, this has horror elements and evil systems and, like many more, it’s a revenge fantasy/wish-fulfillment (and an uncommonly preposterous one). Since one character is nothing at all and the other is merely foolish, there are only “Eight Deadly Words” for this. The week’s other pure fantasy, “The Metal Eater,” is a readable tale with some metafiction (and interesting literary criticism) in it but mostly deals with a magical semi-Socratic character puttering about in a myth who must deliver yet more blows against the empire (in  this case, a wastrel of a new king). The main problem here is a lack of drama.

The three science fiction tales aren’t very. “Hitler” is a time travel flash piece which, yet again, has a time traveler wanting to kill Hitler. It contains an interesting idea but is delivered in a fairly predictable way in terms of the big picture and completely implausibly in terms of the details. “VRtual” has a woman working as a motion-capture body at a VR firm who meets an aggressive guy at a bar. It seems to argue the VR both really traumatizes her, yet doesn’t prepare her for reality. As a story, especially an SF one, it doesn’t do much at all. The week’s best tale is easily “Recoveries,” which handles its SF motif in a fantastic fashion (with a dash of horror) and takes awhile to overcome the off-putting nature of the protagonists, one of whom (Vanessa) is a court-mandated dry drunk about to complete her year’s sentence of sobriety and go on a binge and the other of whom (Kat) is her eating-disordered best (only) friend and the story’s narrator. As you get to know Vanessa, whose parents believed they were abducted by aliens and who did eventually permanently disappear, and Kat, who never even knew her parents, and how these and other issues play into the troubles of their lives, it becomes more intriguing. Vanessa’s reactions at the end aren’t entirely plausible but I feel like at least noting this tale. I enjoyed Dennis Danver’s somewhat recent “Adult Children of Alien Beings” and this, while different, has some similarity of appeal.

Weekly Webzine Wrap-Up (2018-06-16)

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Original Fiction:

  • Flesh Moves” (Part 2) by Adam Rothstein and Brendan C. Byrne, Terraform, June 1 and 9, 2018 (science fiction novelette)
  • Quietly Gigantic” by K. C. Mead-Brewer, Strange Horizons, June 11, 2018 (surreal short story)
  • Further Laws of Robotics” by Josh Pearce, Nature, June 13, 2018 (science fiction short story)
  • Withholding Judgment Day” by Ryan Dull, Diabolical Plots #40B, June 15, 2018 (fantasy short story)
  • The Worst Commute” by Aaron Gordon, Terraform, June 15, 2018 (science fiction short story)

The science fiction stories in this span were disappointing. The fantastic tales were much more interesting.

Flesh Moves” is about a murderous psychopath trying to scam the system that’s scamming everyone, using fellow drug-addled “truckers” who accompany the self-driving vehicles which ship “pax” from place to place. Its fractured, staccato, jargon-filled faux-Burroughs cyberpunk “style” makes it frankly unreadable and it’s never a good sign that the reader’s disappointed more characters don’t die. “The Worst Commute” is an initially decent take on the privatization of the subways (which is becoming a reality in Chicago) but is lacking in story as a “commie” pisses off a “subbro” and becomes a indentured servant for violating the mysterious Terms of Service. Finally, “The Further Laws of Robotics” is another piece which lacks story despite its initial, appealing, gimmick. A robot is about to blow up a particle collider and kill a lot of people, causing Detective Warren to try to stop him, resulting in an entertaining bout of number theory argument dealing with numbers other than Zero through Three.

Quietly Gigantic” is about a lunatic lesbian housesitting for ten days with a cat and a roach problem. The style is initially appealing and the calm, matter-of-fact narration sprinkled with bad craziness conveys an effect almost like an elevator steadily rising but for moments of stomach-floating drops, which threaten to grow worse. I was never sure if this was fantasy or going to become outright horror (it’s ultimately just surreal and can be rationalized as mainstream with an insane narrator). Unfortunately, I came to feel it was too long and lost confidence in its having any plot. While an end game was clearly in mind, the extent seemed made up of strung together incidents which could have been decreased or increased and the whole thing felt like an accordion stretched to arbitrary length. What turned out to be the ultimate thrust of the story, however symbolically creative, was also trite and somehow smaller than the story had led me to expect.

