The Rack – Zine Reviews for Late June 2018

Rounding out the month of June with the latest from Apex, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Compelling Science Fiction, Lightspeed, Shimmer, Strange Horizons and Tor.com.

 

Apex Magazine Issue 109, June 2018
Jacqueline Carey’s “Suzie Q” is a demonic fantasy about Suzanne, who develops a “slutty” reputation as a young teenager that she hopes to escape when she goes off to a famous summoning college called Holyfields. College, of course, has a different set of abusers for her to contend with and later, after she is expelled for lashing out against them and living on the streets, she has no choice but to contend with the demon that has been growing inside her for all those years. “Suzie Q” is a solid character study with a well-earned ending.
There is only one other story in this month’s Apex – “Three Meetings of the Pregnant Man Group” by James Beamon. It comes exactly as advertised, except instead of involving some scientific breakthrough that gets men pregnant à la “Junior”, in this story men are host to gestating alien parasites per an interstellar trade agreement with the Skoicks. There are some fun bits, but it’s one of those stories that isn’t quite doing what it thinks it’s doing.

BCS 254Beneath Ceaseless Skies #254 (6/21/2018)
The Sweetness of Honey and Rot” might be my favorite story yet from A. Merc Rustad. A village is protected by the Life Tree, which demands human sacrifice to sustain itself. Jiteh has lost two beloved family members – her father and most recently her twin brother – and despite the Tree’s promise not to take too much from any one family, it is becoming clear that its promises are empty ones. This leads Jiteh to question whether the Tree is really protecting them at all, or just imprisoning them for its own benefit, and she starts looking for any exploitable natural weaknesses it may have. I was taken with the way Rustad utilized their remarkable descriptive powers, especially in the beautifully macabre sacrificial imagery. The story opens with the fate of Jiteh’s twin: “He sits on the edge of his cot, thorns popping like seedlings from between his knuckles and poking through his sweaty scalp in a blood-slicked crown. “I’m scared,” he whispers.” There’s something to be said for a story that can send chills up your spine from the get-go.
Jordan Kurella’s “Three Dandelion Stars” is a darkly-tinted fairy tale about a forbidden romance between noble-born Amarine and commoner Shai. Shai wants to be married, but Amarine is more hesitant. Shai makes a deal with a swamp fairy to get her wish, but as with all fairy dealings, the price may outlast the reward. I liked the author’s depictions of the ambiguities and anxieties that circle Shai and Amandine’s relationship, and the various conflicts that simmer throughout and erupt at the climax bring the story to a gratifying close.

Compelling Science Fiction Issue 11, June 2018
There’s a little more miss than hit among the six original stories in the new Compelling, but one of the them stood apart for me.
Adam R. Shannon’s “Redaction” plops us into a future where people can edit out sections of their memory by “dropping markers”, and later choose whether to remove the recollections that fall between two markers. This comes in handy for Crackle Marigold, a paramedic who has to witness some pretty horrifying shit on a nightly basis and is happy to redact most of it so he can keep doing his job without burning out. Crackle’s partner Jesús is anti-redaction, and when he offers Crackle the shocking reason why he has no problem functioning with all his memories intact, Crackle must decide – knowing that Jesús has most likely revealed this information to him before and will do so again – if he should keep his memory of the conversation, even if it means holding onto another memory he’d rather let go of. It’s a provocative idea, well-executed, and with a fitting conclusion.
The issue’s lone reprint, C. Stuart Harwick’s “Dreams of the Rocket Man” from the September 2016 issue of Analog was just as good for me the second time around, and well worth the read if you missed its initial publication.

Lightspeed 97Lightspeed Magazine Issue 97, June 2018
I had a mostly lukewarm response to the original stories in June’s issue of Lightspeed, with Rustad’s and Hoffman’s collaboration the brightest light among them.
I Sing Against the Silent Sun” by A. Merc Rustad and Ada Hoffman is part of Rustad’s Sun Lords of the Principality story cycle but stands just fine on its own. Radical poet Li Sin faked their death to escape the Gray Sun’s persecution, but the Sun Lord eventually uncovers the ruse and the pursuit begins anew. The spectacle of a poet-hero tossing off subversive verses while fleeing from a powerful tyrant is pleasantly alluring, and the authors’ shared penchant for opulent prose makes for a nicely operatic space fantasy.
Emma Törzs’ “From the Root” has an interesting premise: Marya is a “regenetrix” – someone who can regenerate lost body parts – living in Victorian-era London. Pregnancy is a death sentence for her kind, but no one has ever been able to figure out why. As Marya’s due date approaches, the story’s narrator – a midwife and a regenetrix herself – is determined to test out her theory on the subject and save Marya’s life. The story’s conclusion was a little too tidy for my taste, though the solution the narrator finds is a clever one.
Lina Rather’s “A Pilgrim’s Guide to the Lighthouse of Quvenle the Seer” follows a woman (in the second person “you”) who travels across the stars seeking revelations about her future. The titular guidebook is itself a seer of sorts. The premise predicts its own unsatisfying conclusion, in metafictional fashion. Ashok K. Bankers “The Quiltbag” finds an interstellar traveler who is profiled by a certain system’s customs agency but turns the tables when the nature of the bag they wish to search is revealed.

