The Rack – Zine and Novella Reviews for Early August 2018

Interzone 276Interzone #276, July/Aug 2018
In terms of fiction the new Interzone is a little underwhelming, with mostly fair-to-pretty-good original stories. The regular columns are wonderful, however – here we have Andy Hedgecock discussing the popular media that imprinted on him as a child in Future Interrupted; in Time Pieces, Nina Allen gushes over the first short story collection from relative newcomer Marian Womack; David Langford’s Ansible Link offers the usual roundup of goings on in the UK science fiction world.
As for the short fic, my favorite of the seven originals was “P.Q.” by James Warner, about a researcher named Daljeet who discovers a new species of ant that appears to be creating art for arts sake. The tone of the story becomes increasingly frantic as Daljeet and new girlfriend Mary Sue become increasingly zealous about their find. The story has a caustic sense of humor, and I liked how its perspective on its heroes walked the thin line between admiration and wariness.
Bonnie Jo Stufflebeam applies many of the common tropes of the coming-of-age story to a mid-apocalyptic setting where everyone is probably going to die in “So Easy”. The young teen girl who narrates the story addresses it to her mother, who takes the two of them from their city apartment when the food runs out, to their “new home” at the ocean. The way the mother mythologizes the ocean is unsettling and doesn’t bode well for them (the daughter asks if their bread is the last of their food, and the mother answers “We won’t need it in the ocean, the ocean will feed us). In the end, the narrator goes her own way, though there is still no food. A well written but depressing tale.
Ryan Row’s superhero story “Superbright” features some powerful, expressive prose, but I found its plotting too manic and I never got invested in the characters. The concept is a good one though – teenager Tom’s underwhelming superpower (his body lights up) can’t get him a high level superhero license, nor does it make him attractive to prospective superhero teams, though he is determined to make it, if only so his mother will be proud of him. A lot of good ideas and solid writing, but I never engaged with it on more than a superficial level.
The rest of the stories are not without merit: “Tumblebush” by Darby Harn is a detective sci-fi noir about a P.I. searching for a missing rich girl. It has an appropriately cynical tone and some memorable descriptions of post-climate disaster Manhattan. The hunt for the missing girl feels too streamlined to be effective, and by the halfway point it’s easy to figure out where the story will end up. Tim Major’s “Throw Caution” is a Martian adventure about a miner who wants to protect the native crab-like species that are being harvested because their bodies contain diamonds. Rachel Cupp’s time travel story “Grey Halls” is about a music composer from a dystopian future who travels back to the 1970s for inspiration. Paul Crenshaw’s “Eyes” is a surreal horror story where children are born blind and must have their eyes gifted to them by their parents.

Tor.com 7/19/2018
The Nearest, by Greg Egan
Award-winning Australian SF author Egan starts this offbeat brain-twister like any other detective story: Kate is called to investigate a horrific crime in which a man and his children are found dead in their home, while his wife has gone missing. With no apparent motive, Kate presumes the wife was kidnapped by the killers, but it soon becomes obvious that she was the killer. Without getting into any spoilers, I’ll say that shit goes sideways from there. Egan is most famous for his math-based sci-fi, but in my favorite of his recent stories, he’s told more personal tales where mathematics and science are more peripheral concerns. “The Nearest” is one of those – not a straight work of science fiction or of fantasy, but a titillating, and somewhat disquieting, work of pure speculation. It’s not hard for the reader to figure out what Kate needs to do to solve this problem once it is unmasked, but watching her do it is a genuine nail-biter.

Lightspeed 99Lightspeed Issue 99, August 2018
The new Lightspeed kicks off with a lively space adventure from Sarah Grey, “A Bond as Deep as Starlit Seas”. Jeri is a cargo hauler who doesn’t want to sell her old ship, Cleo, to the Nikutan; she and Cleo are bonded and have been together for nearly two decades. But her business demands a newer, more efficient (and less bondable) rig, and Jeri sells Cleo on the condition that she won’t be scrapped for parts. Once she realizes she’s been duped, she makes a play to get Cleo back, but the price the Nikutan are asking may be too high. A lot of things click in this story: The believably flawed characters, the expansive worldbuilding, the sudden turn into danger and despair, the exciting climax. One drawback was that it was pretty easy to figure out how the Nikutan were going to double cross Jeri; the ruse is convincing though – at least, I was convinced that Jeri would be fooled by it without it detracting too much from my opinion of her. This story is fun to read. It’s one of those tales that works fine by itself but still makes me want to know what happens next.
The other story I really liked from this issue felt more like it belonged in Lightspeed’s sister magazine, Nightmare. Manuel Gonzales’ “Scavenge, Rustic Hounds” belongs in the category of “either this narrator is insane, or the world is.” The narrator believes their home is being invaded by creatures at night, while her husband thinks nothing is wrong. Guess who ends up being right? Quick, creepy, and atmospheric, Gonzales’ tale of domestic horror doesn’t quite spiral into madness, more like casually bumps into it and treats it like an old friend.
Kate Elliot’s “A Compendium of Architecture and the Science of Building” is a light, gentle and fun little side story set in Elliot’s Spiritwalker universe. Magnus just wants to retire in peace and quiet and finish up his long-gestating writing projects, but when magic starts going haywire in his home, he finds a boy who had run off from the nearby magic school after suffering some abuse at the hands of his peers. So he does what any sensible old wizard would do, and puts the boy to work. It’s a refreshingly grown-up work of fantasy about the value of imparting wisdom and kindness to the young.
In the future, criminals are not imprisoned or executed, but become walkers on “The Atonement Path”. However, this supposedly enlightened future glosses over a disturbing reality of how the walkers are treated by the free citizens of the republic. I found Alex Irvine’s work of transgressive fiction to be overly cynical and exploitative, as the reader is plied with descriptions and insinuations of terrible actions for shock value alone: there is no real plot to follow or relatable characters to engage with. It’s deliberately being provocative, and that may be a boon for some readers. Avoid it if you are triggered by, well, take your pick.
Some excellent reprints here as well; if you missed Dominica Phetteplace’s “Project Extropy” from Asimov’s a couple of years ago, I highly recommend it.

