2018 Recommended Reading List (Part 1)

Featured image from the cover art for The Dark Issue 37, “Boy with a Torch Facing Smoke Monsters” by grandfailure

My short fiction recommendations are split into five categories: Part 1 – Dark Fantasy/Horror and Space-Based Science Fiction; Part 2 – Earthbound Science Fiction and First World Fantasy; Part 3 – Second World Fantasy. Each category features a “Desert Island Pick”, while the remaining picks are listed alphabetically by author. Each title is accompanied by a short synopsis and a quick excerpt for the story. Excerpts may contain mild spoilers.

Not every story fits neatly into any one category. Some could fit into more than one category, some defy categorization altogether. I did my best to place them where I thought they fit best. Links are included for stories that are available to read online, or to purchase information. Sometimes the traditional print magazines will make stories available online during award season, so I will update links when possible.

Short Stories (<7500 words), Novelettes (<17,500), and Novellas (<40,000)

Dark Fantasy/Horror

Desert Island Pick

Leviathan Sings to Me in the Deep” by Nibedita Sen [Nightmare Magazine Issue 69, June 2018; 5402 words]

nightmare 69
Cover Art by Andrey Kiselev

The Guild of Natural Philosophers is sponsoring Captain Bodkin’s final whaling voyage; their representative on the ship, Arcon Glass, has some unusual – and grisly – demands in exchange for the Guild’s support.

North of this organ he has placed a preserved section of the dense mass of tissue that lies beneath the oil organ; sailors call it the junk, for it provides no oil and has no use. His research, he explained to me, concerns itself with the spermaceti organ’s role in producing the unearthly noises that whales issue forth. He proceeded to demonstrate by connecting a number of wires and waxed cotton threads to the sac and tissue, then setting up a number of small drums at various angles to both. From his tools he produced a small instrument that he pressed against the soft swollen side of the wax and glycerine-filled organ and blew on—and lo, a low note echoed and swelled to great size and shivered off all corners of the room in a manner that rose the hairs on my arms.

The Best of the Rest

“Bondye Bon” by Monique L. Desir [FIYAH Literary Magazine Issue 5, Winter 2018; 4810 words]

The slaves of Andre Plantation rose up and overthrew their captors, and helped establish the United Tribes of Mother Africa in what was once the Southeastern United States of America. So why does Heloise’s Manman keep that creepy white man locked in her closet?

The familiarity of his face frightens me. He is dressed in ratty clothes: a grimy black shirt with frills at the throat and his sleeves with their stained ruffles set off the sickly paleness of his skin. He doesn’t try to move — no point in doing that, his wrists are shackled together with a chain, connected to a bolted plate in the wall. He looks up at me, eyes bright in the dark and smiles, baring his white, straight teeth.

It’s Easy to Shoot a Dog” by Maria Haskins [Beneath Ceaseless Skies Issue #260, September 13, 2018; 4470 words]

bcs 260
Cover Art: “Swamp Relic” by Piotr Dura

As a child Susanna struck an unholy bargain to acquire her beloved dog; a decade later the bill comes due.

They even burned a witch in town, just after Easter. She went to look, but though the woman’s hair was shorn and she was already burning, Susanna could tell it wasn’t anyone she knew. After, when the bones still smouldered, the priest in his stiff black cassock puffed himself up before the crowd, assuring them the witch’s spells and crafts would all unravel now that she was dead. Susanna stood there until dusk, waiting to see if anything would change, but the world remained the same as far as she could tell.

Triquetra” by Kirstyn McDermott [Tor.com, September 5, 2018; 11,826 words]

Snow White is all grown up now, living in a castle with her husband and daughter. Her wicked stepmother and that awful mirror are locked away, but one of them may be the key to saving her daughter from a horror worse than she faced in her own youth.

“You—” I cough, backing away from the table, away from the woman now supporting herself by its edge. “You spelled me!”
“Only your memory, Fairest. My needs are precise.”
“You—you wretched creature! I wish you had died on my wedding day!”
Smiling, she sinks back down into her chair. “No, you don’t. There is too much kindness in your heart, even now, even for such a wretched creature as myself.”

