Monday, March 2, 2015

Short fiction recommendations - January/February 2015

Now that I have entered the 21st century and have one of those newfangled gadgets everyone else has had seemingly forever, it's much more possible for me to do what I've been wanting to do for a long while now: explore the contemporary short science fiction field — most of which is online — thoroughly. So I've been reading a lot. I've read, or at least looked at,* every story published in January and February in every single free online sf magazine (and other magazines that regularly publish sf) that I'm aware of (a total of, good lord, forty-four magazines), as well as two magazines I subscribe to. If possible (a big if, as you'll see later on), I'd like to keep doing this and make a monthly thing out of recommendation posts.

*I made a pact with myself that'd I'd make it at least three dotepub pages into every single story, and...most of the time I did.

Before I get into talking about what this has been like, here's the list of magazines I've looked at. All are free online magazines except for Asimov's and Interzone. (For the sake of vertical space, I will not be putting this in bullet-list form, so apologies for the difficult-to-readness.) If there are any conspicuously missing from this list, please let me know!

[Click here to skip the boring lists]
[Click here to skip the boring general commentary and get to the recommendations]

The list: Abyss & Apex, Acidic Fiction, AE, Apex, Aphelion, Asimov's, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Betwixt, The Book Smugglers, Buzzy Mag, Clarkesworld, Cosmos, Crossed Genres, Daily Science Fiction, Expanded Horizons, Fantastic Stories of the Imagination, Fantasy Scroll, Fiction Vortex, The Future Fire, Galaxy's Edge, GigaNotoSaurus, The Golden Key, Ideomancer, Interfictions, Interzone, Kaleidotrope, Lackington's, Lightspeed, Mythic Delirium, Nature, Omenana, Omni Reboot, Perihelion, Plasma Frequency, Pornokitsch, Scigentasy, Shimmer, SQ Mag, Strange Constellations, Strange Horizons, Terraform, Three-Lobed Burning Eye,, Uncanny, Unlikely Story, Unsung Stories, Weird Fiction Review.

Of these, no fiction appeared during January and February in The Book Smugglers, The Future Fire, The Golden Key, Ideomancer, Interfictions, Omenana (does anyone know if there's gonna be an issue 2?), Scigentasy (they don't put a friggin year on anything, do they still exist?), or Three-Lobed Burning Eye.

Of the remaining, no fiction I found to be of any note (remember that I'm talking only about fiction) was published in Acidic Fiction, Aphelion (so terrible I'll probably stop looking at it), Beneath Ceaseless Skies (though admittedly fantasy has to work a LOT harder to convince me than sf does), Betwixt (more devoted to formula even than most), Cosmos, Crossed Genres, Daily Science Fiction (not so much relentlessly trivial as trivially relentless), Expanded Horizons, Fantastic Stories of the Imagination, Fantasy Scroll, Fiction Vortex, Galaxy's Edge (where every story feels exactly like the worst story in an all-original anthology from 1969), GigaNotoSaurus, Kaleidotrope, Lackington's, Lightspeed, Mythic Delirium, Nature, Omni Reboot (and honestly their website is such a pain that I'm probably going to stop looking), Plasma Frequency, Pornokitsch, Strange Constellations, Strange Horizons (sorry), Unlikely Story, Unsung Stories, and Weird Fiction Review. Each of the rest had at least one story I thought was worth recommending.

Before I go on, some general comments: first of all, nearly everything I read (or looked at, if I couldn't make it through) was terrible beyond belief. Not incompetent — perhaps surprisingly, nearly everything I read, even at the smaller magazines, was competent, even accomplished — but just pointless, formulaic, tedious, unnecessary.

Second, it's become pretty clear already, only two months in, that there really isn't any such thing as a "good magazine" in this field, as far as fiction goes (there are probably all kinds of "bad magazines," but it's too soon to call for most of them). Even the magazines that had more than one good story in them, the other things they published, and in one case the editors' comments, made it clear that the editors were not recognizing what I recognized in those stories, and had decided to publish them for reasons I would find...untrustworthy, at best. Unlike Jonathan McCalmont, I don't generally want magazines to focus on a specific "type" of story. And indeed, many of the magazines (Perihelion, say, or at the other end of the spectrum Apex) clearly do have such a focus, but nevertheless seem unable to distinguish between stories that live and stories that do not. But despite this difference, and despite my many problems with his arguments, McCalmont is absolutely right that there is a desperate need for stronger editorial stances in this field.