bcs 257Beneath Ceaseless Skies #257, August 2, 2018
The two stories in this issue of Beneath Ceaseless Skies are something of a funhouse reflection of each other: both are about a one person seeking another for selfish reasons, with unexpected results. But while one ends on a note of hope, the other takes a dark turn.
In Christopher M. Cevasco’s “A Legacy of Shadows”, Rallos is a wanderer who travels from village to village doing odd jobs to survive, but his true purpose is to rid the land of the demonic Defilers – people with the taint of evil in their blood since the world’s creation – to avenge the death of his family. The latest village he encounters is having problems with a Defiler living nearby, and Rallos agrees to enter its lair destroy it to free them from its grip of terror. But when he finds the Defiler Morthos, he discovers that his ideas of good and evil are not what he had always assumed. The story has a well-conceived epic fantasy setting and reaches a satisfactory conclusion, in which the true culprits get exactly what they deserve. The tone is overly earnest, though, and Morthos is too magnanimous to be believed.
The Senkaku islands of Japan provide the richly detailed, first-world setting of “Old No-Eyes”, and author Christopher Mahon does an excellent job of establishing character and tone at the start. At the famous Ozamashi teahouse, Yute is meeting his old colleague Tenza, who had betrayed him years before and caused his exile when they were both students of the art of immortality. Tenza wishes to apologize to Yute, but only because he needs Yute’s help understanding an arcane text that may hold the secrets they are both looking for. Mahon does an outstanding job of balancing the still simmering tension of their past conflict with the pair’s philosophical inquiries. “Old No-Eyes” makes a sharp left turn into nihilism near the end, a choice that doesn’t sit well in my stomach, even if it follows logically from the set-up.

rogue protocolTor.com Novella
Rogue Protocol (Murderbot Diaries Book 3), Martha Wells
A call from Dr. Mensah sends Murderbot back on the trail of GrayCris, the company that tried to kill all the researchers Murderbot was assigned to protect in All Systems Red. GrayCris is still looking to camouflage its alien artifact recovery schemes, so Murderbot is in a good position to damage them by uncovering the truth about their illegal activities on Milu, where the company recently abandoned a terraforming facility. As usual, a group of humans mucks things up, and Murderbot must rescue their fragile, squishy hides from certain death at the hands of corporate killers.
The Murderbot formula is still a winning one – Murderbot just wants to watch TV, humans need its help, Murderbot saves their sorry asses, then goes back to watching TV knowing it’s just going to end up doing the same thing all over again. This time, the humans are looking for the same thing Murderbot is, instead of just being hapless victims of circumstance (All Systems Red) or suicidally naïve (Artificial Condition). Another big part of the fun of this series is Murderbot’s interaction with other AIs, and this time, the absurdly friendly, upbeat Miki provides Murderbot with the ally it needs to make inroads with Miki’s human companions. Miki is absurdly loyal to its human companions, and its innocent inquiries force Murderbot to reveal it is not the augmented human security consultant it pretends to be, while Miki’s trusting nature allows Murderbot to goad its amiable new comrade into keeping its secret. Murderbot privately refers to Miki as the humans’ “pet”, the very thing Murderbot was afraid of becoming if it had stayed with Dr. Mensah. This forces Murderbot to confront exactly what its own human friends mean to it.
Another near-perfect blend of sci-fi action, suspense, and canny character observations make this third go-round as much a must-read as the previous two novellas, leading right into what promises to be a grand finale in the forthcoming Exit Strategy.

Must Read
Rogue Protocol (The Murderbot Diaries Book 3), by Martha Wells (Tor.com 8/7/2018) Novella

Highly Regarded
“The Nearest”, by Greg Egan (Tor.com 7/19/2018) Novelette

Also Recommended
“A Bond as Deep as Starlit Seas”, by Sarah Grey (Lightspeed Issue 99, August 2018) Short Story
“Scavenge, Rustic Hounds”, by Manuel Gonzales (Lightspeed Issue 99, August 2018) Short Story

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