Saturday, March 26, 2011

Little Monster (Flash on the Borderlands VI)

Flash Fiction by LynnCee Faulk
Narrated for Pseudopod by Dani Cutler (Starts at about 11 minutes)

The old Creepy Doll tale with an interesting, scarier, twist. The little girl is a fun character in this very short, very bleak horror story. It's my favorite of the three flash fictions in this Pseudopod episode.

3.5 pins out of 5.

Mother's Milk (Flash on the Borderlands VI)

Flash Fiction by Strahinja Acimovic
Narrated for Pseudopod by Jacquie Duckworth (Starts at about 6 minutes)

The second piece of flash fiction this month, and tied of second place in the Pseudopod Flash Contest.

A premature baby dies after an emergency C-section and his mother goes interestingly crazy. She comes up with a novel, rather horrible solution to the problem of her dead child.

I enjoyed this one more than Escape. It is still a gorey, gross form of madness, but for some reason this one worked better for me. Maybe it is that this woman has a better motivation for being crazy, or just that she is coming up with a more needlessly horrible solution, which still makes more sense, in an insane sort of way.

3.5 stitches out of 5.

Escape (Flash on the Borderlands VI)

Flash Fiction by M.E. Smith
Narrated for Pseudopod by Leann Mabry
Text available on the Pseudopod Forums

Pseudopod is back after their long hiatus! The first of these three flash pieces is the winner of their Flash Fiction contest.

A woman in a concrete cell is slowly escaping. It's a gross, neat form of madness. A gruesome plan, perhaps needlessly so. This is torture-horror of an unusual type, but still essentially torture horror. Gross, not amazingly interesting story, besides the idea at its heart.

3 bits out of 5.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

At Cross Purposes

Novelette by Juliette Wade

A corporate-controlled human terraforming expedition makes first contact with some very unique, otter-like aliens. Things go rather poorly, but Lynn, an engineer, has a chance to smooth things over, and maybe prevent the warrior-caste of the giant dancing otters from deciding to wipe humans out of space. If she can overcome the stupidity and overreactive secrecy of her corporate superior.

And in another, equally interesting viewpoint, one of the scientist otters wants to prevent the military from taking control, arguing the humans are sentient and need to be studied. The way language is used implies the thinking of the otter aliens, as we see more clearly for getting their point of view. It's a unique society, and I love the idea of their Pattern Purpose.

As I'm coming to expect from Wade, she gives us an original way of looking at language, backing up an original alien culture, and exciting politics within the foreign culture. This story is much higher stakes for humanity, and I love how much we are almost all screwed by obstructive bureaucracy.

It's an exciting novelette, and I really really really enjoyed reading about the alien culture here. But it's tough to accept exactly how stupid and petty Doris was. Wade establishes this on page one, so it isn't really a surprise. But it is constantly a surprise how far she takes it. Doris isn't just obnoxious, she's vindictive to the point of inter-species incident, needlessly cruel, petty, and quite literally too stupid to live. I wish she'd been written just a tad more reasonable. Or I wish Wade had killed her off, somehow. But that is part of the point I suppose. Really really stupid, obnoxious bureaucrats who almost get everyone killed don't go away.

Ranting aside, it was a delightful ending, I loved the aliens, and I loved the story.

4 otter-alien dance parties out of 5.

Monday, March 21, 2011

God in the Sky

Short Story by An Owomoyela

Katri is a rational, agnostic or atheistic scientist in a world going crazy. A huge light has appeared in the night sky, almost as big as the moon. And it seems to be growing. People are worried it will fill the night sky in two years or so if it keeps growing at the current rate. So of course people immediately rush out to swarm stores for canned goods, bottled water, and generators. The world starts tearing itself apart for really no good reason. A mayor in Texas declares the light to be God, and suddenly newspapers pile on and the whole world heads that much further toward preparing for the rapture and other illogical assumptions.

This drives Katri nuts, and what makes the story great is that rather than focussing on the world's craziness, Owomoyela focusses on how Katri's life is affected. Her frustration and exasperation as her grandfather seems to be converting to Islam and he father runs off to Africa to find his ex-wife before the world ends. Her feelings of abandonment and isolation, both emotionally and as the Only Sane Man, are made worse when her girlfriend interrupts her complaining to announce that she's leaving to go home to family in Tennessee. Little things like the tone-deaf and poorly timed way the girlfriend announces her plans, and halfheartedly offers to stay ring particularly true and make Owomoyela's story seem like something that could happen tomorrow, and could happen to me. Her writing is excellent throughout.

