Weekly Webzine Wrap-Up (2018-11-18)

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Original Fiction:

The sole SF story in this batch, “Mastodons,” is a cute short-short (perhaps better published in February) about a geneticist in love. It’s also a not-so-cute short-short about diseases arising from climate change and wiping out current herd animals.

The fantasies also include a couple with romance among their themes, “Missed Connections” is a story in which we watch a wallflower play with her phone. She spoofs ads on a website pretending to be looking for someone even though she’s really looking for someone. There’s a gratuitous ghost in this mainstream story. “Word” is about a female student of a professor of an ancient magic occult language studying outside the box with her autistic girlfriend as they fight the Man. Despite some effort at distinguishing them, the “old men” keeping the women down are fairly cardboard. The language and its effects on the “flesh and soul” has a bit of the fantasy version of handwavium to it but also has some Lovecraftian niftiness and, while the climactic scene before the review board of metamorphosed men isn’t very climactic, it is effectively creepy.

The best story of the batch is notable and I was tempted to fully recommend it. “Coal” is the first-person story of a very old woman as given to an inquisitive neighbor or reporter. The main point revolves around her complaint that everyone asks about her dead coalminer father when she’d rather talk about her mother but both figure in the tale of a fantastic coal mine disaster in an otherwise realistic England. The fantasy element is imaginatively conceived, though it’s preceded by a slow start and is followed by a relatively weaker denouement. I can’t speak to the accuracy of the dialect which is strong but readable. The vigorous voice and personality of the narrator is as effective as the central fantasy element.

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Weekly Webzine Wrap-Up (2018-11-11)

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Original Fiction:

This week’s weak science fiction from the weeklies includes two flash pieces and a long short story. “Bangs” is a scene about a woman meeting an old “internet friend” and realizing that virtual reality is more virtual than reality. “Remembrance” is a scene from a changewar in which a person charged with sending drones back in time to kill people to change history decides that killing thousands is worse than killing millions and doing either is worse than killing one. “BetterYou” is a report, written in exchange for a discount, on an artificial person, written by the woman who’s replacing herself with it. The woman is asexual and insane and, unsurprisingly, is having marital difficulties. Any point the dreary tale might have is overridden by the impression left by the extremely unpleasant main character.

Turning to the marginally stronger fantasies, “Ground” is a sort of love story, drawn from the pages of Frazer, about a woman rescuing a lowland man, who’s been injured in a mountain rock slide, and their subsequent relationship in which he sticks around even after finding out about the strange relations of mountain women, their men, and the crops. This tale uneasily straddles fiction and myth where everything’s a bit too accidental and/or inexplicable for fiction but is too literal a rendition of myths we already have. Pira goes to the “Hollow Tree” to make a deal with a fairy regarding her outwardly smiling father, who privately abuses her mother. Pira doesn’t have the best foresight in the world, makes very vague wishes, and exchanges mere tokens, leading one to expect something more than what actually results, regardless of the nature of the evil Man, but its portrayal of outward appearances and painful, claustrophobic realities has some vigor.

Weekly Webzine Wrap-Up (2018-11-04)

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Original Fiction:

There’s little fun to be had this week so I’ll try to be brief. A couple of the tales are Halloweeny, including the only outright fantasy. “Estevan” seems to be a modern Hispanic myth about a boy dying and overstaying his Day of the Dead which turns out to give him a new purpose in death akin to his old in life. Readable, though thinly plotted. “Summerland” is a weakly science fictionalized vampire tale involving a dark and stormy night, off-season island vacation homes, and one man cleaning out the belongings of his recently deceased parents when a mother and her sick, pale daughter arrive in the midst of the storm. Aside from a glitch or two, it’s competently executed but standard stuff. Similarly blurring the SF genre, but with an insufficiency of both science and fiction, the nature of the beings in “Contagion” and why they should be “Sphinx(es)” confuses me but this is basically a conversation about flattening of the emotions and longer life vs. excitable aging.

Two of the stories are overtly social/political. “Territory” equates the idea of “Universal (or National) Basic Income” with communes and communes with communism and seems to populate one such commune with extremely unpleasant women who scream at and fight with one another. “Cookbook” is an awkward listory which purports to be a guide telling you how to produce your memories for public consumption but the guide portrays its author as bitter, self-pitying, and mired in a dystopia.

Molli’s Oggles” is more personal but no brighter. What if you had “Oggles” to provide a VR overlay to make an unpleasant move to an unpleasant city more tolerable? What if the city wasn’t the most unpleasant part? You can find out if you follow little Molli through her new home and surroundings.

