The Rack – Zine Reviews for the Week of January 26, 2019

Clarkesworld Issue 148, January 2019

Cover Art: “Ghostship” by Pascal Blanché

A tiny weapon “as long as a rose’s thorn” calling itself Kali rockets toward earth in Jamie Wahls’ “Eater of Worlds”. When it strikes the moon, it gives birth to Kali 2, who then begets Kali 3 when it kills and inhabits a human on Earth named Zephyr Vargas. And that’s when Payload takes over, intent on fulfilling its mission to devour the planet. But Kali 2 stars to question their mission. It’s a neat idea, and the bickering between Kali 2, Kali 3, and Payload is entertaining for a time. Without a clear-cut protagonist (Kali 2, maybe?) it was difficult to get invested in the outcome which required a long-winded info dump at the end to explain.
While hunting down a rich store of platinum, asteroid miners Niko and Ionna crash land and find something impossible in Natalia Theodoridou’s “One’s Burden, Again”. The asteroid has a breathable atmosphere and a settlement, and a man calling himself King Siphos is pushing a boulder up a hill. While fixing the machine that processes the boulders, Ionna learns the somber truth about the debt Siphos owes. And yes, Ionna and Niko wonder if the man they’ve met is the mythological Sisyphus. There isn’t much in the way of conflict or suspense in this story, and the author’s bid to tie Ionna’s emotional burden over her father’s death to Siphos’ physical one is too obvious to resonate. It is an otherwise enjoyable tale, and the sci-fantasy premise has a sprightly charm.
On a colony planet reminiscent of the antebellum south, robots and humans have a master-slave dynamic in Ray Nayler’s “Fire in the Bone”. During a harvest night celebration, the young, gentry-class narrator plans a secret tryst with his robot lover. He knows of worlds where humans and robots live as equals and wants to believe his robot lover is as “alive” as he is, despite what human society says about them. The prose is gorgeous, from the description of the orbiting harvester ship eclipsing the sun to the night-worms making music in the fields, evincing a rich distillation of history and culture and a singular sense of place and time. The ending features one of those twists that cajoles you into skimming through the whole thing again to see how it added together.
Derek Künsken’s “The Ghosts of Ganymede” follows two groups of post-nuclear war refugees, one Ethiopian and one Eritrean, to the titular Jovian moon where they get a second lease on life mining helium-3. After setting up camp they discover long abandoned alien monuments, haunted by “ghosts” of long dead beings trapped in a quantum state. Hindering their attempt to rid their new home of the poltergeists are the lingering cultural conflicts that led them to this new world. Some aspects of the premise are tough to chew on: any company sending two nationalities who just fought a long and devastating war against each other over 480 million miles away for a (presumably) profitable enterprise has some questionable projections to sort through, though it gives the author an opportunity to do some allegorizing about quantum wave functions. The details make this story work, like the day-to-day difficulties of creating a sustainable living environment on such inhospitable terrain.
There is an almost biblical prescience to the stargazing in Lavie Tidhar’s planetary vignettes, an unwavering devotion to the dream of a new home for a displaced people that finds fervid expression in his new story “Venus in Bloom”. In a Venusian cloud city, the famed botanist Samit dies surrounded by his miraculous flowers. His friend, the robot priest R. Brother Mekem, who fled earth for much the same reasons Samit did, and his granddaughter Maya, who joins with a mech to terraform the planet, are there to mourn him. The bittersweet resignation Maya carries in her work, knowing she must destroy “wild untamed” Venus to make it habitable for organic life, illuminates the contradictions that even the most hopeful idealism must bear.

Strange Horizons, 1/21/2019

Art for “The King’s Mirror” by Rachel Quinlan

In M.K. Hutchins’ Mayan fantasy “The King’s Mirror”, Wak-Lamat is a glass grinder ordered to fashion a mirror so the king can see visions from the goddess. The king enslaved the previous two mirror-makers who failed to give him what he wanted and is threatening to make Wak-Lamat the third. The goddess grants her visions to Wak-Lamat instead, while he would rather she didn’t. He sees his sister’s death not long after her nuptials and an equally despairing one about the kingdom’s fate.  Wak-Lamat’s integrity and sincerity make him an appealing protagonist, and overall “The King’s Mirror” succeeds with deft plotting, believable characters and a well-imagined setting. I thought the ending too pat, but still gratifying enough., 1/14/2019 and 1/16/2019