The isolation is downright tragic, but the story ends on a rational, reasonably happy note, better than either of the two endings I'd have guessed from the first few pages. I love that the nature and origin of the object isn't explained, it's left with the assumption that science will continue to work, as it always has worked, and the world will use whatever excuse it can to act crazy. Katri comes to accept that certain people will always use anything to make a God that can fill in the gaps, no matter how many things science illuminates. The wisest character of all is the old Egyptian grandfather.

A very good story, philosophically, and artistically.

4 Space Gods out of 5.

Lost in the Memory Palace, I Found You

Short Story by Nick Wolven

Ray has strange little episodes that wipe his memory almost completely. Unable to remember his name, job, or where he lives, he figures these things out anew every week or two. In the fast-paced commodity-futures-as-only-currency world, similar to Paul Di Filippo's iCity, everyone seems to accommodate the rapid changes by not bothering to remember how things used to be. I suspect something has been done to Ray's brain, but this is never spelled out.

Anyway, Ray seems to have taken it further than other people, and further than is reasonable. His lack of memory is affecting his life, but he has a hazy memory of a girl who once gave him hope, so he tries to find her.

A story about the transience of memory, how things aren't always how we remember them, and maybe it's better if we don't. Also a strong impression of that frustration you feel when you can't remember things but they stay just on the edge of your conscious thoughts. The voice and storytelling are innovative and interesting, but a tad annoying at times. I like the point that is being made, and the increasing feeling that Ray is going crazy. The odd jumps in memory and narration make a frightening, exciting impression, and convey Ray's distress very well.

I like what the author was trying to do with the ending, but I honestly thought it was a bit poorly executed. Things just change and it's shocking, and I like that it was unexplained, but I wish it wasn't quite so vague. I understand the impulse to keep things from being too well defined here, but I think the author took it too far, not knowing anything robs us of some of the emotional impact of the final lines.

3 lost memories out of 5.


Short Story by Nancy Fulda
Originally Published in Asimov's March 2011

Hannah has a new mental condition called "temporal autism". The story is told from her unique point of view, about her parents trying to decide whether they should get her "cured" and doomed to a life of mediocrity, or leave her alone, with a chance of greatness, and a greater chance of never fitting in. The frustrating thing is that she can't communicate with her parents. They don't understand her, even worse than adults usually misunderstand the next generation.

Hannah thinks in terms of evolution, geologic time scales, chaos and fractals. Evolution, of humans, beautiful venus flytraps that survive by getting people to toss them food, and mosquitos all are used as interesting metaphors here. So is Hannah's ballet talent, slow movement of glass over centuries, and the elderly looking down on kids for being different. Hannah worries that she may be an evolutionary dead end, but maybe the first people to develop speech felt the same way, they communicated differently, so were thought of as not fitting in.

Lots of brilliant metaphor, and several distinct lines of thought worth considering, regarding change and what society will accept. Why should we expect future generations to be the same as past ones? Hannah and the author both come to the conclusion I would, regarding her treatment, but it is very well written, well described, and well thought out and the beautiful/sad thing is that I'm not sure Hannah's parents will even be able to understand her as she tries to express her wishes. This quote sums things up rather well:
I want the flytrap to survive, but I can tell from the sickly color of its leaves that this is unlikely. I wonder, if the plant had been offered the certainty of mediocrity rather than the chance of greatness, would it have accepted?
4.5 mutant flytraps out of 5 do not want new shoes.

Sunday, March 20, 2011


Novelette by Robert Reed

Humans and other aliens are rescued and kept in an alien animal rescue clinic/zoo. Lots of background musing on the limitations of god-like aliens, and the moral choices of which wounded animals to save, but this is mostly the story of Tito, a blind cripple.

Most of the novelette is flashbacks from his current lonely, dissatisfied life as a caged animal. The two flashback time periods allow Reed to tell three stories from Tito's life in detail: his unhappy present existence, his lost love and how she was lost, and how he was blinded as a child.

It's remarkable how much I care for Tito by the end, and the sudden change in the last pages of the story really works for me, adding an emotional denouement to the sad/rebellious/scary triple climax. I think it's happy at the end, but it might not be as happy as we'd hope, and it certainly isn't a deus ex machina, which is a nice surprise in a story essentially about a man's interactions with deus ex machina. Tito attains a surprising amount of agency in his life, and that's what really makes this novelette worthwhile.

4.5 purple busses out of 5 are actually yellow.

