Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Short fiction recommendations - May 2015

[Click here to skip the damn commentary and go straight to the recommendations.]

I no longer feel a need to write introductions to these posts, except of course that here's me, writing an introduction to this post.. A large portion of the less-than-monthly magazines didn't publish this month, which means the pool of stories was blessedly smaller than usual, which in turn means I guess it's impressive that I'm recommending as many as I am (though most of these recommendations come with reservations, not that that's unusual).

One thing I feel duty-bound to mention, much as it pains me, is that both Jonathan McCalmont and I seem to have been wrong about Terraform, which despite its unsavory attachments and practices has turned out to be more worth reading than I had expected (and I would have to assume less worth reading for him than he expected, because it's only occasionally anything like he described it after its first month). To my intense horror I'm recommending three stories they published this month. I'm only unreservedly enthusiastic about one — the Brissett — and other things they've done this month make me gag at best, and even though I'm recommending his story, advisedly, with a de-monetized archive link, I really wish they wouldn't have paid Tao Lin money. But there you have it. I tend to think that Terraform's relatively strong showing says more about the rest of the field than about Terraform itself: any field that can be improved by the arrival of capitalist resource-extractors is in a dire state.

Anyway, on to the now-traditional lists. As always, if a magazine you think I should be looking at is conspicuously absent from them, let me know; same goes for one-off sf issues of or individual sf stories in non-sf magazines, etc. Note that I'm not only looking at sf-exclusive magazines but any that publish sf often enough to make it worthwhile to check them out regularly.

[Click here to skip the damn lists and go straight to the recommendations.]

The changes from last month: Fiction Vortex has ceased publishing and so has been dropped. The first issue of Truancy made it clear that its interests are not mine, so I've dropped it too and wish it well. And I've added Escape Pod, which I hadn't included before because I'd been under the impression that they only had audio — which I can't do — for their stories, but it turns out they have text as well. As of now I have no plans to make any changes for next month.

The full list of magazines I consult regularly for these posts, all free online except for the ones marked with an asterisk: Abyss & Apex, Acidic Fiction, AE, Apex, Asimov's*, Betwixt, The Book Smugglers, Buzzy Mag, Clarkesworld, The Colored Lens, Cosmos, Crossed Genres, Daily Science Fiction, Diabolical Plots, Escape Pod, Expanded Horizons, Fantastic Stories, Fantasy Scroll, Farrago's Wainscot, The Future Fire, Galaxy's Edge, GigaNotoSaurus, The Golden Key, Ideomancer, Interfictions, Interzone*, Kaleidotrope, Lackington's, Lakeside Circus, Lightspeed, Liquid Imagination, Luna Station Quarterly, Mythic Delirium, New Haven Review, Omenana, Perihelion, Plasma Frequency, Pornokitsch, Scigentasy, Shimmer, SQ Mag, STRAEON*, Strange Constellations, Strange Horizons, Terraform, Three-Lobed Burning Eye, tor.com, Uncanny, Unlikely Story, Unsung Stories, Weird Fiction Review, Words Without Borders.

Of these, no new fiction appeared in May in Abyss & Apex, Betwixt, Cosmos, Expanded Horizons, Fantasy Scroll, Farrago's Wainscot, The Future Fire, The Golden Key, Ideomancer, Interfictions, Interzone (i.e., I haven't read the fiction in the May-June issue yet), Kaleidotrope, Lackington's, Liquid Imagination, Luna Station Quarterly, New Haven Review, Omenana, Plasma Frequency, Pornokitsch, STRAEON, Strange Constellations, Three-Lobed Burning Eye, or Unlikely Story. I at least attempted to read every story published in the remaining magazines.

Now, arbitrarily in alphabetical order by story title disregarding "a" and "the", the recommendations!

"Application for the Delegation of First Contact: Questionnaire, Part B by Kathrin Köhler (The Book Smugglers)
More and more I'm wary of stories that dispense with the usual form of stories...only to replace that form with another pre-made, readily recognizable one (in this case, an institutional questionnaire); it's a move that seems to have become, in its less-prevelant way, almost as obligatory as those spoon-feeding one-line opening and/or closing paragraphs, and the impulses behind it often — as here, to a degree — strike me as being those not of writing — of feeling that the usual forms are inadequate in themselves — so much as of novelty-seeking. That said, though I don't think much of the form when considering this as a story, it does have good things to say, and says them all the better by not saying them but asking us to think about how, and whether, to say them. (Though, as an aside, I have to wonder how much thought Köhler gave to the world that produced this questionnaire; among other things, I don't say they couldn't but how do such institutions — and their language — survive if they are willing to ask such questions?) And I wonder too if sf as a field might be improved if its writers would begin setting themselves these questions before beginning, or continuing, to write.

"Dancing in the Right of Way" by Cyn C. Bermudez (Perihelion)
I'm recommending this story not because I think it's great — to be frank it's not, really — but because I sense something submerged in it that I hope, someday, could emerge. The "before they came" flashback scenes try much too hard to force a largely prefab emotion, and especially the military language of the "after" scenes is just trying (though I liked the quiet revelation that it's all a fake, an imitation, especially in the face of the suggestion that the aliens our characters are fighting are here as part of their own, unrelated-to-us war). But the sense of confusion and loss is real, and the mingling of transcendence and destruction in the last paragraph — which feels almost unattached to the rest of the story not in an incompetent way but in the best kind of jarring disjuncture that sf has long sought after — pushes the first person to the breaking point and is awful in many senses of the word.