Black Fanged Thing” by Sam Rebelein [Shimmer Magazine Issue 41, January 2018; 4823 words]

Every sundown, a strange beast stalks the streets of town dragging its clatter of bottles behind it. Each bottle contains a slip of paper, one for every adult. If anyone wishes to know what is written on theirs, all they have to do is ask…

The pathetic, hunched little figure shuffled laboriously past Jude’s home, tugging those bottles on twine behind itself. Sisyphus against thousands of boulders.
The thing passed, and vanished around the bend at the other end of the lane. The neighborhood became silent. And the sun sank.
Phil sniffed. “Tomorrow, then,” he said.
“Tomorrow,” said Jude.

“Yard Dog” by Tade Thompson [FIYAH Literary Magazine Issue 7, Summer 2018; 2947 words]

fiyah 7
Cover Art by Mariama Alizor

Yard Dog plays music so glorious he can reduce the room to tears, turn the drinks sour, render all drugs useless. No one knows who he is or where he comes from, but before long someone comes looking for him.

Shed said it slower and louder. “Please. Have you. Seen my. BROTHER. Thank you.”
“I don’t know you or your brother. How did you get in, anyway? We’re not open. Get the fuck out of here.”
The way I heard it, Shed just smiled at her and went to use the john, but never came back out. Hours later when tempers had cooled somewhat, Sue got curious about him, had one of the men check the bathroom. They found his raggedy clothes, a trail of blood, strips of skin, meat and other fluids leading from the door to one of the stalls. Al said it was like he had shed his skin, which is how come we called him Shed. It wasn’t till later that we figured he was looking for Yard.

One for Sorrow, Two for Joy” by LaShawn M. Wanak [Fireside Magazine Issue 54, April 2018; 3471 words]

The Undertaker knows how to get the crows to take people’s sorrows away when they lose a loved one; but they also want something from her she refuses to give.

Walking down a sidewalk, hot tears streaming down her cheeks. Not aware of where she is, only knows that she’s been walking, walking so long that there are blisters on her feet, but the pain is nothing, nothing. A crow lands at her feet, pecking at the pavement before looking up at her with one black, bright eye.
—what you looking at? Think you can bring her back? Unless you can take away my pain, go, shoo, take off!

In the End, It Always Turns Out the Same” by A.C. Wise [The Dark Issue 37, June 2018; 3565 words]

One by one, the children on Richard McGinty’s school bus route are disappearing. So the sheriff does what any good sheriff would do, and calls the Super Teen Detective Squad – who’ve got their own issues to work out.

Lately she’s been having recurring dreams about murdering Greg. In fact, she’s dreamt about murdering every single member of the Teen Detective Squad. More than once, she’s woken with blood on her hands. She has no idea where the blood comes from. The only thing she knows for certain is that it isn’t hers. Sometimes she wonders if she’s spent so much time thinking about becoming a monster that she’s turned into one after all.

Space-Based Science Fiction

Desert Island Pick

Umbernight” by Carolyn Ives Gilman [Clarkesworld Magazine Issue 137, February 2018; 18,059 words]

clarkesworld 137
Cover Art: “Arrival” by Artur Sadlos

The colonists on Dust don’t know much of what happens to the surface of the planet when it faces Umber – the planet’s second star – they just know it’s deadly. When much needed supplies are dropped right in the middle of Umbernight, a brave few will find out why.

The road had sprouted all manner of creatures covered with plates and shells—little ziggurats and stepped pyramids, spirals, and domes. In between them floated bulbs like amber, airborne eggplants. They spurted a mucus that ate away any plastic it touched.
We topped a rise to find the valley before us completely crusted over with life, and no trace of a path. No longer could we avoid trampling through it, crushing it underfoot. Ahead, a translucent curtain suspended from floating, gas-filled bladders hung across our path. It shimmered with iridescent unlight.