(Incidentally, the "major aesthetic sea-change" in short sf that he identifies — and, in my opinion, mis-analyzes — in Short Fiction and The Feels, it turns out, is not as widespread in the field as it actually stands, as a whole, as I had expected. It is, however, omnipresent in the work that attracts the most attention, and it remains a problem.)

Third, related to both and more important by far, this is just a terrible way to read. It's an awful feeling to go from story to story feeling nothing but suspicion, knowing that the chances are that what you're about to read will be trivial — if you're lucky. Far from any reputation I may have gained (in the teensy circles in which I have a reputation at all) for being negative-and-loving-it, I don't want to hate things, I don't want to be closed off, to be always suspicious. I want to approach everything with sympathy and openness. But this field simply does not allow for that approach. It's true that the rare good stories are wonderful surprises in this context, but they would be that in any context. Then, too, there's simply so much of it that if you're to have any hope at all of reading any significant portion of it you simply have to move quickly, be unforgiving, give up on most stories long before they're done. This is not a good way to read, and I have serious doubts if I'll want to keep doing it.

But at least for these two months I've already done it. So what did I find that was good, or at least decent? Arbitrarily arranged by the magazine in which they appeared, those magazines arbitrarily arranged in alphabetical order, and with largely superficial comments, there was:

Abyss & Apex

Corie Ralston, "Faith Is a Nanooka"
Not the most important story ever, but I appreciated this little unassuming thing about an elderly woman spending her last day of life in search of her robot dog and an understanding of God, life, and love. I especially liked the way the sequence of encounters she has during this day doesn't particularly pretend to be "realistic."

George S. Walker, "Dreadnought Under Ice"
Though I wish Walker would allow himself a little more time in between hitting the "enter" key, this story of the encounter between two very different minds removed, in different ways, from Earth, encased, in different ways, in metal, and placed in the under-ice oceans of Europa, by capital, is very much the kind of thing that science fiction should be doing.


Stephen Case, "Drying Grass Moon"
I have an irrational, indefensible, and honestly inexplicable fondness for stories about grouchy farmers stubbornly refusing to leave their farms IN SPAAAACE, and this is one of those. For me it even made up for the unsavory "heterosexual robot marriage is illegal and oppressed" storyline. I make no claim that it will do the same for anyone else.


Rhoads Brazos' "Inhale"
The language tries much too hard for a kind of warmed-over "loveliness," and the gambit at the end, as executed, is reductive, a closing off, but the conceit (time begins to run backwards, and cause-and-effect sense must be made of it), and Brazos' thoughtfulness in carrying it through, mostly makes up for the problems.


Eneasz Brodski, "Red Legacy"
I suspect that what I liked in this story is entirely different from what Brodski — who seems to be into a horrifying-sounding thing calling itself "rationalist fiction" — wanted me to like in it. Its investment in cycling through "tropes" and its treatment of personal tragedy are both frankly insipid, but the collision of the bizarrely, almost humorously disjointed structure with the melancholic tone is intriguing, as is its exploration of an alternate world in which strict Lysenkoism is both 100% true and useful.

Buzzy Mag

Paul Levinson, "Sam's Requests"
Alvaro Zinos-Amaro, "The Obvious Solution"
Both messy nostalgia, both the kind of dumb-but-fun stories I can enjoy while rolling my eyes at them.


Tang Fei, "A Universal Elegy" (trans. John Chu)
Bewilderment on a vast scale. I'd hoped to re-read this story — which I didn't know what to make of and am not even sure I liked — before writing this post, but it wasn't to be. But it is rare enough for a contemporary sf story to call for re-reading that I feel moved to recommend it regardless. The story's transmutations live in a realm very little sf cares to inhabit anymore.


Christien Gholson, "Tribute"
A bit schematic, like so many stories a bit too trying-for-beauty in its language, but the central action of the story, a centuries-long encounter in which both parties feel themselves to be facing an inexplicable monstrosity, is immensely striking.

The New Inquiry

Sam Kriss, "Manifesto of the Committee to Abolish Space"
Surprise! The New Inquiry wasn't on my list, and it isn't even an sf venue. Of course not — there is no way that Kriss's "Manifesto", which is already likely to be the best work of science fiction for all of 2015, could have been published in any of the existing sf spaces. This is why I protest. If I were fool enough to buy a Worldcon membership, I would nominate this for a Hugo in both the short story and related work categories. If you only read one item on this list, if you only read one thing ever again in your life, make it this. And then work, please work, to make sf a field in which this piece, both in its perspective and in its form, could have a place.