The Most Important Thing in the World

Novelette by Steve Bein

Ernie finds a strange suitcase in the back of his car one day, left there by a physicist. This suitcase provides the science fictional conceit of the story, and provides Ernie with a lesson about laziness and taking the easy way out.

I'd have liked to see more characterization of the wife and the physicist, given the length of this novelette. Ernie learns his lesson, and it seems to be helping him solve his own problems, but I'd have liked to see more resolution of the physicist's problem, it's brought up, made to seem very significant, and then completely dropped, never to be mentioned again.

It was engaging writing, and an interesting invention in the suitcase, although the story itself feels pretty slight, especially for a novelette. And if you're going to namedrop Hemmingway three times, it should actually be relevant somehow. It wasn't.

3 cab fares out of 5.

I Was Nearly Your Mother

Novelette by Ian Creasey

Marian's mother died when she was a little girl. She always wanted her to come back, and one day, with the help of alternate-universe-jumping technology, she has. But this is a mom who goes by "Della" and whose timeline diverged at the point where she decided to have an abortion.

At this point I was a bit worried the story was going to turn into some sort of weird anti-abortion screed, but that isn't where it goes at all. In fact, four separate times I thought I knew where this story was going, and Creasey never took the easy, obvious answer. Much like Marian, Ian Creasey likes to look deeper and find the less obvious truth, the harder answer.

The story consists of Marian's alternate universe not-mother trying to get her forgiveness that isn't really Marian's to give, trying to develop a too-quick relationship with her, and trying to generally use Marian to help herself feel better about a life where she made all the bad decisions. It turns out she wouldn't have even cared about the abortion, specifically, except that she ended up infertile due to other bad choices down the line and never having kids is just one of a life filled with regrets.

What I like most is that Marian is infinitely more mature than her fake mother, exactly in the way of friends of mine whose parents died when they were young. And yet, she is also very clearly a somewhat-shallow teenage girl. She just oozes 'teenager', but with that edge of harsh reality that comes from experiencing real loss. And Della doesn't have that.

Just as I expected a sappy ending, Creasey takes it in an entirely unexpected, and harsher direction. And just as I think I know where that new direction is going, he gives us the unexpected, quieter finale.

I really like Creasey's writing, and I like his willingness to go for the harsher reality rather than feel-good fluffiness. But for a story almost entirely about the dialogue between two characters, the dialogue felt a little stilted at times, beyond the awkwardness you'd expect from the situation. Other than that I have no real criticism. The ending seems a little bit unlikely, and a little bit too harsh, but that is essentially the theme of the story, and it's a good meditation on grief and learning to move on with life instead of becoming obsessive and crazy. I enjoyed it.

4 bad mothers out of 5.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Perfect Lies

Short Story by Gwendolyn Clare
Text and Audio free from Clarkesworld

Nora was born with the inability for facial expressions. She doesn't show emotion or even microexpressions, but has learned to created expressions artificially, only when she wants to. This makes her a perfect liar. On top of that, she's naturally adept at reading faces, and so the U.N. recruited her as a diplomat.

She's the only one able to negotiate with the Mask People, an alien species with technology far beyond humans, who want to trade tech for mining rights in the asteroid belt. But her superiors are planning to betray the Mask People, who come with honest intentions, and are sort of doing us a favor. As the only one who can lie to them, Nora has to decide if she really should.

On top of this, there are terrorist threats against the trade agreement, drama with bodyguards, and Nora's unique perspective of being treated by humans as having no emotions just because she doesn't express them. Her parents thought she was going to be a serial killer, and her colleagues call her a robot, and so she can't do much besides hold the world at a distance and try not to let them hurt her.

I love the narrative voice, the aliens are interesting, it's a good, thoughtful-yet-exciting story. But aside from the specifics, the plot seems overly familiar. I'd certainly be interested in seeing more of this character, though.

3.5 bold-faced lies out of 5.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Woman Leaves Room

Short Story by Robert Reed
Published free in text and audio, Lightspeed March 2011

An AI represents itself as a man standing in a room. It sees people interacting with it as standing in the hallway, or coming in to talk. It was created, with love, by a woman who had lost her husband and wanted to use his memories to bring back something like him. But one day the beautiful woman walks out on the AI that loves her, and he waits for her to come back.

Also good for some deep thoughts on time and waiting forever. I really like this Reed story, the strange way the AI thinks makes it interesting, and it really explores what it means to be an AI, and not even realize it until well into your lifespan. So one of the more fun protagonists, and plenty of thoughts to chew on, with a gooey emotional core.

