Webzine Story Recommendations: January 2015

"The Animal Women," Pt.1 and Pt.2 * Alix E. Harrow * Strange Horizons * 2015-01-12 & 19 * 8025 * f * 2015-05-21

I recommend this because it is beautifully and powerfully written, despite the fact that this in the service of a theme, however important and heartfelt it may be, which is rather tired and obvious and boils down to a simplistic tale of wreaking vengeance on pure maliciousness.

It is early 1968 in extreme northeastern Kentucky when the story opens and this time and place is brilliantly evoked by what is clearly a great deal of research or imbibed knowledge, but evoked by a judiciously, seamlessly applied wealth of naturally triggered details. Our protagonist is Candis, a fifth-to-sixth-grader who dreams of being a great photojournalist, in part because of her speech impediment - a kind of psychological inhibition that renders her virtually mute and is, again, perfectly evoked without being overdone. The story is narrated in third-person past tense so that it's transparent, yet is tightly locked on to Candis and is in full sympathy with her (as was I), avoiding solipsist first or diffuse third. She deals with torments in school, including by the teacher; problems with her family, including the repellent suitor to her older sister; and meets a group of strange women living in a strange house in the woods nearby. This is the otherworld of otherpeople who magnify Candis' life. In one of the many, many excellent lines, when she is briefly shut off from this, "Candis's life shrank back down to its former dimensions of schoolwork and biscuits and molasses." (I would quote more as examples of her concise cleverness and freshness of expression but I'd be quoting half the story.) As we move through the year, past the Tet offensive, the assassination of King, and the Olympic black power salute, all seen through the perspective of the young girl, the major themes and imagery of "voice" and the question of "what is animal?" are stalked. Unfortunately, as I indicated, it all boils down to "I am woman, hear me roar," and all of this goodness, subtlety, and depth is pitted against a cartoon of evil handled in a superficial and simplistic way. As Candis thinks via the narrator regarding the "animal" women, "I don't know what you are but there are sides and I am on yours." It's precisely the problem that there aren't really sides to this story. It has no sympathy for the devil. Granted, the ending is dramatic and exciting in a visceral sense, but it just doesn't do the bulk of the story justice.

Still, this can't be missed, even if it frustratingly falls short of what I feel this author is capable of, as it shows so much talent and that much is a joy to read. I've read quite a bit of online fiction recently and much of it is bad in conception and bad in execution - the authors just can't really write. This story may be flawed in conception but this author can write.

"Cat Pictures Please" * Naomi Kritzer * Clarkesworld * 2015-01 * 3432 * sf * 2015-05-26

Okay, this is a story about (a) an AI who (b) likes cats (or cat pictures, anyway) so I have zero critical capacity regarding this story (which may be the case with every story I read but let's pretend it isn't). Even if you don't share my favorable predisposition, it still seems to me that this is very well done if you can be interested in the story despite its low action quotient. (And if you can accept that the AI is born a bit magically (as it almost always is). The author does at least describe initial conditions that make sense, even if the result is basically impossible.)

The first line is the arresting, "I don't want to be evil," and it goes on from there, as the AI talks about its attempt to learn about and adopt human moral codes and eventually starts to try to influence the lives of a "non-representative unscientific sample." The story contains a pretty good set of people pictures, actually.

"Down Courthouse Wash" * Steven L. Peck * Perihelion * 2015-01 * 6235 * sf * 2015-05-24

A biologist trying to work his way up into a good job with the Park Service is doing grunt work when one thing leads to another and he runs into some aliens. This is Yet Another First Contact Story and is actually a little deficient in story but I liked the narrative voice, the concept of the aliens, and such story as there was - it was just a nice read.

"For Lost Time" * Therese Arkenberg * Beneath Ceaseless Skies * 2015-01-22, #165 * 7638 * f * 2015-05-27

I had a feeling throughout this story that it was in a series and wasn't the first (which turns out to be the case) but it doesn't really suffer from that. Semira, the companion, and Aniver, the wizard, are on a quest to restore some ensorcelled cities (including Aniver's home) from their stasis and seek the help of Melviater (another wizard) so that Anniver may journey to Death's realm for help (for the cities are in a false death).

The partial synopsis makes it sound very conventional and tired but I found its details and perspective to be very interesting and liked the writing style which is not "plain" but uses common words as a means to convey an uncommon mentality rather than piling up outre words and imagery for their own sake like some writing I've read recently.

The dead did not rest, not truly; to rest required living flesh, muscles to know the ache of exertion and to recognize resting's ease; a mortal brain to fall quiet, to dance with dreams. Knowing that death would not relieve his exhaustion made Aniver a little more interested in living.

"The Lion God" * Benjamin Blattberg * Crossed Genres * 2015-01 * 3698 * f * 2015-05-28

As part of the rebel's master plan, one of their number is being tortured by the deity that's appeared recently. This story does a great job of embracing its weirdness as well as setting up a dramatic situation that works on its own merits but the most striking element of the story is how it portrays both the joys and pains, both the ease and difficulty, of both rebellion and acquiescence.

"Oh, Happy Plague!" * Seth Chambers * Perihelion * 2015-01 * 1898 * sf * 2015-05-23

This is a rather conventional tale, reminiscent in ways of the social satire of the 50s with some sprinkling of risque 60s and population-focused 70s and is not going to win prizes for subtlety but was a very effective, strong (and short) story. In a future in which incredibly virulent plagues run riot, most people are medicated and otherwise stimulated out of their minds and a culture of claiming the possessions of dead folks (which must do wonders for containing the spread of disease) has arisen.

"Pockets" * Amal El-Mohtar * Uncanny * 2015-01/02, #2 * 3227 * f * 2015-06-06

A woman pulls a piece of fudge out of her pocket that she didn't put there and, as time goes by, begins pulling yet stranger things out. Mystified and alarmed, she finally turns to a scientist friend who helps her analyze the situation but that's not enough and they turn to a librarian who helps them synthesize the situation.

None of this makes much of a beginning towards explaining how delightfully this is written and what great lines it has but, after much drudgery in reading so many less successful pieces on the web for awhile, this was like the motor being turned on and the "work" becoming play again.

I have to confess that the ending is overdone for my taste but the story still gets a firm recommendation.

"The Puppet" * Michael Adam Robson * Nature * 2015-01-29 * 929 * sf * 2015-05-24

With these 929 words, you don't have to read 60 PKD books.

I kid. (Sort of.)