The Best of the Rest

Traces of Us” by Vanessa Fogg [GigaNotoSaurus, March 1, 2018; 6572 words]

Two sentient starships cross paths in the vastness of space, each carrying a passenger that has been waiting a long time to connect with the other.

The ship contained the memories of over a thousand individuals. Recorded patterns of synaptic firing, waves of electrical and biochemical activity: the preserved symphonies of a human mind.
The minds currently conscious in and around the ship were not the same as their flesh-and-blood progenitors, the human beings of Old Earth. These new minds had had centuries to meld with one another and evolve; to modify themselves. They delighted in sensory inputs unimaginable to Homo sapiens—some could sense the entire electromagnetic spectrum. Some could consciously track the movement of a single electron or see all the radiating energies of a star.
Yet the second ship requested the recording of a single unmodified mind from the first.

Fleeing Oslyge” by Sally Gwylan [Clarkesworld Magazine Issue 140, May 2018; 9216 words]

After the invaders overrun her home town, Senne takes refuge with a group of soldiers searching for the rest of their unit. Not everyone in the group may be trustworthy.

Better the cold mist and these days of hunger and endless walking than trying to hide in broken Oslyge. Better this than letting myself be taken to the camps the Tysthänder, the Peace Hands, claim are for our safety. Our safety in this time of transition; that’s what their bulletins said. No one is sure whether the invaders—“project administrators” as they call themselves—are of human stock, as we are, or are alien.
Their guards are human enough.

“Inscribed on Dark Water” by Gregor Hartmann [Interzone #277, September/October 2018; 8205 words]

interzone 277
Cover Art by Vince Haig

Olani is a young marine biologist interning at a fuel refinery on the frontier planet Zephyr. She’s not getting much out of her time there: most of the crew either ignores her or treats her with disdain and she basically just mops up shit all day. When an inspection crew comes to the plant she has an opportunity to advance her career and she must decide if she’s the kind of person who will do whatever it takes to get ahead.

Olani was a child when Pico erupted. The supervolcano vomited up so much gas and debris that Zephyr’s albedo increased. Light bounced off the cloud tops and back into space instead of heating the atmosphere. The temperature fell inexorably. As a kid, Olani had fun doing unusual things like playing in snow in an equatorial city. Only later did she understand why adults were whispering and crying.

It was touch and go for a long time. If the sea had frozen over, the oxygen produced by phytoplankton wouldn’t have been released to the atmosphere and everyone would have suffocated. Ocean, bless them, had kept that from happening. If you were looking for heroes of applied marine biology, Ocean was the place to find them.

“Prophet of the Roads” by Naomi Kritzer [Infinity’s End, Solaris; 4721 words]

The Engineer was an AI that once shaped the course of human development; now it exists only in fragments. With the solar system mired in violent conflict, Luca hopes to reunite the fragments and return human society to a state of peace and prosperity.

I was on a ship in orbit, so I didn’t watch people die; I went down, searching for survivors, since we’d been told they were well-prepared, defiant, probably equipped with pressure suits and subdomes and any number of other possibilities. Instead, we found bodies of civilians. In the moments before death, people clung to one another, uselessly trying to shield their loved ones from the vacuum of space that was rushing in around them.
In the dream, I look for the Engineer, but do not find it. Everything is destroyed. Everything.

The Hydraulic Emperor” by Arkady Martine [Uncanny Magazine Issue 20, January/February 2018; 6601 words]

Kinesis Industrial One hires Mallory Iheji to win an auction for a rare and mysterious Qath box. The reward – a long lost film made by her favorite artist – should be more than worth her risk, but the Qath only accept personal sacrifices as payment and more than a few participants are willing to give up anything to get it.

I’m not into aliens the way the Qath groupies are into aliens. A Qath box doesn’t do anything. It doesn’t tell you anything about someone else’s mind; it won’t let you out of yourself, even for a minute. It’s just not human, which apparently gets to some people: the strangeness of it, of owning something made by otherwise life, otherwise minds. The Qath are the only aliens we’ve got, and they don’t interact with us much—but they like their auctions. Their auctions and their little boxes. What Kinesis Industrial wanted with one I wasn’t sure I wanted to know.

