Recent monthly offerings from Clarkesworld, Fireside, Galaxy’s Edge, and GigaNotoSaurus, along with two issues of the bi-weekly Beneath Ceaseless Skies, and back-to-back shorts from Tor.com.
Beneath Ceaseless Skies #252 (5/24/2018) & #253 (6/7/2018)
Beneath Ceaseless Skies will usually pair up its stories based on a unifying theme or some similarity in subject matter or setting. The two stories in this issue feature competitions to garner favor from royalty.
The first and best of the two stories is A.J. Fitzwater’s audacious and colorful “The Wild Ride of the Untamed Stars”. Cinrak is a capybara pirate captain who enters a competition to win the hand of the rat queen by being the first to wrangle a star from the sky and return it to her. I always marvel at high fantasy short stories that can build a completely new and epic setting, establish a sympathetic protagonist with a clear goal, tell a story as expansive as the setting promises, and find and flesh out its emotional core. Fitzwater does it here in less than 3000 words, more successfully than many novels do. The stakes are not terribly high – Cinrak merely seeks glory and adulation and has nothing to lose – so dramatic tension is limited to will she or won’t she succeed. It’s a light and fun piece of entertainment, with stars demonstrably untamed, and the ride sufficiently wild.
In Christian K. Martinez’s “The Ghostpotion Games”, competitors fashion game pieces out of ghosts to win a single wish from the nine empresses of the land. I don’t even want to try to guess at the political temperament of a land with nine sovereigns, and the author avoids the topic as well. A fun idea, though like the previous story, the dramatic tension is limited at best.
P. Djèlí Clark’s novelette “A Tale of Woe” features some top-notch worldbuilding, highlighting the author’s understanding of how history shapes culture. The magic employed by the story’s hero, Rana, is imaginative as well. Rana belongs to the Order of Soothers, acolytes of the Goddess of Sorrows who can draw out and cut away a person’s woes like removing a spectral tumor. Rana can also redirect that woe and use it as a weapon. The main issue that I had with the story is that Rana is just too powerful for the obstacles in her path to really seem threatening. The story’s plotting is also a little too manic, and the twists and turns that arise feel more like the author moving the goalposts than following through on his set up. The story is worth reading though, for the originality and detail imbued in its fascinating setting.
Blaine Vitallo’s “The Weaver and the Snake” is similarly extravagant in its worldbuilding, and also features a protagonist with a unique talent. Reilitas is a “weaver”, someone who fashions the bodies of animals into different things (musical instruments, children’s toys, weapons, etc.). She hears rumors of a giant unkillable snake that devours cities (buildings, but not inhabitants), but brushes them off, until it is too late. There is some beautifully stark imagery in the prose, and Vitallo’s descriptions of the world falling into anarchy are compelling. However, the story suffers from the opposite problem as “A Tale of Woe”; Reilitas does absolutely nothing to affect the outcome of the story. Not one thing. The world falls apart and Reilitas makes an hourglass to remember it by. That and the author spends a lot of time explaining the meaning of it all. That’s it.
Clarkesworld Issue 141, June 2018
The original fiction in the June issue of Clarkesworld features three action-oriented novelettes, bookended by two shorter, slice-of-future-life stories. Reprints are from Elizabeth Bear and Karin Lowachee. A conversation with multi-award-winning artist John Picacio, and essays by Cat Rambo and Douglas F. Dluzen are of interest to both writers and fans of SFF. It’s an above average issue overall, though it falls short of producing anything truly exceptional.
The two shorter works strike a peculiar tone. Steve Rasnic Tem’s ultra-bleak “A Space of One’s Own” takes urban overcrowding to the future, where living spaces keep getting smaller and smaller, and the technology is available to downsize them relatively quickly. Not a lot happens plot-wise – protagonist Cedric’s life is already shitty and keeps getting shittier, and he takes drugs to deal with it. The story is oddly compelling, though, and Cedric’s drug-induced fever dreams are rendered in captivating prose. Vajra Chandrasekera’s “Heron of Earth” is also a strangely compulsory read, in which a post-human woman explores a “regreened” earth long devoid of human life. The history of the defunct Working Group on the Preservation of the Ancestral Earth for Sentimental Reasons, a.k.a. the Sentimentals, is the best part of the story. Chandrasekera’s lilting prose style is appropriate for its shifty, bird-oriented protagonist.
