The Rack – Zine and Novella Reviews for Late May

The latest issues of Apex, Clarkesworld, Fireside, Lightspeed and a novelette from Tor.com, as well as stand-alone novellas by Martha Wells and Peter Watts.

apex 108Apex Issue 108, May 2018
The most interesting story in this issue, artistically speaking, is Matthew Sanborn Smith’s “Stars So Sharp They Break the Skin”. Cal is a war veteran with an injured psyche, which causes his perception to bleed out into the real world. Much of the story is a surreal jumble, by design, and there is some effective surrealist humor and imaginative prose, but no emotional connectivity at all.
Rich Larson’s “Fifteen Minutes Hate” is a dark, near-future SF cautionary tale about a woman who achieves the wrong kind of short-lived fame after an internet celebrity airs all her dirty laundry. Larson is an appealing writer who boasts a prodigious literary output, but here it feels like he’s hitting easy targets and covering familiar ground. J.E. Bates “Cold Blue Sky” features an “anthrobotic companion” called Aki (who is modeled after a popular video game character) who was recently utilized in the commission of a crime. Police detectives attempt to access its memories to identify and track down the perpetrators. The story’s best feature is that it is told from Aki’s perspective – she is intelligent but lacks autonomy by design – and the unraveling of her memories is appealing for a time, but the ending fell a little short for me.
Cherie Priest’s “Mother Jones and the Nasty Eclipse” is a rallying cry for women in the post-Trump era, suggestive of near-future dystopia. It functions as more of a diatribe than a story, but it is a rousing one nonetheless. Eugenia Triantafyllou’s flash piece “Cherry Wood Coffin” has a nice unearthly, gothic tone in relating the story of a coffin-maker who hears voices telling him who will die next, which is a good skill to have in his profession.

Clarkesworld Issue 140, May 2018
The military-colony SF novelette “Fleeing Oslyge” by Sally Gwylan follows Senne, who escaped from her home city of Oslyge after it was sacked by the invading Tysthänder and is now a refugee travelling with four resistance fighters searching for the rest of their camp. They are constantly on guard because of the tech the Tysthänder can use to track them, and the group’s highest-ranking officer, Gunter, suspects there may be a traitor among them. I was impressed with how the author kept me, as the reader, as disoriented as Senne, who is not a soldier and understands nothing about war or the army (soldier is apparently not an acceptable profession for a woman on this planet). Since the soldiers come from two different camps and don’t know each other, Senne doesn’t know who to trust – and the one soldier who is the most threatening toward her is allied with Gunter. And no one seems to know much of anything about the Tysthänder – if they are human invaders from another colony, or human proxies fighting for alien invaders. Estrangement is an important component of science fiction; we readers immerse ourselves in the strangeness of unfamiliar worlds, and often the stranger the better. Gwylan adds another layer to this by making her characters as estranged from their own reality as we are, which is as potent a statement about the condition of war one can find.
In A Que’s “Farewell, Doraemon”, Zhou and Tang Lu grow up in a small village obsessed with a fantasy cartoon called Doraemon, but years after a tragedy splits the best friends apart, their reclusive former teacher may have an unusual solution to set things right. The story does a wonderful job of settling the reader into life in the village where Zhou and Tang Lu grew up, populating it with a nice assortment of eccentric and interesting characters. Zhou is a wonderful and relatable protagonist, and the flashback sequences to his schoolboy days are the story’s greatest strength. The plot moves a little too slowly, however; Zhou’s main objective, along with the sudden interjection of the story’s SFnal aspect, don’t come about until the novella is nearly over, and by then both feel like a bit of a cheat.
Bo Balder’s “A Vastness” follows scientist Yoshi as he pursues the elusive alien life forms known as “guardians” through space. A grand in scope, but unevenly paced tale. “Not Now” by Chelsea Mazur has a cool premise – a robot arm falls on a young girl’s house, destroying her bedroom – but once established, I found the theme and direction of the story a bit foggy.