Weekly Webzine Wrap-Up (2018-10-28)

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Original Fiction:

  • Mobile Hack” by Zack Lux, Nature, October 10, 2018 (science fiction short story)
  • Ferromagnetism” by D. A. Xiaolin Spires, Nature, October 17, 2018 (science fiction short story)
  • Totality” by C. L. Holland, Nature, October 24, 2018 (science fiction short story)
  • The Oracle and the Sea” by Megan Arkenberg, Beneath Ceaseless Skies #263, October 25, 2018 (fantasy short story)
  • The Bodice, The Hem, The Woman, Death” by Karen Osborne, Beneath Ceaseless Skies #263, October 25, 2018 (fantasy short story)

This week, Tor.com has another Wild Cards tie (“Fitting In” by Max Gladstone). Something still seems amiss at Terraform. On the other hand, Nature had apparently been publishing stories the past couple of weeks and had just screwed up the web page I check because the missing stories materialized along with this week’s tale. Finally, BCS returns to normal with a two-story issue.

In “Hack,” an AI car tells you that you’re a hacker trying to disable its collision avoidance in protest of its data collection policies and tells you what it’s going to do about it. “Ferromagnetism” is a story in which mechanical beings taint themselves with iron from our universe in order to be attracted to one another (their universe has no iron but has elements with atomic numbers of “*##@%~”). In “Totality,” one woman reacts to Earth being conquered by aliens who cut Earth off from the sun. Since there there was little plot and no one to like in the first and the second made little sense and was only a conversation between “Gramps” and a younger entity, “Totality” was the most successful.

Oracle” is yet another BCS story with musical motifs. Each of the three sections is marked with an indication of unusual tempo in this meditation on political upheaval, prophecy, pianos, and pity. The exiled oracle/political dissident/pianist seems strangely petty and off-putting for most of the story though the initial meeting and conversation with the chess-playing guard about rewriting the past which ends with the line, “Only the future is immutable,” seemed promising. “Bodice” is another tale of upheaval which, somewhat like “Male Pregnancy” (Sep/Oct F&SF), is ruined for me by a character whose believability is compromised for thematic purposes. It opens with “the end of our world” so there’s no suspense about what kind of story it’s going to be: a girl’s father has gone off to war, the city’s being destroyed, and anyone not already dead needs to leave. So Mom endangers herself and her daughter by refusing to leave because she’s not dressed properly and this causes the daughter to go to extraordinary lengths to make her a dress, including sacrificing her “soul.” Those not put off by the mother (or distracted by the confusing pseudo-steampunk and soul-gem/”ghost” fantasy elements)  may appreciate the eventual pathos of the mother-daughter relationship.

Weekly Webzine Wrap-Up (2018-10-21)

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Original Fiction:

Since Nature hasn’t put up a new story for the second week in a row and Terraform‘s website seems broken, “AI and the Trolley Problem” is the sole SF story this week. It addresses an interesting problem (an AI deciding to kill some of its “own” people to prevent greater loss of life) but, by having the structure of an odd day in the life followed by a conversation between a “specialist in machine ethics” and the AI, it lacks full fictionalization and drama. Not to mention that, regardless of general morality, any AI that kills those it was designed to protect should be scrapped immediately.

MotherJumpers” has as its basic premise the exact same one of “Bluebellows,” published in the same magazine last year: people jump off slave ships and, rather than dying, are changed. This is written in an extremely thick Caribbean dialect and I even resorted to trying the podcast which did help but not enough so, while some of the underwater descriptions were imaginative and it may have turned out well,  I didn’t finish it.

BCS brings us a pair of fantasies of female friends falling out. “Crow Knight” is much the longer of the two novelettes and seems to have a rather reductive “tend your garden (because you can’t tend others’)” motif after detailing some abortive, misdirected, deceitful steps to deal with the ominous crow which pesters both the plain and morose knight and her angry, bitter, dangerous lady (or princess, one would think, as she’s to be queen). Though short of a full recommendation, “Zayred” was much more appealing. It provides enough in each scene to maintain interest while it unspools the story in reverse. In this case, the strategy makes each scene seem to deepen or intensify without making it seem too baldly put. However, the conclusion (or lack thereof) suffers from just that and from being apt enough, but unsatisfying. Still, the tale of a couple of war-bards (spellsingers) fighting to control the narrative after their deaths, and why they were doing it, was intriguing and possessed of understated style. Some may find the story to be more of an ego-struggle among villains than a social struggle among heroes but I thought the touch of gray could also be seen as an advantage. Without making it a preachy message, there’s also a good depiction of how The Powers That Be keep people at each others’ throats against their own self-interest and for that of the Powers’.