While still not earth-shaking (except in an apocalyptic sense), my favorite story of the week was “Withholding Judgment Day.” A weird order of monks “expects” Judgment Day in shifts due to a biblical verse that can be interpreted to mean that Judgment Day works like a watched pot. While the world at large is often enough, the monks are really set on not letting it boil, as souls still need to be saved before the big day. Unfortunately, on a day in which the most of the world is distracted by a historic World Cup match and others have other issues, even the triple-redundancy of the monks is not sufficient as they don’t really expect the world to end. Unless I’m not reading the “2:56 PM GMT” section properly, it doesn’t seem “paradoxical” like the others but actually inconsistent, and the story’s ending may be clever but is still a little flat, but it was an entertaining tale with a good narrative tone.

Weekly Webzine Wrap-Up (2018-06-09)

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Original Fiction:

Belated Original Fiction:

  • Safe Surrender” by Meg Elison, Slate, May 29, 2018 (science fiction short story)

(I didn’t get word about the Slate story until this week, so it’s a little late. Terraform didn’t release the second part of their story until today, so that will be a little late.)

This week’s fantasy stories include a couple of tales of woe set in secondary worlds reminiscent of North Africa or Arabia from Beneath Ceaseless Skies. In the first, actually named “A Tale of Woe,” Rana is a Soother for the Goddess of Sorrows who must deal with trouble in the highest place of a great city. While loosely readable, the plotting is convenient, the psychic combat isn’t convincing, Rana is not appealing, the concept of the Goddess seems inconsistent, and the story is rife with grammatical errors, typos, or at least non-optimal expressions (“an inhale of breath,” “beggars and the infirmed,” “sold for so cheap,” “sowed” (for “sewed”), “to kidnap she and her family,” “[p]ulling her scissor,” “had Elder Awan’s voice not rang across her thoughts”). “The Weaver and the Snake” is a riff on “Ozymandias” with a Great Destroyer in the form of a giant snake which has been eating all the cities of the desert and, among many troubles, has been making the great weaver doubt her reason for being.

Far superior to these, though initially oblique and still a bit lacking dramatically, is “Like Smoke, Like Light,” (possibly a fable of female agency). In it, a woman who has “betrayed” her family becomes enmeshed in a familial offshoot’s similar web of bondage, bringing meals to the head of that family, who has interred himself in a magic maze guarded by monsters and ghosts in order to remain undisturbed while he repeatedly visits with the ghosts of his wife and child. When an accident occurs during her navigation of the maze, one of the ghosts becomes a bit more dynamic, followed by further change.

Of the week’s four science fiction tales, two are very short. “Gift for His Beloved,” at about 270 words, is very short. It describes a husband getting anniversary gifts for his wife after the apocalypse and is quite clever and would be very effective but the discontinuity between parts makes the climax seem to happen too abruptly. “Mirror” takes the notion that doctors make the worst patients and adds that they can make pretty bad doctors, too, and that this could have profound effects in the future for one post-cryogenically thawed doctor/patient.

The two longer tales deal with protagonists caught between worlds who are seeking a sort of home.

In “Safe Surrender,” the unnamed protagonist is a “hybrid” or “hemi” of human and alien “Pinner.” Like many hybrids, she was given up for adoption—in her case, on the day of the first assassination of a Pinner by a human. She spends the story trying to find out about that night, her parents, and who she is. Maybe I’m not doing my part and working hard enough but the Pinners seemed under-explained (both in themselves and regarding the SF, if any, of the hybridization) and the terrestrial milieu seemed sketchy. The conclusion didn’t really resonate with me either. Otherwise, the line by line writing, protagonist, and mood seemed well done.

Meat and Salt and Sparks” deals with Cu, an ape who was illegally uplifted in a torturous way and, after being emancipated, has become a detective, partnered with the human, Huxley. When an “echogirl” (someone who basically rents out their bodies for other peoples’ vicarious experiences) commits a murder, she and Huxley investigate. The case becomes more complicated and personal than she expected and it eventually both traumatizes her but changes her in other ways as well.

This is almost a masterpiece of writing in the sense that it nearly disguises how little sense it makes. Huxley is unappealing and, aside from a natural sympathetic response to her experiences, Cu isn’t made to be especially intrinsically compelling, either. While I have to talk around things to avoid spoilers, the nature of the perpetrator is immediately obvious despite the motive for the murder seeming very stupid. Nevertheless, the murder doesn’t thwart its objective, yet is completely unnecessary to it. The protagonist doesn’t actually do anything; it’s the perpetrator who does. How the perpetrator ever came to have its perspective on things is inexplicable and, while there could be a reason it thinks its actions will be effective, it’s never given in the story and makes the perpetrator seem possibly quite stupid (again) and quixotic. This aims for an emotional effect akin to “Rachel in Love” (Pat Murphy, Asimov’s,  April 1987) and, in an odd and restricted way, is a fine read but all its problems prevented it from hitting that high mark.