The Wait is Longer Than You Think” by Adrian Simmons [GigaNotoSaurus, May 1, 2018; 7813 words]

Like most humans, John is a social animal. He’s marooned on a remote planet with a Kinri named Colophinanoc and the Kinri can’t conceive of why anyone would require social interaction to maintain their mental health. And any possible rescue is years away.

Colophinanoc was a captive audience. It was crucial that Colophinanoc didn’t feel like a captive audience.
If that happened, Colophinanoc would surely suggest that they leave off the fishing boat and work on the traps—which they did separately. It had not taken long for Colophinanoc to come up with a dozen or more tasks that they did separately.
He waited; watched the sunken fan tree where they had herded the fish. In his impatience, the words came to fast. He couldn’t wait anymore. “Yeah, so there we are, Sully and I, trying not to bust out laughing at Nanooni and—” the slightest shiver runs through the reed boat, Colophinanoc shifting, Colophinanoc getting sick of him.

The Freeze-Frame Revolution by Peter Watts [Tachyon Publications; 41,275 words]

freeze frame rev
Cover Art by Elizabeth Story

The starship Eriophora treks across the galaxy, waking various crew members for a few days every thousand years or so when it needs assistance building gates for other ships to fast-travel through. These are not ideal conditions to stage a mutiny, but Sunday Ahzmundin is going to try anyway.

Back when we first shipped out I played this game with myself. Every time I thawed, I’d subtract the duration of our voyage from the date of our departure; then check to see when we’d be if Eriophora were a time machine, if we’d been moving back through history instead of out through the cosmos. Oh look: all the way back to the Industrial Revolution in the time it took us to reach our first build. Two builds took us to the Golden Age of Islam, seven to the Shang Dynasty.
I guess it was my way of trying to keep some kind of connection, to measure this most immortal of endeavors on a scale that meat could feel in the gut. It didn’t work out, though. Did exactly the opposite in fact, ended up rubbing my nose in the sheer absurd hubris of even trying to contain the Diaspora within the pitiful limits of earthbound history.

(Though The Freeze-Frame Revolution is slightly over the word limit, the author considers it a novella and Hugo rules allow some leeway for stories within twenty percent of the limit if the committee deems it appropriate. I am unsure if other awards have similar caveats.)

Artificial Condition (The Murderbot Diaries) by Martha Wells [Tor.com Publishing; 32,446 words]

Murderbot takes a job protecting a group of scientists who are trying to negotiate the return of their data from the company that fired them, but its true goal is recovering information about its own troubled past.

“I’m not your crew. I’m not a human. I’m a construct. Constructs and bots can’t trust each other.”
It was quiet for ten precious seconds, though I could tell from the spike in its feed activity it was doing something. I realized it must be searching its databases, looking for a way to refute my statement. Then it said, Why not?
I had spent so much time pretending to be patient with humans asking stupid questions. I should have more self-control than this. “Because we both have to follow human orders. A human could tell you to purge my memory. A human could tell me to destroy your systems.”
I thought it would argue that I couldn’t possibly hurt it, which would derail the whole conversation.
But it said, There are no humans here now.
I realized I had been trapped into this conversational dead end, with the transport pretending to need this explained in order to get me to articulate it to myself. I didn’t know who I was more annoyed at, myself or it. No, I was definitely more annoyed at it.

The list continues with parts 2 and 3.

You can also check out my monthly Best Of columns for more great recommendations!

The Best Short SFF – October 2018

Reminder: While many of the stories in this column are available to read free online, these venues pay the authors for their work and rely on income from readers to do so. If one or more of these zines consistently publishes fiction that you like, please consider buying a subscription. Or, if you read a story or stories that you especially like, consider purchasing the issue it appears in. If the story is available to read online, clicking on the name of the story will send you there; subscription/donation/purchase information is available at each site. For stories that are not available to read online, there is a link to that zine’s home page. Thank you for reading and supporting short form SFF!