fireside 55Fireside Magazine Issue 55, May 2018
There are two short stories and three flash fiction pieces in the slightly underwhelming May issue of Fireside.
The cover story is the sweet-natured “The Promise of Flight” by Lee S. Bruce, about a grandfather who makes his grandchild promise to fly, just before slipping into a coma. It is structured as a sort of long-form joke, and the punchline is easy to see coming as soon as the promise is made. The other short story is Sydnee Thompson’s “The Paladin Protocol”, which follows Aaryn, co-founder of NeuroNet, a digital assistant hooked directly into the user’s brain that can anticipate the user’s needs, sometimes better than the user can. When disaster strikes New York City, Aaryn’s partner Viktor issues an emergency directive that saves thousands of lives by remotely hijacking the NeuroNet users in the affected area and moving them to safety. This doesn’t sit right with Aaryn, who is worried about the implications of his partner wielding such God-like power. The story is built on a strong premise and there is a nice, ominous twist at the end, though the pace was much too hurried for me, and I never felt like I got under the Aaryn’s or Viktor’s skin enough for the effect to sink in.
Of the flash pieces, I really liked “Now Watch My Rising” by A. Merc Rustad. Wolf is bound and muzzled until the time comes when they can fulfill their destiny to eat the sun. Wolf is not a fan of being beholden to such a fate and fights to be free. Rustad strikes just the right tone for this mythology-tinged nightmare, and the grueling imagery is very effective. I don’t get a lot of opportunities to describe a story as “metal”; this story is metal.

Lightspeed Magazine Issue 96, May 2018
In Carolyn Ives Gilman’s “We Will Be Alright”, the world is ravaged by a sexually transmitted disease that kills only men. Consequently, a mother-protagonist of this tale watches in horror as her son falls in love, and despite the lovers’ insistence that they will be careful, she can’t help but have ill feelings toward the woman who could be the death of her boy. I’m usually a big fan of Gilman’s writing, but this one reads more like an outline of a story than a story itself and falls short of capitalizing on its ideas.
If the first story is a little too little, then the following two stories are a little too much. In Jane Lindskold’s “A Green Moon Problem”, the legendary, absurdly mythical engineer Tatter D’Maleon of Cat station can supposedly solve any and all manner of problem. Jurgen seeks her out because he wants to win the heart of co-worker Rita but can’t seem to break through with her. Tatter may as well have the words “Ironic Ending” tattooed on her forehead the moment Jurgen makes his compact with her; it is obvious that her solution will pick apart the semantics of his request. To be fair, though, there is no way to see the story’s utterly outrageous ending coming. It’s a lively and colorful tale, and way, way over the top.
Over the top is not a strong enough term to describe Martin Cahill’s “Godmeat”. Hark makes ravishing meals out of the Great Beasts that Spear kills, in order to please the terrifying Hollow Ones, who seek to be the world’s new gods. Hark knows that the Hollow Ones are gathering strength from his meals, and though he is horrified by the prospect of their rule, he is so in love with the cuisine he is creating, he doesn’t want to stop. Overt symbolism delivered with sledgehammer prose is the best way to describe this story. The visuals are sublime, though, and Hark’s solution to the problem is creative.
I feel a little like Goldilocks here: if the previous three stories were too cold and too hot, the last one gets it just right. “Our Side of the Door” by Kodiak Julian is about a fantasy writer who has wished his whole life to find a portal to another realm. As an adult, he still wants such a door to appear, though only so his young son can find it and go through to the other side. There is a wonderful balance between the daily uncertainties and anxieties the narrator copes with and the fantastical hopes he carries for his son. Is it even fair for him to nudge his son toward a door that the boy himself may have no desire to walk through? It is also unclear if his belief in doors is reasonable or a product of self-delusion, or something in between. Lyrical and tender, “Our Side of the Door” is not so much a fantasy story as it is a story about how people internalize fantasy.