Shimmer Magazine Issue 43, May/June 2018
Sadly, just moments after I turned the last page in the latest issue of Shimmer, Twitter informed me that it would be one of the last. Just three more issues to go before the badger takes a bow in November – but the happy news is that the May/June issue features the best story they’ve published this year:
Freia is trapped in a dangerously abusive relationship with her “supervisor and ex”, Woden, in Anya Johanna DeNiro’s remarkable “Faint Voices, Increasingly Desperate”. Freia is a silk farmer in (presumably) Valhalla, little more than a slave in Woden’s magnanery. She longs to return to Vienna, her adopted home on Earth; her method of escape requires only that she bleed – a lot – so of course her captor diligently keeps her away from sharp objects. A co-worker absent-mindedly drops a needle near her, enabling her to make her first escape in decades. Freia gets a job and takes a lover, aware that her freedom has a countdown – it is only a matter of time before Woden comes to retrieve her. DeNiro’s story is a perfect storm of potent imagery, vivid characterization, and slowly rising tension that hits the boiling point. The tone set by the opening segment is as cogent as any I’ve encountered in recent memory. Freia’s circumstances demand a rigorous asceticism to mask her defiant soul. She has never educated herself on the particulars of the silk she harvests: “She keeps her cravings for knowledge in check. This is how she survives.” The silkworm cocoons cry out in confusion and terror as she drops them in boiling water to separate the strands, and she wears headphones to drown their voices out. DeNiro relates the moment in a strong, active voice, transforming conscious self-denial into more than a mere coping mechanism, but a way of channeling and storing energy – weaponized abnegation.
The rest of the issue also lives up to Shimmer’s reputation for curating outside-the-box genre exercises. Shimmer is known for. Katherine Kendig’s genial and eccentric “What the Skeleton Detective Tells You (While You Picnic)” is another highlight from the issue. The tale goes pretty much as the title advertises, its decorous, absurdist tone nudging the reader along. Of course people can just turn into living skeletons for whatever reason, and why wouldn’t a living skeleton become a private detective who wears a wide brimmed hat and long coat to hide her skeleton-ness, and feel self-conscious about wanting to flirt with non-skeletons, and certainly there is a Skeleton Forest, where people might choose to picnic. What kind of world are you living in?
A tried and true assumption about space exploration is put to the test in Octavia Cade’s “Gone to Earth”, as astronauts on Mars are afflicted with Earthsickness – a permanent and debilitating condition resulting from being cut off from a living environment for too long. The second person narrative “You, In Flux” is a disturbing and reflective take on postpartum depression, where you are a mother dealing with complicated feelings that are literally affecting every atom of your existence, and your partner is not engaged or supportive of your condition.
I’ll greatly miss reading Shimmer, which has always engaged with a wide range of voices and approaches to speculative fiction and has published many remarkable stories over the years. I’m eager to see what it has in store for the remainder of its run.

Strange Horizons, May 2018
Young, gay immigrant Ravi finds himself pursued by a jumbie, a malevolent demon of Caribbean origin, in Ian Muneshwar’s eerie folk tale “Salt Lines”. Ravi is followed home by the jumbie after leaving the club late one night, and resorts to the only defense he knows: laying a line of salt in front of his door. As the creature consumes each grain of salt, one at a time, in order to gain entrance to his room, Ravi calls his estranged father, hoping for comfort and advice. Suspension of disbelief is strained a bit regarding how quickly the jumbie manages to consume all the salt; I mean, really, how close to empty was the container? The ending is a surprise, in a “Wait, WHAT!?!” kind of way, but it is thematically consistent with the setup. The conversation with his father, punctuated by the cooing of Ravi’s sister’s new baby – whom no one even bothered to tell Ravi about – is heartbreaking.
The other works in May’s crop of stories are Octavia Cade’s “We Feed the Bears of Fire and Ice” – a grisly short piece about climate change deniers getting their just desserts after a worldwide ecological collapse – and the manic meta-fantasy “Variations on a Theme by Turandot” by Ada Hoffman, in which the lead in Puccini’s most infamous opera tries to change history so it will end the way she wants it to.

meat salt sparksTor.com (6/6/2018)
Rich Larson is a genre practitioner in the most literal sense possible, in that he practices genre the way a doctor practices medicine – collating as much knowledge about the craft as he can and applying it judiciously to achieve a desired effect. His new story for Tor.com, “Meat and Salt and Sparks”, is a drug cocktail of uplifted animals, detective noir, and cyberpunk futurism, and the result is both unnerving and gripping; Larson’s MO seems to be: “maybe you’ve seen this stuff before, but you’ve never seen it like this.” Cu is one of a kind – the only survivor of illegal brain enhancement experiments on chimpanzees, now a police detective (!?!), but isolated, lonely, depressed. Solving crimes is the only thing that motivates her to keep going. When an “echo”, someone who allows another person to link with them and live vicariously through their body, commits a murder, the path to finding the true culprit leads right back to Cu’s origins. Larson has a talent for providing the reader with vivid details – emotional and visual – as well as taking common sci-fi tropes and spinning them just enough to make them seem new again. The bond between Cu and her human partner Huxley is effortlessly heartwarming – he treats her like she is just another cop, while most people can’t get over the novelty: even perps want to take a selfie with her. “Meat and Salt and Sparks” is a nicely balanced work of fiction, with tone and pace and character and plot hitting all the right beats at all the right moments.

Compelling 11Must Read –
“Faint Voices, Increasingly Desperate”, Anya Johanna DeNiro Short Story
“Meat and Salt and Sparks”, Rich Larson Short Story

Highly Regarded –
“The Sweetness of Honey and Rot”, A. Merc Rustad Novelette

Also Recommended –
“What the Skeleton Detective Tells You (While You Picnic)”, Katherine Kendig Short Story
“I Sing Against the Silent Sun”, A. Merc Rustad and Ada Hoffman Novelette
“Salt Lines”, Ian Muneshwar Short Story
“Redaction”, Adam R. Shannon Short Story

 

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