No time for zine reviews this month, but I still managed to squeeze in plenty of reading. Here are the stories that stood out for me:

Must Read

Nine Last DaysNine Last Days on Planet Earth”, Daryl Gregory (Tor.com 9/19/2019) Novelette

At first glance, the title of Daryl Gregory’s novelette implies a countdown. It might take a moment to realize that the particular ordering of the first three words – “Nine Last Days”, not “Last Nine Days” – robs it of its urgency. All our days are among our last. We peek in on nine of them strewn throughout the long life of LT, who at the age of ten witnesses a meteor shower that seeds the earth with alien flora, an event that shapes the course of his life as well as the planet’s history. LT has no use for the reactionary narratives that often guide stories of alien invasion; he seeks only knowledge and understanding and in doing so he makes a lasting positive impact on the world. Gregory’s masterful, impressionist epic offers an optimistic course-correction for our cynical times.

Highly Regarded

interzone 277“Inscribed on Dark Water”, Gregor Hartmann (Interzone #277, Sept 2018) Novelette

Another outstanding entry in Hartmann’s Zephyr story cycle. Olani is an intern at a fuel refinery on the frontier planet of Zephyr, but instead of being a stepping stone to greater things she mostly just cleans up after people who either resent or ignore her. Two women at the refinery take an interest in her; religious “Pather” Tessa is always plying her with advice that seems to have little to do with a successful career path and more with personal fulfillment, while lawyer Mingzhen pursues a dalliance with Olani that promises connections with the “right” people. Mingzhen offers the surer path to career advancement; Olani finds it easy to dismiss Tessa’s advice as fanatical religiosity, but she may have a point underneath all that pretense. “Inscribed on Dark Water” is the definition of grown-up sci-fi: intricate worldbuilding, intimate and insightful character detail, a perfect balance of hard and social SF.

We Ragged Few”, Kate Alice Marshall (Beneath Ceaseless Skies #261, 9/27/2018) Novella

Now that the rothounds have crossed the warding stones at the boundary, Reyna knows her late sister’s prophecy will come true and the village will be destroyed. Talgren, the village chief, has his own soothsayer who offers a more convenient counter-explanation for the prophecy’s claims. Reyna and her band of believers must act against Talgren’s wishes and plan their flight in secret, but with so much preparation required their chances of escaping diminish with each passing day. “We Ragged Few” offers classic Sword-and-Sorcery feels with a modern flavor. The details of the setting and backstory (mythology, history, social structure, etc.) are as refined as a story of this length can possibly offer, yet Marshall keeps everything moving at a tight pace. I enjoyed the fact that while Talgren was clearly the story’s antagonist, his willingness to indulge Reyna’s transgressions and hope that she will come to accept his truth makes it hard to hate him, at least for a little while. Great characters and an engrossing narrative make for one of the year’s best novellas.

Exit Strategy (The Murderbot Diaries), Martha Wells (Tor.com Publishing) Novella

Everything comes full circle for Murderbot in the conclusion to Wells’ quadrilogy of novellas. The GrayCris Corporation takes Doctor Mensah hostage, believing her responsible for the difficulties Murderbot has caused them. Murderbot must affect a rescue of its friend without giving up the goods it has on GrayCris and while almost certainly walking into a trap. Wells weaves together all the elements that have made this series such a rousing success: caustic humor, lightning-paced and suspenseful storytelling, and a deeply human emotional core. The action in Exit Strategy is almost non-stop, but the true reward for readers is the completion of Murderbot’s character arc, its journey from self-serving anti-hero to selfless hero; a transition it achieves without losing the edge that made it so endearing in the first place.

Lightspeed 101Super-Luminous Spiral”, Cameron Van Sant (Lightspeed Magazine Issue 101, Oct 2018) Short Story

The protagonist is an undergraduate creative writing student who hasn’t written anything worth a damn until he falls for “galaxy boy” – a classmate whose “blue and green skin is speckled in spirals of twinkling light.” Profundity pours from him until galaxy boy moves on to his next catch, leaving our hero to chase the dragon. I keep telling myself that I don’t like stories told in the second person, then one like this comes along that utilizes it to good effect. A convincing and compelling journey of self-discovery seems to be what second person was built for.

