Weekly Review: 2019-01-28 (Tor.com)

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Original Fiction:

Tor.com, January 23, 2019

This is a tale about Trapeze Master Binu of the Majestic Oriental Circus, his jinni friend Shehzad Marid, and, eventually, the devadasi (raja’s and god’s dancing girl) Savithri. When the latter seeks Binu’s help to escape her unrewarding bondage and Binu rather rashly agrees, a god is angered, the circus is threatened, Binu and Shehzad Marid’s relationship is tested, and Binu must do what he can to try to make things right. This is all as colorful as it hopefully sounds and there is a sort of sprightliness to the somewhat goofy Binu’s narration which is appealing though the “good” and “bad” in the story isn’t very challenging and the ending is played with the net down with threats and costs and bargains coming out of nowhere. It’s a pleasant enough diversion which may find fans.

Edit (2019-02-04): Thanks to the folks at Short Fiction Monday on Fantasy Literature for pointing out that this is a sort of sequel to “The Trees of My Youth Grew Tall” (Strange Horizons, July 16, 2018). I’d reviewed, but forgotten, that story. The current story is much better but some folks may prefer to read both.

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Weekly Review: 2019-01-21 (BCS/Tor.com)

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Original Fiction:

Beneath Ceaseless Skies #269, January 17, 2019

Tor.com, January 16, 2019

El” inflicts Connor, an inert nothing of a “food crafter,” and his unbelievably repellent sister on us as he tries to recreate a recipe of his recently deceased mother’s and allows the domineering sister to abuse him yet again. This is billed as SF but other than something trivial about a handwaving server inexplicably cooking food in words 630-669 (which may simply be something I don’t understand) this is a painfully mainstream story which gave me the feeling of the famous nightmares involving running without making any progress as its nearly six thousand words of expository writing microscopically examines food such as “the decadent unctuousness of foie gras” and makes asides about Connor’s love interest, the singer Nick, and his “jazzy piece of atonality” with “Bernstein’s setting of the Ferlinghetti poem, ‘The Pennycandystore Beyond the El.'”

Despite being in a different magazine, “Deepest Notes” shares a theme of sibling troubles with “El.” The two female outlaws make me think of a sort of Thelma and Louise in a medieval forest but Jane’s killed her sister and Molly’s killed a bunch of folks before they meet each other and fall in love–also they’re not looking for “a blaze of glory.” The magic element is the fact that instruments made of animal bones can sing of the things that bother them and, when you’ve fed your sister to the pigs and someone makes instruments out of pig bones, it makes a body nervous. This isn’t a satisfying tale to me (the moral calculus eludes me), but it’s concisely told and some may appreciate it.

Carrying on the themes within the same magazine, “Orpheline” also deals with female enemies and allies and with music, in this case repeating the familiar BCS refrain of being an operatic tale set in 18th century France. The intrusively metafictional narrative (and its musical and thematic motifs) reminded me of “Variations on a Theme from Turandot” by Ada Hoffmann (Strange Horizons, May 14, 2018) and also of the many, many selkie tales of late, even though this uses a catwoman. A “girl” has been deprived of her catskin by a magician, so haunts an opera house as a menial and spars with the malicious Head Soprano but, when the magician’s mistress accompanies him to a performance and she offers the girl a deal which may make them both happy at the expense of the other two characters, the wheels of grrrl power and liberation begin to turn. The narrative style may appeal to some but didn’t sit right with me, seeming to intermittently shift focus as well as degree of intrusion, and the ending was too abrupt and easy but the tale was otherwise effective.

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.

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.