"Esterhazy's Cadence" by Guy T. Martland (Perihelion)
The extremely rare exception where I'd argue for reading a work of sf metaphorically rather than literally. Taken literally, this story — with its music-that-can-kill-you, its religious riots over a sustained B-flat, and so on — is more than a little silly (and really no reading will fully rescue it from silliness, though it's a kind of silliness I at least enjoy). But metaphorically it feels to me as though it is asking the question of whether it is possible to return to (or arrive at) a way of being in which art once more is capable of founding a world, a fundamental part of life rather than a cordoned-off entertainment we always feel secretly guilty about not attending to properly. I'm also a sucker for space elevator imagery — which is my secretly guilty way of saying I find such imagery extremely moving and important without trying to explain why I feel this way — and its brief invocations here are surprisingly beautiful, given the story's more frequent flatness of feeling.

"God's Dog" by S.E. Gale (Unsung Stories)
I find myself with little to say about it (did I just hear a hallelujah chorus break out somewhere?), but this bit of angelic and/or demonic and/or alien weirdness is intriguing, even occasionally wondrous.

"In Memoriam" by Rachel Reddick (Diabolical Plots)
This tiny thing can't seem to make up its mind whether it wants to be overwrought or unassuming (and though I don't disapprove of the former this material demands the latter), but it allows for a wonderful sort of hinge moment toward the end, where the focus of the narrator's meditations shifts from the absence of the future to the absence of the past, almost as if these absences are one in the face of the isolation of the current moment.

"The Judge" by Sulagna Misra (Terraform)
The audacity of the writing here means my reaction varied between wild applause and god that's hokey from sentence to sentence. (And sometimes I felt both ways simultaneously, as with the aggressively, hilariously infelicitous opening sentences: "You'd think a time traveler would be on time, grumbles Jay. Jay T'Sevn, or J87, is a robot.") On balance I can only approve of that. (And then there's the differently audacious "Like most humans, her eyes, hair, and skin are all different shades of brown" — standing ovation.) Two stories compete for the approval of a Judge whose criteria we never learn but seem roughly to match the current standard, as far as we can see at least; both stories are about communication, about telling, though not precisely about storytelling. The first, told by the human, seems equally uncomfortable with all this writing communicating telling we do ("They wrote all the time, forever explaining themselves, forever waiting for answers") and with what might happen if we found a way to stop. In the second, told by the robot, an AI built by an alien society to explore what is to them alien finds that, in trying to explain the alien, it ends up having more in common with it than with those who built it — an inevitability perhaps only available to an intermediary.

"No Alphabet Can Spell It" by Emily C. Skaftun (Buzzy Mag)
The narrator of We Who Are About To probably wouldn't approve — and maybe Russ herself wouldn't, either — but for me at least this perfectly ordinary sf story did the extremely welcome work of reminding me that in a perfectly ordinary sf story nothing is perfectly ordinary. Skaftun is willing to get a little batty here, and God bless.

"Science Fiction Ideas" by Tao Lin (Terraform)
As "A Tao Lin Story" I don't think I would recommend this; it has its moments but more often feels weighted down, with none of the lightness of Taipei. At times it almost feels more like someone's inane parody of him than Lin himself. But my god, a science fiction story with some thoughts in its head about what science fiction is — as signaled by the title, it wonders what exactly we mean when we talk about "ideas," but also why we might turn them into stories, and what on earth a "story" is — published in a science fiction magazine? This is practically unheard of — and as it does have its moments, and as those moments are wrapped up precisely in its science-fictionality, I have to at least point it out as something worth a look. Too bad you have to be an established asshole publishing in www dot venture capital dot com to actually be allowed to try something like this. (And on that note, if you do read this on my recommendation, please use the link above; it will contribute no page views to the story.)

"A Song for You" by Jennifer Marie Brissett (Terraform)
The writer of Elysium turns her attention to the Orpheus legend. And just as that novel treated the love of Hadrian and Antinous as not so much a rigid model to follow as an ever-changing-ever-the-same shape into which to mold and remold itself, so we find here as the shape of Orpheus and Eurydice moves through a far-future world of interplanetary war, colonization, forgetting, and music. We are just astonishingly lucky to exist in a world that has Brissett's writing in it.

"Strings" by Kelly Haworth (Daily Science Fiction)
Though it succumbs to much of the patness, the canned "poetic" language, and other pitfalls of the contemporary short sf scene, "Strings" sets itself a promising project. The many allegorical reductions we may be tempted to make of it (This Is A Story About Abusive Relationships, This Is A Story About Cultural Colonialism, etc) butt up against one another uncomfortably — not erasing one another, not tearing one another down, but saying what they have to say while reminding us of the violence such reduction can do to the richness — much of it ugly, some of it not — of the world.

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