murderbot 2Tor.com
Artificial Condition (The Murderbot Diaries Book 2), by Martha Wells (5/8/2018)
When we first met the SecUnit Murderbot in Martha Wells’ All System’s Red, it had already hacked its governor module, which is ostensibly in place to prevent it from going on a kill-happy rampage. In truth, it had already (apparently) gone on said rampage when it was “under control”, and only hacked the module so it wouldn’t happen again (and so it could have unfettered access to the entertainment feeds).
When Artificial Condition opens, Murderbot has won a dubious kind of freedom thanks to the human allies it made in “All Systems Red”. Still ever wary of the protocols it must follow to allay the suspicions of the humans it encounters, Murderbot sets off to learn the truth about the massacre it had been held responsible for but has no clear recollection of. Murderbot forms a tenuous alliance with ART, a transport AI who helps disguise Murderbot’s identity as a rogue SecUnit by surgically altering it to appear as an augmented human. ART also helps Murderbot get a cover job to justify its trip to the mining facility on the planet RaviHyral, where its supposed massacre took place. Murderbot (in disguise as a human, at this point) takes on the role of bodyguard for a group of researchers trying to retrieve their hijacked data from the company after their contracts were abruptly terminated. The situation is an obvious set-up: the mining company’s owner, Tlacey, will only meet with them in person, on RaviHyral, and if their data is as important as they think it is, it would be much more cost effective to just get them out of the way. Murderbot agrees, of course, because it gets him inside the Tlacey facility, and because it’s a sucker for hard luck humans who get screwed over by corporations.
What I like most about this series is the way society exhibits social control over AIs like Murderbot, even without its governor module in place. As it pointed out in All Systems Red, it still has to hold down a job, and likes watching its soap operas, and can’t do those things if it goes around murdering people indiscriminately and has to stay on the run all the time. Also, as it points out in this one, humans control all the charging stations. So even without the software that controls its actions, Murderbot must behave exactly as if those safeguards are still in place if it wants to continue to exist. Society presumes non-observance of social norms, even when the incentives to observe those norms are ingrained without the strict enforcement applied by the governor modules (a conundrum any person belonging to a marginalized group can appreciate). Wells adds a new layer to the power dynamics in Artificial Condition by showing us how these attitudes build hierarchies through interactions between different classes of AIs. When Murderbot first meets ART, ART reveals that it knows Murderbot is a rogue Sec, and could either turn it over to the authorities or kill Murderbot itself, if Murderbot displeases it. ART even has the audacity to read Murderbot’s acquiescence to its terms as “friendship”. By contrast, the sexbots on RaviHyral have even more miserable restrictions placed on their behavior than SecUnits do and view a rogue Sec as someone to aspire to.
Artificial Condition is more tightly plotted than its predecessor, and the stakes are more personal, making it an even more satisfying work of brainy, funny, compelling sci-fi action. I highly recommend this series, starting with “All Systems Red”, to anyone who has not picked it up yet.
“Grace’s Family”, by James Patrick Kelly (5/16/2018)
Grace is a survey ship who travels from system to system looking for life-supporting planets. At the start of James Patrick Kelly’s new novelette “Grace’s Family”, her crew consists of teenage boy Jojin, his bot “sibling” Qory, and their parents Gillian (also a bot) and Dree. We soon learn that they are not an actual nuclear family but are only role playing as one. Human spacefaring culture, it seems, revolves around multi-level immersive storytelling: everyone has their own personal narratives they participate in, plus various narratives they role play as a crew, plus an overarching construct that defines their relationships to each other. Early on in “Grace’s Family”, Dree grows dissatisfied with his role on Grace and he and Gillian end up getting traded to another ship, replaced with a woman named Orisa who introduces Jojin and Qory to different identity constructs, and radical new (but actually old) ideas.
“Grace’s Family” is carried in its first half by its captivating premise, and Kelly’s subtly effective characterizations and tension-building. Adding to the intrigue is the idea that humans are “resources” for ships to use in their larger objective of growing the “infosphere” – a term used to describe all the elements contained in the observed universe. It is a hopeful idea, one that harkens back to the more benign aims of classic sci-fi – that our aim as a civilization is not to conquer but to expand our understanding.
The injection of Orisa into Jojin and Qory’s lives teases promising new avenues for Kelly’s story to follow, and for a while it almost lives up to that promise. But Kelly undoes everything that was so interesting about the setup, taking the easy way out by giving Orisa and Jojin a traditional romance that eschews their role-playing ways, and jettisoning their constructed narratives in favor of these crazy old things called “books”. I get the (rather obvious) point, but its hard not to look back at “Grace’s Family” in light of where it ends up and feel as though the story’s central dramatic question was very tendentious in setting itself up for failure.

Must Read –
The Freeze-Frame Revolution (Sunflower Cycle), by Peter Watts (full review here)
Artificial Condition (The Murderbot Diaries Book 2), by Martha Wells

Highly Regarded –
“Fleeing Oslyge”, by Sally Gwylan
“Our Side of the Door”, by Kodiak Julian

Also Recommended –
“Now Watch My Rising”, by A. Merc. Rustad

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