Webzine Story Recommendations: March 2015

"Asymmetrical Warfare" * S. R. Algernon * Nature * 2015-03-25 * 967 * sf * 2015-06-28

A hilariously horrific short-short about alien starfish (astrofish?) attacking the earth to give us a boost. If you focus on the aliens being awfully dumb, it doesn't necessarily work, but just don't do that.

"Cassandra" * Ken Liu * Clarkesworld * 2015-03, #102 * 5462 * f * 2015-06-20

"Cassandra" tells the tale of the protagonist (referenced by the title) going from admiring (or at least tolerating) a certain blue-and-red-suited superhero with an "S" on his chest, to finding she has the power to foresee events in a sketchy way if she comes into either hand-to-hand contact or if she touches something someone's touched recently, to finding that she can't get anyone to listen to her to prevent it (including that hero she comes to call "Showboat"), to taking extreme measures to change the future through her own actions, at which point "Showboat" regards her as a supervillain and she begins accepting the role. All this is by way of contrasting determinism and free will. This is an example of those rare stories which seems interesting whichever side you take on that issue and whether or not you appreciate this being yet another story which, by adopting the viewpoint of the villain, has the effect of tearing down The Hero and taking issue with The American Way. And whether or not you appreciate another comic book fantasy, as this one feels distinctly different.

The point is, it's a well-written story which empathizes with the viewpoint character in a creative and felt way and, by posing an interesting existential plight and reaching for the full philosophical scope while being grounded in actions, maintains interest throughout.

"Dr. Polingyouma's Machine" * Emily Devenport * Uncanny * 2015-03/04, #3 * 6386 * sf * 2015-07-01

Want to read a story about a sanitation engineer cleaning up interdimensional urine, feces, and blood under constant threat of death or worse?

That's what I would have said if you'd have asked me. So you know the story is something special when it's good even with that premise. Basically (the janitor deduces), a guy built a time machine and something went wrong, he and his machine disappeared, The Effect makes things go weird (hallways stretching and twisting and whatnot), and there is a mess to clean up periodically. I have to confess to not having read Roadside Picnic yet but, from what I've picked up about it, it sounds like this could be seen as Roadside Rest Stop. Other than great pacing and tension, the greatest strength of this story is probably the psychology of the protagonist, which I found fascinating, well-observed/created, and which resulted in an excellent character. Other than the initial impression of the premise, the greatest weakness is probably just that a big part of the story is the protagonist's humility but some of her assertions or questions seem to be a little too challenging or forceful for that. Though it's true that humility and a just perception of things aren't exclusive. If not that, it could be argued that the ending does not follow from the events of the story of necessity but just sort of happens and is slightly anti-climactic. But these are minor quibbles: it's a fascinating and well-done story.

The Dragon and the Martian" * Becky Ferreira * Terraform * 2015-03-16 * 2509 * sf * 2015-06-30

This is one of my favorite stories of the first quarter of 2015. It's about a dystopian future in which a guy is trying to make a synthetic dragon after making a good career at this sort of thing (barring the unfortunate unicorn incident). Meanwhile, the guy in the next cubicle is working on designer microbes to take advantage of the "Martian miracle moss" that a recently suicided mentor created. And the dystopia and suicide and worse naturally means that this is a hilarious story (especially the part about the dragon feathers which almost had me fall out of my chair laughing) but is also very, very serious. It's excellently told, as well, with the point-counterpoint of the two characters and their two projects and is just detailed enough to be substantial but not so detailed as to clog the pace. I might be reading too much into it, as science is not exactly depicted as an unalloyed Good but, as the guy working on the Martians says, "Dead is better than dying. One step closer to rebirth." The "fantasy" character and his behavior and sensibility seem to resonate with how I see the regressive tendencies waxing in this era. But perhaps my take on this is all wrong. Doesn't matter: as I said to myself at the dragon feathers part, "It doesn't matter what she does with the rest of the story, it's getting recommended regardless."

Fortunately it didn't come to that: however you read the ending, the story maintained throughout.

PS: the take on the dragon's subjectivity was pretty amazing, as well.

"The Scavenger's Nursery" * Maria Dahvana Headley * Shimmer * 2015-03, #24 * 4344 * f * 2015-06-29

This puts me in mind of Fritz Leiber's "Smoke Ghost" and also the famed Yeats poem which wonders, "what rough beast, its hour come round at last, / Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?" (One of the central parts of the story is even a widening gyre.)