Thirty-Three Percent Joe,” Suzanne Palmer (Clarkesworld Issue 145, October 2018) Novelette

The hero of Palmer’s tragicomic novelette is a terrible soldier who is so incompetent he can’t even die on the battlefield when he tries. He keeps getting injured enough to require mechanical limbs and organs to replace the ones he loses, all of which are “smart” enough to conspire to keep him out of harm’s way. Similar in theme to Palmer’s  sardonic enough Hugo-winning war story “The Secret Life of Bots”, “Thirty-Three Percent Joe” practically irradiates the reader with melting-point level sardonicism. A depressingly cynical, absurdist take on the future of warfare; the kind of story you want to kick yourself for laughing with but you just can’t help it.

Also Recommended

BCS 261The Horror of Party Beach”, Dale Bailey (Lightspeed Magazine Issue 101, Oct 2018) Novelette

The elderly narrator recalls his first high school girlfriend, fellow science nerd Elaine. Something wasn’t quite right with Elaine, and it all leads back to her mad-scientist father. Some of Bailey’s best stories deliver on the promise of their retro b-movie titles; this one has a nice slow burn leading to the titular event and ends with a great kicker.

The Tragedy of Zayred the Splendid”, Grace Seybold (Beneath Ceaseless Skies #262, 10/11/2018) Novelette

War-bards Zayred the Splendid and Meriri the Undying were friends who fought in battle together; now they are locked in rival campaigns to publicly discredit the other. Great characters in a fun setting, spiked with an air of light but ghoulish humor.

The Best Short SFF – August 2018

Reminder: While many of the stories in this column are available to read free online, these venues pay the authors for their work and rely on income from readers to do so. If one or more of these zines consistently publishes fiction that you like, please consider buying a subscription. Or, if you read a story or stories that you especially like, consider purchasing the issue it appears in. If the story is available to read online, clicking on the name of the story will send you there; subscription/donation/purchase information is available at each site. For stories that are not available to read online, there is a link to that zine’s home page. Thank you for reading and supporting short form SFF!

August was a pretty light month for recommendations – I hope my post-surgery temperament did not spoil my enjoyment of anything worthwhile. Also, I got a little behind during recovery, so some of July’s and August’s readings have been pushed to September.

rogue protocolMust Read

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

Wells continues to spin gold out of her “cynical robot grudgingly rescues inept humans from certain death” formula. Character growth and a building-block approach to the series’ overall narrative design are what keeps things fresh, while the suspenseful hi-tech action and acerbic, eyeroll humor remain steadfast. In this third-go-round, Murderbot is looking into a terraforming facility that GrayCris may be using as a cover for its illegal alien artifact hoarding scheme. It has to use its “augmented human security consultant” persona again when encountering a group of humans with the same objective. Murderbot’s ruse is sniffed out by the humans’ impossibly earnest and painfully loyal bot companion, Miki, but Murderbot manages to bring Miki into its confidence by promising to keep its beloved friends safe (and you know how those squishy meat sacks love to throw themselves into mortal peril). The denouement is an enticing segue into the fourth and final novella in the series, which can’t come soon enough.

Clarkesworld 143Highly Regarded

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

Police detective Kate is investigating the horrifying, seemingly motiveless murder of a family, in which the wife has gone missing. Later, she wakes up in the middle of the night to discover that her own husband and newborn son have been replaced by ringers. Ordinarily, it is frustrating when the reader figures out what’s going on long before the hero does – but in this case that is precisely the point of Egan’s story, and what makes its scenario so terrifying.