Weekly Webzine Wrap-Up (2018-10-14)

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Original Fiction:

Pairs week. Nature and Tor.com went missing this week but Strange Horizons had a bonus story and, due to the unusual lateness of what should have been last week’s Terraform, there are also two of those to go with the two BCS tales.

Leda” is a joke rather than a story and, despite being set on a moon of Jupiter, is a fantasy rather than SF, dealing as it does with people not dying on a Jovian moon and the bureaucratic corporate opportunities that could present. “Cranes” is another mawkish Terraform story about climate change narrated in reverse.

Asphalt” takes issue with the Filipino war on drugs and describes some “innocents,” who have been murdered by cops, getting stuck in a benevolent underworld creature’s realm and deals with a particular conflicted cop who Learns Better. Since it takes issue with extra-judicial killings, the juxtaposition of it with “Fortunate Death” is interesting (read: ludicrously ironic). The latter, while crisply narrated with a well-done first-person narrative voice, exults in its heroes’ extra-judicial killings and tortures. The narrator is a hacker girl who torments those she disagrees with and witnesses the murder of her current victim and belatedly aids the murderer.

While not my sort of thing, by far the best stories of this round were the BCS tales. “Scout” depicts a sort of “winter fairy tale/bedtime story” milieu, the nested tale of which deals with an insomniac Governor and the efforts to get him some rest (culminating in a ride on a magical sleep-inducing creature) and the outer tale of which deals with a young person’s efforts to learn how the story ends. (All the children throughout all time, as comfortable and well-fed and happy as they are, always fall asleep before the conclusion.) While the extended nature of the Governor’s journey and the children’s inability to know the ending are contrived elements in literal terms, the tale’s elaborate and fanciful meditations on sleeping and waking, dreaming and story, maturation and wisdom, is sure to find admirers even if it was a little slow for my taste. “Magic Potion” is also appealing but somehow also fell a little short of a full recommendation from me, though it will likely be enjoyed greatly by many (with the caveat that some may be put off by the genre of the story—discussing that may be a mild spoiler, so see the comments below). In a sort of “old time Asian” milieu, a civil servant (and minor royal) gets shipped off to an out-of-the-way post and, because of ambiguity in the language, thinks he’s learning about one thing (how to become magically strong) when he’s really learning (a great deal) about something else. The depiction of the village he’s in and that of the “magic potion” village and its “Grandmother” is calmly delightful.

(A couple of stray notes: BCS is once again rife with grammatical and typographical errors, especially in “Scout,” which hurt the otherwise enjoyable fiction. On the flipside, its “Magic Potion” has unfamiliar words which are perfectly contextualized and present no problem while SH‘s “Asphalt,” after confusing readers over the course of the story, includes a glossary(!) at the end(!) to “help provide nuance and context” which is what the story is supposed to be for. And, ha, I just realized that Terraform‘s two stories combined are “Leda and the Cranes.” Not quite a swan, but close enough for a laugh.)

Weekly Webzine Wrap-Up (2018-10-07)

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Original Fiction:

  • The Mirror Crack’d” by Jordan Taylor, Cosmic Roots and Eldritch Shores, September 30, 2018 (fantasy short story)
  • Wake” by Anna Cabe, Terraform, September 30, 2018 (science fictional short story)
  • The Palace of the Silver Dragon” by Y. M. Pang, Strange Horizons, October 1, 2018 (fantasy novelette)
  • Cerise Sky Memories” by Wendy Nikel, Nature, October 3, 2018 (science fiction short story)
  • Court of Birth, Court of Strength” by Aliette de Bodard, Beneath Ceaseless Skies #261, October 4, 2018 (fantasy novelette)
  • We Ragged Few” by Kate Alice Marshall, Beneath Ceaseless Skies #261, October 4, 2018 (fantasy novella)

Edit (2018-10-08): Updated this with the BCS stories at the end.

I’m posting this now with coverage of four stories which, as a group, are above average. I’m not covering the Diabolical Plots story this week because I’ll be covering both of the month’s stories for Tangent when the second one comes out. I’m also still running behind and will update this with the BCS stories when I finish them (hopefully tomorrow). And, again, apologies for not taking the time to make this shorter.