I suppose this story which begins, "A boy finds a baby in the garbage," is a "weird" tale - it's a little too concentrated in the real world to be a simple fantasy, a little too coherent and precise to be slipstream, way too fantastic to be science fiction. But its addressing of pollution and ruined ecosystems (and species) is rooted in a scientific worldview, through which the fabulation breaks brilliantly. This is not my kind of story - in fact, the kind of story I'm quite tired of but, like good poets with their poetry, the author "makes it new." As an example, I don't care one way or the other about profanity in fiction but the way in which she uses it is in keeping with the way she uses all language: it doesn't seem punchless through overuse nor discordant through misuse. Sometimes it's "just how people talk" and sometimes it's particularly emotive but it's always right. My one complaint with this story (other than that it's Yet Another Present Tense Story - which even unobtrusively works here) is that the ending becomes a little too artsy, like a couple of specifically Lynchian moments in the generally precise and controlled The Elephant Man, to the point that the emotional impact of the scene, while still there, is slightly obscured. I was too busy thinking about untangling the concepts to cleanly feel.

I don't expect everyone will like this and am kind of surprised I do, but I do.

"Small Wishes" * Carol Otte * Flash Fiction Online * 2015-03 * 980 * f * 2015-06-23

Like some others, this is more an "extremely honorable mention" than an unalloyed recommendation, but it's still a recommendation. The idea seemed fresh, the narrative voice and the general sensibility behind it all was very appealing, and I just liked it a great deal. However, I feel like its biggest moments of wonder preceded the ending and that, coupled with the sensibility permeating the story which never really had me in doubt, left the ending feeling obvious and anti-climactic. And, even leaving that aside, the ending was a little pat.

I don't know how to summarize this without spoiling it or creating a misleading impression. It's less than a thousand words and a good summary would be an appreciable portion of that, so please just go read it.

"The Ties That Bind, the Chains That Break" * Liz Colter * Galaxy's Edge * 2015-03, #13 * 6444 * f * 2015-06-24

This story has a terrible opening line ("My first view of Alawea is bittersweet, as always." It means to mean "the first view since the last time I saw it") and a poor first line to the second paragraph ("I don't return willingly but, like my parents, I am bi-gender and also a messenger." Since the opening line instilled no trust in me, it's too early for seeming non-sequiturs, though the line is eventually explained after the fact) and it's Yet Another Present Tense Story and it's (obviously) about gender issues in a tiresome zeitgeist-y way and is also that overdone nowhere nowhen kind of fantasy. However, after that and aside from that, there's nothing wrong with it.

(That's not sarcasm. Any one story can do anything and if you take this story in isolation from all the others like it, all you have to do is tweak or forgive a couple of awkward lines.)

This tale of an oppressed minority (whose minority is becoming more major all the time) and his/her contacts with both hatred and support as well as his/her resolve to "break" free from his/her society is actually vividly described and told with a kind of contained seething - a stoic and understated tone - such that I found it fairly interesting throughout. A part near the end could arguably be seen as tacked on but I felt it upped the fantasy quotient in a necessary, useful, and even slightly wondrous way. So I really don't want any more stories like this but if there were to be any, they should be of at least this caliber.

"When the Circus Lights Down" * Sarah Pinsker * Uncanny * 2015-03/04, #3 * 5357 * f * 2015-07-01

This is a story of the roads not taken where the paths are of the conventional and the unconventional. The problem with this story is that it is so charming and convincing regarding the wonders of the sort of magic interdimensional airborne circus on its arrival that by the time we actually get in to the circus, as amazing as it is, it's somehow a slight disappointment. Also, there are aspects of it which seem to jar with the thematic tendencies. The characters - three generations of women, with the protagonist being the middle one: a single mother and daughter of a now single mother - are well-drawn, distinct, and appealing in their ways (even the "negative" one); the sub-stories, such as the one about the middle woman being on the bus as a girl, are some of the strongest elements; the style is direct; and the fantasy aspects are clear and manage to be well-married to "reality."

I'm overdosing on fantasy in the March issues and it might not be enough for anyone else in the same boat, but it still managed to stick out for me.