Skidbladnir is a living interdimensional ship encased in a shell that carries a human crew in “The Last Voyage of Skidbladnir” by Karin Tidbeck. Now the Ship is growing too large for its shell and is falling apart. The captain wants to sell off Skidbladnir for meat to make a deposit on a new ship, but the engineer Novik and mechanic Saga conspire to save her from that fate. Tidbeck has a preternatural gift for describing the otherworldly: “First it wasn’t there, and then it was, heavy and solid, as if it had always been. From the outside, the ship looked like a tall and slender office building. The concrete was pitted and streaked, and all of the windows were covered with steel plates. Through the roof, Skidbladnir’s claws and legs protruded like a plant, swaying gently in some unseen breeze.” There is some fun 90s nostalgia mixed in, as Saga discovers videotapes of an old Babylon 5-ish TV show called Andromeda Station, and the interludes describing the plots of the episodes are on the money. I wish the story had done a better job of supplying motivations for its characters. Novik and Saga stage their mutiny, and Skidbladnir trusts them, because the plot needs them to, not because those choices are earned.

Cover Art by Dadu Shin

John Chu’s “Beyond the El” is the story of Connor, a high-end “food crafter” who uses magic to make gourmet meals but can’t for the life of him recreate his late mother’s pot sticker recipe. His manipulative older sister Prue, who has been abusing him since he was a child, shows up at his restaurant one night demanding that he turn over his share of their mother’s money to their father, and he can’t bring himself to connect with the handsome singer from work who makes eyes at him every day. The sequences describing Connor’s food crafting are elegant and naturalistic, though they have little effect on the plot. Like Chu’s famous “The Water That Falls on You from Nowhere”, magic’s purpose is to transcribe emotional states to the physical realm. Connor is more pitiable than sympathetic, and the unfortunate result is that his magic is less spellbinding.


Recommended Stories (***Must Read; **Highly Regarded; *Also Recommended)

* “Venus in Bloom” by Lavie Tidhar

The Rack – Zine Reviews for the Week of January 12, 2019

Apex Magazine Issue 116, January 2019

Residents of a generation ship maintain continuity by passing memories of the deceased to the ship’s youths in Beth Dawkins’ “The Pulse of Memory”. Every adolescent’s rite-of-passage involves eating a fish that houses memories of the deceased; the catch is that everyone must “willingly” submit to death at age 65 and be fed to the fish, before their memories degrade. Cal watches his beloved grandmother go to her death just before he gets his own fish. He savors the experience so much that he later steals a second fish he hopes will contain his grandmother’s memories. Setting the table for this weird and wonderful premise makes for a solid first half; later it devolves into a muddled conspiracy thriller that squanders its potential.
In a dream-like fantasy world called the Escapement, the Stranger realizes that agents of the Colossi plan to rob the train he is on to acquire a dangerous new weapon. But is it too late for him and the Kid to stop them? “The Great Train Robbery” is pure escapism from Lavie Tidhar, one that refers to the ordinary world as a somber contrast to the wondrous happenings of his imaginary one. Not even a dose of bittersweet reflexivity can compete with the vanishing snake oil salesmen, shape-shifting criminal masterminds and monstrous stone giants of this carnivalesque reverie told in classic cliffhanger style.
Images of butterflies appear in unusual places throughout a Romanian neighborhood in Marian Coman’s “The Small White”. The story’s young narrator (referred to only as Four-Eyes) befriends a girl who may be connected to the appearances. This is not a pleasant story to read: the children are nasty to each other, the adults are nasty to the children, and the government is nasty to everyone. The general air of nastiness is undercut by the beauty and hopefulness of the butterfly images before that too is quashed.
A.J. McCullough’s flash piece “Bone Song” is macabre, yet melodic prose poem about a miller who fashions a musical instrument from the bones of a dead woman he finds washed up on the banks of the river.

Strange Horizons January 7, 2019

Three generations of a Vietnamese-American family deal with the consequences of an untested new technology in T.K. Lê’s “2086”. The narrator recalls that at age 8 their neighborhood was the first to receive a teleportation device. Several early users of the device vanished, including the narrator’s Bà Ngoại (grandmother). The family has trouble accepting that Bà Ngoại is gone, and the narrator believes Bà Ngoại’s presence is still with them in some form. The narrator’s recollection of their childhood perspective of the events is convincing and relatable. I was moved by their mother’s reaction to the loss of her own mother, and how the technology created a frustrating uncertainty (is she dead? Just missing? Still here somehow?) about Bà Ngoại’s fate.