Mirror” tells of Elaine and Morgan’s quest to pull the Grail from the ether and into the world with their magic. Rather than a Mabinogion-like medieval milieu, this appears, oddly, to be an alternate 19th Century England, takes its title from Tennyson’s “The Lady of Shalott” and quotes that, Malory, Shakespeare, and E. B. Browning (twice) as epigraphs to each of its five sections, and is steeped in a Pre-Raphaelite sensibility. Frankly, it’s not my kind of thing and didn’t engage me but I feel like that’s just me. Aside from a line or two, it’s not overwritten despite its elevated prose, the two main characters seem well drawn, there is a sort of numinous Neoplatonic/Christian power to its magical/spiritual elements, and it has some drama. Probably the weakest element is that it ends somewhat anti-climactically (or has too much epilogue/denouement or something) but the ending’s also in keeping with its sehnsucht. If you want such a tale, I believe you’re likely to enjoy it and I recommend it.

While “Mirror” wasn’t full of explosions and car chases or anything, there was a sense of step-by-step progression with a reasonably engaging character and it felt more like a novelette fitted into a long short story’s word count. By contrast, “Palace” initially seems to wander aimlessly with an unappealing protagonist and ends up feeling like a short story in a short novelette’s word count. An unhappy and unpleasant (selfish, always runner-up, violent) woman hears the dragon’s song and flings herself off a cliff into the waters where, transmuted by the dragon’s kiss, she becomes his companion and is regaled with stories and must ultimately share her own, all with a hint of death hanging over her. This story’s strength is its imaginative underwater castle and its dragon mythology (though whether this is original or borrowed from sources I’m not familiar with, I don’t know). Ultimately, the big reveal is much more familiar and less enthralling. Still, some may enjoy this tale of a weird sort of semi-redemption.

Wake” is another “water woman” story and is unusual only in being cast as the loosest sort of SF rather than as straightforward fantasy like “Palace” and innumerable other stories. An adolescent female has a skin condition and the doctors treat it by applying scales to her skin but it doesn’t stop there… and there are no points for guessing where it continues.

In “Cerise” (which, being an eight crayon kind of guy, I had to look up – “reddish” as in a sunset), a sort of biological robot has been programmed to be an office worker and part of this (later dropped from the design as excessive) involved being programmed with false memories, a la Blade Runner. On being decommissioned, she incidentally learns something and goes looking for her “childhood.” This reflection on memory, self-consciousness, and connections isn’t a real thrilling story to start raving about or anything, but it’s effective and I enjoyed it. Mildly recommended.

Court” is apparently set in the milieu of the Dominion of the Fallen series which may explain one of the major problems with this tale: one of the characters reflects, “What was going on? It was like sitting in at the table for a card game where people played by utterly unfamiliar rules…” when this is true for this reader, as well, and this isn’t the sort of story where that should be the case. More importantly, it’s chock-full of overdone things like “Asmodeus’s smile was quick and wounding, like a stab to the heart,” and, of course, his sighs are like hurricanes and each eyeblink is like the setting and rising of suns. (Okay, I’m making those up, but it gives the idea.) The milieu seems to assume that demons have fallen to an alternate 18th/19th Century Paris and are much weaker and nicer than one would expect but still magical and sometimes malicious. There’s been a war between “houses” and there is now a case where a favored child tutored by one of the Fallen is to be given over to another house’s not-so-tender mercies and the Fallen must decide whether to save her or start another war between houses in a sort of “Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” decision. The ending is rather cheap and easy (in terms of this story if not in terms of the eventual sequels) after all the overwrought setup.

Few” is another tale of conflicting loyalties. When a rot hound intrudes on what should be protected land, Reyna Bonespear realizes a prophecy may be coming true and events lead her into a collision with her tribe’s chief as they have differing visions on how the tribe is to be saved. Reyna would rely on her dead sister’s prophecy while the chief would rely on his crone’s advice and his own inclinations. However, it spends 13, 217 words building an anthropologically detailed structure which includes gelds and the cold and mutelings and graylings and so on before it gets to that point and then spends the rest (nearly 25,000 words in total) showing that that’s just a plot point and the real interest is ultimately in having her invading people pay a price to the natives. There’s a lot of world building (or window dressing) which includes points about those who are and are not stricken with an infertility bug/curse somewhat like “The Persistence of Blood” (Juliette Wade, Clarkesworld #138, also an anthropologically overdone and generally overlong story) and a lot of the dark and grim tone of “When We Go” (Evan Dicken, BCS #223, a much better tale) and the latter is probably its strength but it all mostly pads that central point and it didn’t appeal to me.