First of all, let me just say: Perihelion publishes a lot of fiction, and most of it is not only bad but reprehensible. Most of the stories seem to have all of the weaknesses of quote-unquote "golden age" sf, with none of the strengths. Before I came across the first of the stories from them I liked, I started to wonder if their submissions guidelines said, "When describing women, objectifying language is a must." Just for example. Go to almost any of their stories and search in the page for variations on the word "curves" if you don't believe me. (Their sub guidelines, by the way, do not say that, but they are gross in other, intimately related, ways.) In amongst all the dreck, though, I did find two pretty good stories, of a kind I doubt I'd find anywhere else. Dammit.

Karl Dandenell, "Human Faces"
Structurally reminiscent of Samuel R. Delany's "Aye, and Gomorrah," but with a sentimentality that put me in mind, not unpleasantly, of Clifford D. Simak's lesser works, and a well-done feeling of dislocation throughout.

A.L. Sirois, "Halieis Anthropon"
The Biblical reference in the title is a bit of an unnecessary distraction in this case (he said, as he prepared to send a story with a Biblical reference in the title to yet another magazine). Melancholy and the remembrance of things lost. The quailing of the mind in the encounter with the inexplicable. I may sound like a broken record sometimes with these things, but it's not repetition, it's necessity. This story is, though not without flaws, necessary.


Malon Edwards, "The Half-Dark Promise"
If you'd asked me what I was looking for when I started out reading these stories, "YA steampunk" would not have been any part of my answer, but — if that's what this is — here we are. Not My Kind Of Thing, maybe, but it's real.

SQ Mag

Michelle Ann King, "The Visitors"
As with many (or most) good contemporary sf stories, I could wish that King had let this story stay longer in her mind before writing it, or before finishing it (or at least I presume that is the problem; it is unfinished, not in the sense of being unpolished or too short or not detailed enough or lacking an ending, but in the sense of not being fully thought, fully experienced). But its puzzled, dread-filled approach to that classic sf theme, "transcendence," is more than welcome.

Tim Major, "Like Clockwork"
I read this story, centered on a powerful man who tries to make his Martian environment as much a nostalgic portrait of Earth as possible, as a critique of sf's frequent tendency to retreat inwards, playing around with "tropes" and trying to make everything always-already familiar. (In this way the steam-, gears-, and train-oriented nature of that portrait is particularly telling.) That it performs this critique without being condescending — indeed, with a very sympathetic sadness — is impressive. Meanwhile, the editors' comment that the "detail of Tim Major’s world and the strange characters who inhabit it recommended this story" to them is almost horrifying in its tone-deafness, the world being very pointedly undetailed (when pieces of the world outside bleed through toward the end it is with a jolt), the characters being anything but strange.


Yes, Terraform. I'm as surprised as you.

Julie Steinbacher, "Inter-Exo"
This story of teenagers sneaking off to get out of their body-covering suits (which they must wear at all times to avoid contagion) and have sex is little and almost inconsequential, but wonderful in its sense of bodies and the amazement of embodied, tactile experience.

Mark von Schlegell, "How a Dream Machine Works, Exactly"
This story is, frankly, 90% stupid bullshit of various kinds, but something in the other 10% nags at me. Every once in a while its account of reality's encounter with its own destruction-from-within (most of which account is, again, just bullshit) brushes against something that resists articulation.

Benjanun Sriduangkaew, "And the Burned Moths Remain"
More than anyone — anyone — else who uses the contemporary sf formula (the one-line opening and closing paragraphs, the heightened, "poetic" diction, etc etc), Sriduangkaew seems to me to be, one, using it in order to slip more lively work past editors who wouldn't otherwise know what to do with it, and two, thinking about what this formula is doing. To a large degree this just makes me sad, thinking about what she could be doing if she weren't forced into it (as with all of her stories that I've read this one seems to be straining uncomfortably against limitations not of its own choosing and not conducive to its own health), but nevertheless it is nice to see.


Richard Bowes, "Anyone with a Care for Their Image"
I can easily see a reading of this story that would dismiss it as "kids these days with their newfangled internet," but there's much more going on here than that. It's not even, as it would be easy to think, about disconnection, because its narrator is very often In The Thick Of Things and very well aware of it. It's more to do, perhaps, with the shifting of priorities that occur when mediation — or representation — achieves both primacy and invisibility, and of course with the infinite weirdness of the rich.