GigaNotoSaurus January 1, 2019

Maria Haskins offers lighter-than-usual fare in “Hand Me Downs”, the story of a teenage troll named Tilda who wants to go to a famous dance academy while battling stereotypes about her identity. Her high school dance instructor wants her to wear a troll costume on stage—because being an actual troll isn’t “trollish” enough—and dance to music offensive to her culture. Her father, who already prefers she studies something more practical, doesn’t want her subjected to such humiliations and demands she give up dance altogether. There are nice touches of macabre humor mixed in with Haskins’ heartfelt intentions; overall, it’s an affecting story of self-determination.


Recommended Stories (***Must Read; **Highly Regarded; *Also Recommended)

** “Hand Me Downs” by Maria Haskins

** “The Great Train Robbery” by Lavie Tidhar

The Rack – Zine Reviews from Early September 2018

ASF_SepOct2018_400x570Asimov’s Science Fiction, September/October 2018

In this “slightly spooky” early fall edition of Asimov’s, Stephanie Feldman’s “The Witch of Osborne Park” carries that theme well. You would have to stretch your definitions to find any SFnal elements though; the story is a straight supernatural drama. Elizabeth moves to upscale Osborne Park with her husband Roger and 3-year-old daughter Abby. The neighborhood has everything they want, but Elizabeth becomes concerned when Dorothy, the older girl next door, starts a subtle bullying campaign against eager, naïve Abby. As Dorothy becomes more aggressive, a series of unusual  phenomena occur in and around their home. Feldman does excellent, effortless work establishing character, setting and tone and allowing her story to unfold from there. Its depiction of myriad parenting anxieties is spot-on. Elizabeth knows it’s absurd for a grown adult to engage in a personal feud with a 5-year-old, but oh how she wants to smush the little shit. And one can sympathize. The prose is pensive and insightful, balancing the sinister and the sentimental. Ruminating on her protective instinct, “Elizabeth thought of an article she once read – how an unborn baby’s cells remain in its mother’s body after it leaves for the bright world, how they linger for years, even decades. Maybe they’re slow blooming. Maybe they need the right angle of sunshine, the right breeze, the scent of morning lilies growing in the shadows of an iron gate.” The bait-and-switch plot twist is predictable, though the denouement still satisfies.
Erin Roberts has a nice streak going, with her excellent futuristic orphan tale “Sour Milk Girls” and her dark horror story “Snake Season” among my favorites this year. “The Grays of Cestus V” is a superb blend of the former’s psychological astuteness and the latter’s air of creeping menace. Laila is a miner and an artist on the frontier world of Cestus V, where the grays seep into everything, making the world and its people appear drab and colorless, a reality reflected in her paintings. The Pioneer Commission invites Laila to the planet’s much livelier central hub to speak about her art and her life on the frontier. The interview goes off-track when it becomes clear just how much the gray has affected her state of mind. Laila conflation of her moral and aesthetic values leads her, and the story, down a very ominous path. It’s a crafty work of fiction, though somber in tone.
A few of the stories by big-ticket authors yielded mixed results:
In Greg Egan’s novella, Sagreda and Mathis are “comps”, sentient NPCs built from discarded brain maps in a virtual reality construct. They are searching for the titular mathematical paradise of “3-adica”, where they can live without fear of deletion for violating the rules. The story picks up with the Sagreda and Mathis feeling their way through a lurid vampire bodice-ripper called Midnight on Baker Street (each of the game‘s “worlds” adapt public domain novels). They are searching for a specific color to enable Sagreda to finish a painting that will port them into 3-adica. Along the way they run afoul of a vampiric Percy and Mary Shelley, which brings them the negative attention they are trying to avoid. That the story’s version of paradise resembles a Greg Egan novel is a tad narcissistic, though a forgivable indulgence. One cannot begrudge the author his Shangri-La. But it hurts that what had been an entertaining mash-up of hard SF and pulp horror turns into a dreary algorithmic fantasia that can only be not a complete bore if you really, really, really, love geometry. The story’s ending struggles to regain its emotional footing, and finishes with a whimper. There is an interesting correlation with Roberts’ story, in that both involve an artist searching for the perfect color, though the result is variable.
Robert Reed likes his allegories cooked well done in “DENALI”; too bad I’m a medium rare kind of guy. In this alt-history story, instead of voting for leaders, Americans vote for potential futures. Aliens known as CAUTIONS left a quantum device in Theodore Roosevelt’s possession that generates the elected futures, distilled into easy-to-explain choices like STRENGTH, NO WAR, and STATUS QUO. STRENGTH wins often, as you might imagine, with PROSPERITY sometimes topping the polls. The 16th Amendment decrees that a future only needs 20% of the vote to win the election, so the winner always leaves the majority unhappy. Reed goes into parabolic overdrive from the start and never eases up on the gas.
In “R.U.R. 8?”, Stout and its fellow robots hide from the ever-present threat of the recycler, but when its friend Rozum loses a limb, Stout risks venturing out to the scrap heaps to find a replacement. I haven’t read the classic Czech play that inspired Suzanne Palmer’s latest story but I presume that much of it is in-jokey and reverential. Though the plot and its post-apocalyptic setting are comprehensible without such familiarity, it still didn’t come together for me. I almost always find Palmer’s keen sense of humor appealing; this time it failed to work its magic.
“The Huntsman and the Beast” is Carrie Vaughn’s gender-swapped retelling of Beauty and the Beast. In this version, the Prince and his huntsman, Jack, become lost in the woods during a storm, and happen upon the infamous cursed castle. The Beast lets the Prince escape once Jack agrees to become the Beast’s prisoner, and Jack’s perspective on the situation changes when he realizes the monstrous Master of the castle is in fact its Mistress. Vaughn gets plenty of mileage out of tying the characters’ motivations, and the readers’ expectations, to our presumptions about gender. Many of the authors A-list skills are on display: exquisite tension building, evocative atmospherics, incisive character moments. The rushed second half of the story relies on our familiarity with the source material to fill in the thematic blanks, and kept me from engaging with the romantic aspect. The finale works in a nice end-around to the humility the beast must learn to break the curse, allowing her to surrender to love without sacrificing her self-determination.