Best-of-issue goes to D.A. Xiaolin Spires’ novelette “Vault”, about a couple of surveyors trying to map a planet long abandoned to ecological disaster, who discover a unique form of life the planet’s former inhabitants left behind. It’s a well-paced story with some very imaginative ideas and an instantly likeable, proactive hero. Even though it bears some thematic resemblance to “Heron of Earth”, the two stories couldn’t be more different in tone and design. Chandrasekera’s story is a sort of lyrical/satirical flight of fancy, while Spires’ story offers a fresh approach to the old-fashioned exploration and problem-solving sci-fi – the kind that is usually right up my alley.
Speaking of old-fashioned, will stories about humans enslaved by their robot overlords ever go out of style? Xing He, author of “Your Multicolored Life” (trans. Andy Dudak), certainly doesn’t think so. Zhang Hua and You Ruo have had nearly opposite experiences while living under the cold hard heel of their robot masters and seek to escape for very different reasons. When they cross paths mid-flight, both long to step into the other’s shoes, and set out to make it happen. It’s clear from the get go that Hua and Ruo are headed for a “be careful what you wish for” demise, and as a morality tale the story gets a little heavy-handed. There is a neat twist at the end, though, and of course it’s hard to complain too much about evil robot stories, of which I agree there can never be enough. “The Cosmonaut’s Caretaker” is a fun debut story from journalist and astrophysicist Dora Klindžić, who really puts her science chops to work in the story’s thrilling action sequences. The story – about a crippled ex-soldier who must overcome his prejudice against AI to get through a dangerous mission in one piece – is a little over-stuffed and doesn’t quite earn its tug at the heartstrings. There is some deep worldbuilding and an adventurous spirit that makes me want to see more from this author, despite its flaws.
Fireside Magazine Issue 56, June 2018
The centerpiece of June’s edition of Fireside Magazine is “Cast Off Tight” by Hal Y. Zhang. The unnamed protagonist is still mourning the recent loss of his partner when he discovers an unfinished knitting project she left behind. She was knitting the scarf with “memory yarn”, which records nearby sounds while it is being knitted with special needles. When he touches it, he can hear things like that episode of Jeopardy she was watching, the song she was listening to, even sometimes her laughter. He pushes through conflicting emotions, determined to learn how to knit so he can finish the scarf. Zhang delivers a graceful tale with nicely understated prose and fine character detail.
The other three stories are almost flash short. I enjoyed the dreamlike “Beast of Breath” by Gillian Daniels, in which the narrator becomes reacquainted with a shy, passive-aggressive creature she has a vague memory of encountering as a child. The story has a kind of nonplussed, deadpan tone I found engaging. Susan Jane Bigelow’s “The Day After the Red Warlock of Skull Top Mountain Turned Everyone in Beane County into Pigs” is just as daffy as it sounds: the character arcs are effective despite the hurried pace, as the human-restored narrator and her friend, Crane, both discover that until they were both temporarily turned into pigs, they had no idea who they really were. Lastly, the blatantly allegorical “Fascism and Facsimiles” (not yet available online) by John Wiswell is a superhero-ish commentary on the state of American political culture, with the “alt-democratic” heroes of Kommand unable to decide if they’re actual fascists or just economically depressed, while battling the sometimes fascist-curious Captain Democracy.
Galaxy’s Edge Issue 32, May/June 2018
Editor Mike Resnick has a fondness for very short, humorous stories when it comes to the original fiction in his zine; five of the eight stories in the new issue could be classified as SF or fantasy humor. There are also classic reprints from Joe Haldeman, Gardner Dozois, and Kij Johnson, another installment of Joan Slonczewski’s 1994 novel Daughter of Elysium, and non-fiction from Robert J. Sawyer, Barry N. Malzberg, and Gregory Benford.
The best of the rib-ticklers is “Chocolate Chip Cookies with Love Potion Infusion” by Leah Cypess, written in the form of a blog post from “proud witch, baker, and blogger” Heather, who has the perfect recipe for making your crush fall madly in love with you. Of course, the comments section reveals some overlooked ethical and moral considerations, as well as concerns about how to undo the spell when you fall out of love.
I also enjoyed the darkly funny “Reality Show” by Brian K. Lowe, in which the galaxy only keeps Earth around for its entertainment value, though I felt the ending slipped off the edge a bit. Karlo Yeager Rodriguez’s “Emergency Evaluation for Penny Ante, as Recorded by CAL-Q-TRON of the Benevolent Order of Heroes” is good for a few chuckles, as an overly snarky, self-absorbed teen superhero sidekick gets her first job performance evaluation.