---------------------------------------------------'s both better and worse than I'd expected. Worse, because it's looking like sorting through all the noise to find the good work will be an unsustainable amount of labor. Despite the interventions of so many editors, it's essentially still slush reading. I'd hoped to be able to identify a good magazine or three but, again, it's already apparent that there are none, there are only randomly-placed good stories. Then, too, it is disheartening to realize that, though some of the magazines have distinct characters, there is no real difference between the large magazines and the small ones — the small ones serving mainly as overflow for the large ones. There don't seem to be any magazines taking advantage of their smaller size to publish work that could not find a place elsewhere.

But better, because I didn't expect when I started out to be able to recommend nineteen stories in this post — if we're talking averages, almost ten a month. (Speaking of statistics, yes, I'm aware that these stories skew male, at a rough count slightly more than the field-at-large does. I could speculate as to why this is, but it would probably sound, possibly be, disingenuous, and I prefer to wait and see if the pattern repeats itself.) Though then again — will any of these stories matter to me, or anyone else, after any amount of time has passed? They've all lingered in the mind enough that I didn't have to refer back to any of them to write these blurbs, but even just a year from now, or even next month? It's hard to say. With "Manifesto" as one major exception, in most cases it seems unlikely.


Molly Katz said...

Thanks for these recs! I didn't quite make it through the entire list (and I see you already have another post up), but I wanted you to know that I'm glad you're doing this. I don't think we're necessarily reading for the same things in all cases (I DO read for character in ways I don't think you'd approve of), but I still liked your picks. Which is interesting, since you felt that you were enjoying many of these stories for different reasons than the editors, as well.

I'm looking forward to seeing whether "Mutability,"in the latest issue of Asimov's, makes your next cut.

So, some brief thoughts on some of these stories:

I'm really glad to have read "A Manifesto..." and found myself thinking about it repeatedly when watching Interstellar last week.

Agreed 100% that Inter-Exo is great, and for just the reasons you say. In my opinion, it's a tightly focused but almost flawless story.

I enjoyed the writing of "Human Faces" quite a bit, but disliked the ending. It felt too easy and the saving grace of the "fad" of human faces in art too unexamined, really. A bit too "market forces save the day" for my taste.

"Halieis Anthropon" didn't really work for me. The idea of an anthropologist thinking: "The Red Planet had no “culture” per se" is pretty ridiculous to me. I don't feel this author put nearly enough thought into who this narrator was, and what it would mean to be an anthropologist. I do see that in many ways that wasn't the point of the story, but...I didn't like it.

I agree that "Inhale"'s ending closes off what the rest of the story opens up.

Ethan Robinson said...

Molly! Thanks for reading and THANKS for commenting.

"I DO read for character in ways I don't think you'd approve of"

My impulse is to say "ha ha ha noooo I do not disapprove" (my characters post, which I'm assuming is what most directly prompted this? is a polemic for something I believe but it's not something I feel 100% one way about), but also I have to admit I'm not even really sure what it means when people say they "read for character" - so...well, I'll just leave it at that.

"Which is interesting, since you felt that you were enjoying many of these stories for different reasons than the editors, as well."

This kind of thing is crucial to my understanding of sf! I mean obviously any piece of writing can be read against authorial/editorial/recommendorial intention, and any claim that sf is uniquely amenable to blah blah etc would be ridiculous, BUT sf is an extrapersonal 'n' multiplicitous literature, which means that distinctive disjunct readings might be more necessary to it? (I am still waking up.)

"I'm looking forward to seeing whether "Mutability,"in the latest issue of Asimov's, makes your next cut."

I looked and turns out this is in the June issue, already in my hands (and I'm guessing yours) because of the weirdness of print subscriptions, which means I probably won't actually be getting to it until the June post, which will be in July, haha. I still haven't quite read half of the April/May issue, I'm always behind.

Haven't seen Interstellar (I doubt I want to? though feel a semi-obligation?) but from what I know of it, yeah, "A Manifesto" seems extremely relevant.

I looked back up at my comments on "Inter-Exo" and realized I used the word "inconsequential" - more and more I seem to be reaching to that word and trying to use it almost as praise. Huh.

I agree with you pretty much entirely on the end of "Human Faces," though I have a faux-nostalgic fondness for that kind of silly ending, which is pretty common in the "golden age" and thereabouts...Simak has a similar tendency to choke at the end, for instance.

I get what you're saying about "Halieis Anthropon" and agree as far as it goes, though I think I attach more weight to the "not the point of the story" than you do. It's pretty clear to me that Sirois basically wanted to create in that character a sense of longing rootless restlessness (maybe even saudade?) but didn't quite know how to do it. Until he figures it out (assuming he ever does) I'm willing to accept an admittedly ridiculous placeholder.