GigaNotoSaurus 9/1/2018

Too-long titles are proper for tall tales, and Sarah McGill’s western whopper “The Day Beth Leather Shot the Moon, as Told by Rosemary Bonebreak” fits the bill in that regard. Beth Leather is a “traveling librarian” who passes through White Horn from time to time, relating her outrageous adventures to Rose and her older sister Darlene. Over the years, Beth romances Darlene while Rose pines for Beth in secret. As Darlene matures, she grows tired of Beth’s wandering ways and Beth turns her attentions to Rose, promising to shoot the moon out of the sky for her. I enjoyed the droll tone and gaudy visuals of “Beth Leather”, and the mythic quality of the prose. Despite being among the shorter works published by this novelette-friendly venue, McGill’s story drags a bit in the middle. It builds to an exciting climax, though, as shooting the moon out of the sky goes about as well as you’d expect. I think my biggest issue was that I never connected with Rose’s longing for Beth; it is expressed in concrete terms, but doesn’t permeate the prose the way romantic longing should, especially when the narrator is the one doing the longing.

Beneath Ceaseless Skies

#259, 8/30/2018BCS 259

“Cold Ink” is a sci-horror novelette set in the industrial steampunk dystopia of Dean Wells’ Clockwork Millennials story cycle. Uninitiated readers shouldn’t have too much trouble jumping right in but should be aware Wells doesn’t waste much ink explaining things. The story follows Hester, whose feelings for casual flame Verity run deeper than she’s willing to admit. When Verity comes to her for help after a long absence, Hester risks everything to help her, even as Hester’s friends are getting killed off one by one. Wells has a talent for the macabre (the demonic ink of the title is used to chilling effect) and the world-building is deep and intricate enough to sell new readers on the other stories. “Cold Ink” is a little long, but still an entertaining, suspenseful story, with a gut-punch of a turn at the end.
Justin Howe’s “Periling Hand” also has a sci-fantasy feel but runs straight into the trap Wells’ story avoids: it’s brimming with exposition, leaving the story – about a man trying to acclimate to his new bio-integrated wooden arm – with little room to breathe. A compelling emotional core is hiding here somewhere, but is so buried beneath ceaseless infodumping I couldn’t get invested.

#260, 9/13/2018

The bleak, frosty atmospherics of Nina Kiriki Hoffman’s “Ancestor Night” lend its spectral premise extra bite. On the longest night of the year, the villagers trek through the deep snow to Memory Lake, where their departed loved ones will rise to the surface of the ice. Once there, the living relatives sing a prayer asking their ancestors to wake or stay asleep. Paolo and his siblings lost their parents a year ago; after singing the Ancestor Night prayer, his beloved oldest sister Jasna admits she caused their deaths. Their father wakes, and whispers something only Jasna can hear. “Ancestor Night” is a resonant documentation of an imaginary ritual, though a little too crisp and aerial to be more than an effective mood piece.
I love the way Maria Haskins lets images and emotions guide the structure of her stories, building them the way people reflect on the narratives that define them, rather than ordering them in a clean, linear fashion. Ten years of reflection, a journey from age 7 to 17, guide young Susanna in “It’s Easy to Shoot a Dog”, as she treks into the woods with her beloved dog, Brother, to the witch’s cottage to keep an old promise. Haskins’ prose offers a striking balance of harshness and delicacy. As a child, Susanna tells her parents she lost her little brother in the woods: “Even at the age of seven, the lies felt smooth and true upon her tongue. And Mama wailing like she’d ever cared for him, and Papa’s face gone hard as rocks and iron, as if he’d ever once held him close.” The writing is expressive, but taut, like a slow turning lever tightening a vise.