“The Privilege of the Happy Ending”, Kij Johnson (Clarkesworld Issue 143, August 2018) Novelette

Johnson’s metafictional fairy tale follows a young girl named Ada and her talking hen, Blanche, who are forced to go on the run from a horde of terrifying bird-like lizard creatures known as wastoures, who devour every living thing in their path. The narrator frequently breaks the fourth wall to divulge the fates of characters Ada and Blanche encounter on their journey, and comment on the reader’s expectations for who should and shouldn’t get a happy ending. The cliffhanger-style storytelling is exciting, though coupled with frequent reminders that the act of storytelling itself is inherently cruel.

fireside 58Also Recommended

“The Athuran Interpreter’s Flight”, Eleanna Castroianni (Strange Horizons, 7/2/2018) Short Story

An unsettling sci-fi story about the exploitation of the weak and the violation of bodily autonomy. Delicately written, but still wrenching and emotionally taxing; please heed the content warnings before reading.

 

“The Anchorite Wakes”, R.S.A. Garcia (Clarkesworld Issue 143, August 2018) Short Story

Sister Nadine is starting to notice some strange goings on at her parish, but is she losing her mind or finding it?

“Scavenge, Rustic Hounds”, Manuel Gonzales (Lightspeed Issue 99, August 2018) Short Story

A quick and creepy domestic horror story about a woman who believes her home is being invaded by strange creatures at night, while her husband thinks nothing is wrong.

“A Bond as Deep as Starlit Seas”, Sarah Grey (Lightspeed Issue 99, August 2018) Short Story

A lively space adventure about a hauler who needs a newer ship to keep up with the demands of commerce, but doesn’t want to part with the old ship she was bonded to.

“The Unusual Customer”, Innocent Chizaram Ilo (Fireside Magazine Issue 58, August 2018) Short Story

A culinary-themed folk tale about a fatherless girl working in her mother’s restaurant who meets a man wearing an invisible cloak.

“Chasing the Start”, Evan Marcroft (Strange Horizons, 7/9/2018) Novelette

A legendary, aging “strandrunner” races through different historical periods in time, with one final goal in mind before she retires.

“Kingfisher”, Robert Reed (Clarkesworld Issue 143, August 2018) Novelette

A new Great Ship story, in which the title character searches the expanse of the enormous world-sized vessel for hundreds of thousands of years to find his long lost love.

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 Allan 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 art’s sake. The tone of the story becomes increasingly frantic as Daljeet and his 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 will probably die in “So Easy”. The young teen girl who narrates the story addresses it to her mother, who takes 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 good 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. His desire to make his mother proud motivates him and gets the reader on his side. 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 investigating a horrific crime in which finds a man and his children murdered in their home, while his wife has gone missing. With no clear motive, Kate presumes the wife kidnapped by the killers, but it soon becomes obvious that she was the killer. Without getting into any spoilers, I’ll just say shit goes sideways from there. Egan, most famous for his math-based sci-fi, proves adept at telling more personal tales where mathematics and science are more peripheral concerns. “The Nearest” is not a straight work of science fiction or fantasy, but a titillating and disquieting work of pure speculation. It’s easy 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 the buyer won’t scrap her for parts. Once she realizes the Nikutan have duped her, 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 world-building, the sudden turn into danger and despair, the exciting climax. One drawback was that it was easy to figure out how the Nikutan would double cross Jeri; the ruse is convincing though—at least, convincing enough for me to believe it would fool Jeri 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 Elliott’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 finish up his long-gestating writing projects, but when magic goes haywire in his home, he discovers a runaway boy who from the nearby magic school who suffered 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, the law doesn’t punish criminals with incarceration or execution: they become walkers on “The Atonement Path”. However, this supposedly enlightened future glosses over a disturbing reality of the treatment of the walkers by the free citizens of the republic. I found Alex Irvine’s work of transgressive fiction to be overly cynical and exploitative, plying the reader 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, well, literally anything triggers you.
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 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 to understand 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 protected 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

The Best Short SFF – May 2018

Reminder: While many of the stories in this column are available to read free online, these venues pay the authors for their work and rely on income from readers to do so. If one or more of these zines consistently publishes fiction that you like, please consider buying a subscription. Or, if you read a story or stories that you especially like, consider purchasing the issue it appears in. If the story is available to read online, clicking on the name of the story will send you there; subscription/donation/purchase information is available at each site. For stories that are not available to read online, there is a link to that zine’s subscription page. Thank you for reading and supporting short form SFF!