My favorite story in the issue is the less humorous sci-fi horror quickie “Jackbox”, by Brian Trent, in which a soldier has to face down the technologically reanimated corpse of a dead opponent. It’s a cynical war-story (they are literally fighting over sand in a resource-starved future) that successfully weds the ingenuity of classic Amazing/Astounding style sci-fi with EC comics irony-laden approach to horror.
“Balloon Man”, Shiv Ramdas (6/1/2018) Novelette
Set in modern day Northern India, “Balloon Man” finds young Mithun trapped under the rubble of a fallen clock tower, but not before he is pulled to safety under a stable archway by the titular street performer. As they await rescue, the mystical balloon man and the live, talking animals he fashions from his balloons tell Mithun the tale of the ancient king Vikramaditya, who became caught in the machinations of the trickster god Narada. As the tale progresses, it becomes clear that the story has a very real bearing on the circumstances Mithun has found himself in.
“Balloon Man” is an amiable folk tale, engrossing and humorous, that ties up all its themes nicely in the end. The joining of the frame story and the inner story is satisfying and cleverly done.
“The Guile”, Ian McDonald (5/22/2018) Short Story
Ian McDonald’s “The Guile” is a near-future SF stage illusion story. The SFnal part of the premise, AIs replacing humans in casino surveillance, is a genuine inevitability. Legalized gambling is already an anarcho-capitalist’s wet dream – you literally just tell everyone up front that you’re going to rob them blind and they happily play along. If they can build a machine to guarantee all the cheats and card sharps get weeded out, they’ll do it. At the Silverado Hotel and Casino, Maltese Jack Caruana is the house magician, but when the newly installed surveillance AI “Remi” starts calling out Jack’s tricks, he knows it’s time to hang up the cape. You can fool a person with sleight of hand, but the machine can see everything you’re up to; the usual psychological tricks don’t work on it. However, the story’s narrator has a plan for Jack’s “final show” that could turn the tables on the casually arrogant Remi. McDonald doesn’t even try to hide that the end twist will be a bluff or double blind or some such – this kind of story always goes there, and in this case, it’s literally written into the title. When the big turn comes, though, it’s impossible to swallow. It completely undermines the entire premise the story is built on. I liked McDonald’s characters (especially the cagey narrator) and the story’s points about the division of labor and unfair distribution of wealth are gladly taken, but “The Guile” doesn’t quite pull off the feint.
“Yiwu”, Lavie Tidhar (5/23/2018) Short Story
Tidhar’s futuristic science-fantasy fable is the story of Esham, who runs a booth selling lottery tickets in the Chinese city of Yiwu. The lottery is basically magic, as winners are granted their fondest wish – the first time Esham sells a winning ticket, the winner transforms into an ibis and flies away. But, much later, when one of his regular customers, Ms. Qiu, buys a winning ticket, nothing happens. The lady herself shrugs it off and leaves the ticket behind, but Esham can’t let it go, and he sojourns to lottery HQ to find out what went wrong. The story is likely to be off-putting to readers who need their SFnal elements kept away from their fantastical ones, the way some people freak out when the veggies are touching the mashers on their dinner plate. The basic rules of physical science and logic are brashly disregarded in “Yiwu”. The “tech” behind how the lottery supposedly works is dubiously explained (or unexplained) in near-mythical terms, and simply walking through an office door can transport one to outer space. These whimsical suspensions of disbelief in Tidhar’s stories aren’t beside the point, though, nor are they lazy excuses for a lack of scientific rigor. Like his spiritual ancestors (Dick, Zelazny, Ballard, etc.) supposed, science fiction can be just as fanciful as a folk tale, and a writer shouldn’t have to be anchored to dogma to make art that matters. The important thing about “Yiwu” is that it engages the adult SFF reader’s chimerical impulses on the most fundamental level, appealing to a childlike wonder sans childish comportment.
Must Read –
Highly Regarded –
“Yiwu”, by Lavie Tidhar
“Cast Off Tight”, by Hal Y. Zhang
Also Recommended –
“Chocolate Chip Cookies with Love Potion Infusion”, Leah Cypess
“Beast of Breath”, Gillian Daniels
“The Wild Ride of the Untamed Stars”, A.J. Fitzwater
“Balloon Man”, Shiv Ramdas
“Vault”, D.A. Xiaolin Spires
“Jackbox”, Brian Trent