Fireside Magazine Issue 59, September 2018

I adored the cover for this month’s issue of Fireside so much that I felt the cover story, Annalee Flower Horne’s “CARBORUNDORUM>/DEV/NULL”, had to work hard to live up to it. Horne’s near-future SF depicts a world where smart homes have only made policing the behavior of young women easier. Teenager Sandra’s over-protective mother has their smart house programmed to watch Sandra’s every move; she can’t even walk out the front door without the house ratting her out. This doesn’t apply equally to the boys: her older brother Kyle can do whatever he wants, and Kyle’s friend Jack once manipulated the house to hide evidence of his sexual assault of Sandra. Sandra’s best friend Tish is a hacker, and the single line of code from which the story gets its title can get Sandra out of the house without her mother knowing, so they can go to a party where Tish’s crush, Ian, will be. In a disturbing but not altogether surprising twist, Ian isn’t much different from Jack, and his own smart house does his bidding. “CARBORUNDORUM>/DEV/NULL” is a timely story, considering how “guard the door” rapes at high school and college parties are part of the biggest news story of the moment. It’s also, unfortunately, timeless: the news story in question happened over thirty years ago. Horne’s near-future version just removes the need for an actual human to do the guarding. If not for Tish’s magic line of code, the end of this story could have been a lot more horrifying. The unsettling undercurrent of the story shows how women are conditioned from a young age to cope with sexual assault, and to tolerate the persistent presence of their rapists as a normal part of life.
I enjoyed Beth Goder’s satirical “How to Identify an Alien Shark”, a faux-university lecture meant to delineate the difference between actual sharks and an alien species known as the Tucabal-Gor, who live in the ocean and look a lot like sharks and who you definitely don’t want to get into an argument about economic theory with. It’s more of a long form joke than a story, built by adding piece after piece of outlandish but internally consistent logic to set up its punchline. “How to Identify and Alien Shark” may be plot-free, but it’s a fast and funny read. Also, I’m glad I don’t know any economic theorists.

kite maker“The Kite Maker”, Brenda Peynado (8/29/2018)

When the Dragonflies first landed on Earth seeking refuge from the destruction of their home world, frightened humans reacted with violence. The unnamed narrator was one of those reactionaries, but now she tries to make up for her ghastly behavior with extra kindness. She makes kites (which the aliens cherish), and when a Dragonfly named Tove comes into her shop, she wants to please him. But political and cultural realities complicate interactions between humans and Dragonflies, and continue to make it dangerous for Dragonflies to call Earth their new home.
This is one of those stories where agreeing with its basic positions (refugees need help, Nazis are bad, etc.) doesn’t translate to a positive response to the story. There are too many conveniences, and few real stakes, built into the premise to generate any dramatic tension. Everything feels staged; characters seem only to enter the scene to fulfill their function then exit when they are no longer useful, their motives telegraphed and unconvincing. Also, the narrator’s behavior toward Tove comes across as unwanted harassment, which soured my opinion of her. Intentional or not, the story does not address this issue satisfactorily.


Must Read

“It’s Easy to Shoot a Dog”, Maria Haskins (Beneath Ceaseless Skies #260, 9/13/2018) Short Story

Highly Regarded

“The Witch of Osborne Park”, Stephanie Feldman (Asimov’s Science Fiction, September/October 2018) Short Story

“The Grays of Cestus V”, Erin Roberts (Asimov’s Science Fiction, September/October 2018) Short Story

Also Recommended

“How to Identify an Alien Shark”, Beth Goder (Fireside Magazine Issue 59, September 2018) Short Story

“CARBORUNDORUM>/DEV/NULL”, Annalee Flower Horne (Fireside Magazine Issue 59, September 2018) Short Story

“Cold Ink”, Dean Wells (Beneath Ceaseless Skies #259, 8/30/2018) Novelette