If this list looks a little slight, it is due to the fact that three of my regular reads (Fantasy & Science Fiction, Interzone, Shimmer) have not been fully chewed and digested yet. They will be included in June’s reading.

Must Read

The Wait is Longer Than You Think”, Adrian Simmons (GigaNotoSaurus, 5/1/2018) Novelette
John the Human and Colophinanoc the Kinri are marooned on a distant planet. Rescue is coming, but it’s going to be awhile – years in fact – and for John, survival means more than just having enough to eat: he needs a friend. Unfortunately, the Kinri are a fundamentally solitary race, who can’t comprehend humans’ obsession with socializing. Adrian Simmons funny, lyrical, heartfelt (and heartbreaking) novelette “The Wait is Longer Than You Think” is the kind of story where the characters figure out how to do everything right, but it still goes wrong because the universe is a shitty and unforgiving place. Far from cynical or pessimistic, though, it evinces a healthy stoicism about the fate of its heroes, and revels in the small victories that make life worth the effort.
The Freeze-Frame Revolution (Sunflower Cycle), Peter Watts (Tachyon Publications 5/29/2018) Novella
After sixty-five million years of trekking across the galaxy building gates to facilitate human expansion, some of the crew of the Eriophora want to stage a mutiny against the AI that runs their lives. It’s a tough thing to manage when they spend nearly all of the journey in cold sleep and they don’t even know who or how many of their allies will be awake at the same time, at intervals stretching several millennia or more. The most striking thing about the scope of “The Freeze-Frame Revolution” is the way it makes the scale of the universe and the wonder of discovery feel like more of a prison than a liberating experience. Watts falls within the lineage of classic hard SF writers who can make far-future science magic seem tangible, but his true gift lies in how personable he makes it. Heavy themes like alienation, the value of existence, and the nature of consciousness are woven into the brisk narrative with humor and pathos.
murderbot 2Artificial Condition (The Murderbot Diaries Book 2), Martha Wells (Tor.com 5/8/2018) Novella
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. It takes a job running security for a group of disgruntled scientists as a cover to infiltrate the company but soon realizes that dealing with other AI can be trickier than dealing with humans. Tightly plotted with more personal stakes than its predecessor, Artificial Condition 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.

Highly Regarded

The Root Cellar” by Maria Haskins (Beneath Ceaseless Skies #251, May 10, 2018) Short Story
Haskins’ weirder-than-weird tale features a pair of child siblings – older sister/narrator Amadine and baby brother Jeremy – who suffer a gruesome ritual at the hands of their father, who insists he is protecting them from someone much worse. They later discover that he wasn’t kidding. Running on pure nightmare-logic, “The Root Cellar” sneaks under your skin with ghastly imagery and a beautifully sustained atmosphere of creeping menace.
Blessings”, Naomi Novik (Uncanny Magazine Issue 22, May/June 2018) Short Story
Noble-born baby Magda’s parents invite six fairies to a dinner party hoping to secure at least one blessing for their child. The guests have a little too much to drink and the blessings get hilariously out of hand. The story skips forward to Magda as an adult, to show us the result of their shenanigans. Novik shows off her dynamic grasp of fairy-tale narratology in a very short story that is both perfect the way it is and makes you wish there was more.
Fleeing Oslyge”, Sally Gwylan (Clarkesworld Issue 140, May 2018) Novelette
This military-colony SF story 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 disoriented as Senne, who is not a soldier and understands nothing about war or the army. 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.
Lightspeed 96Our Side of the Door”, Kodiak Julian (Lightspeed Issue 96, May 2018) Short Story
The Narrator of this story is 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.

Also Recommended

“When the Rains Come Back”, Cadwell Turnbull (Asimov’s Science Fiction, May/June 2018) Short Story
Now Watch My Rising”, A. Merc. Rustad (Fireside Magazine Issue 55, May 2018) Flash Fiction

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