A heartbreaking story of an AI in love, and the future history of the universe.

4 corrupted haystack files out of 5.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Saying the Names

Short Story by Maggie Clark
Published free, text & audio, at Lightspeed

A woman is called to an alien planet to act as a character witness in her father's murder trial. These aliens have the same philosophy of speaking as the Ents from Lord of the Rings, and so everything takes a long time. But they're more easily offended than the Ents, and you can't abbreviate anything. Clark describes the alien society, the trial happens, and there is some philosophizing about her father's not being there for her. Quite well written, but not terribly interesting. I feel like I've read this story before, but with a weaker style.

3 legal aliens out of 5.

Sunday, March 13, 2011


Short Story by Ken Liu
Absolutely brilliant audio recording performed by Gabrielle de Cuir and Stefan Rudnicki

Read/listened to this one three times, cried every time. I can find no faults with this story. It's the tale of the man who invented a device for capturing 'Simulacra' of people. A recording which retains some of their personality and is able to interact and behave differently each time it is played back.

The story is a series of interviews with Paul Larimore and his daughter Anna. She refuses to speak to him, even as he grows older, because of an incident when she was a teenager. Both characters have very real, very consistent emotional flaws, they're extremely believable, which makes the story all the more effective. I feel bad for Paul, but I can see where Anna was coming from too.

The worst/best part is the final line, the only thing the father's simulacrum says in the story. It's sweet and heartbreaking and brilliant.

5 estranged daughters out of 5.

P.S. I encourage everyone to read this story, but if it makes no difference to you, I'd recommend the Audio, they really bring the story to life, and Rudnicki in particular absolutely kills with the final sentence.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Long Enough and Just So Long

Short Story by Cat Rambo

Two women fight over a man. Except they live on the moon, in a domed colony, and the man in question is a sex-bot. There is some barely-explained background about a gate which new technology seems to fall out of and spaceships and acid rain, but really the entire story is about these girls stalking, befriending, and being rejected by a sex bot.

I don't really like the title, it would be entirely irrelevant except for a phrase added on to the end seemingly to justify the title. Honestly, I spent the whole story waiting for the inevitable penis joke that never came. I'm not sure if I'm relieved or disappointed, but I don't think the title fits at all.

Really, not much happened, and there aren't really deeper themes beyond friendship. Rambo has a world that seems interesting enough, but this story could happen without it. The SF trappings are only that, but the story isn't poorly written.

3 emancipated sex-bots out of 5.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Black Fire

Short Story by Tanith Lee
Published in Text and Audio, Free at Lightspeed, January 2011

Long series of uselessly brief partial witness statements from a police report. Used to tell a kind of dumb story that goes nowhere (other than increasingly obvious allusions), and made confusing by an unhelpful and obnoxious numbering system for the witnesses (A numbers are males, E numbers are females, and if I've spoiled the whole story for you with that bit, well you'd have been pissed off three paragraphs in like I was).

The numbering of witnesses makes the story obvious and makes the writing more obnoxious, although I didn't otherwise mind the voice. The story neither makes sense, nor tries to say anything. It doesn't horrify, it doesn't describe emotion, it doesn't make me think. And it didn't entertain me either. It just left me vaguely annoyed.

1.5 sexed-up witnesses out of 5.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Postings from an Amorous Tomorrow

Short Story by Corey Mariani
Published Free Online, Lightspeed January 2011

In the future, kids have their brains enlarged at the age of four to better interact with people using social networking. Essentially, they have their Dunbar's Number increased, and further augment this with AI avatars used to interact with friends, and download the memories at the end of the day. Most people are friends with the majority of the world, and our ten-year-old protagonist wants to someday love everyone in the world at the same time.

What starts off as a vaguely creepy free-love utopia rapidly becomes dystopian when the terrified, empathy-conditioned adults decide a boy named Nick is a sociopath and thus potential dictator, based on his lack of friends and inability to love himself. Mariani takes an easy prediction about social networking, writes a happy, childhood story, and then shifts suddenly to a dark tale of child soldiers. It's a neat realization, how easy it would be for a person without empathy to take over a society built very literally on loving your neighbors. No one can bear the thought of stopping him.

But I'm not sure how they justify what they do to the underconditioned children, when they can't justify doing anything to the threats themselves. This doesn't hurt the story much, because the kids themselves can't stand this hypocrisy either. I like that the actual violence is a minor part of the story, mostly focused on cheerful, child-narrated world-building at the start, and grim, justified anger by the end. A simple story, but moving and thoughtful enough to stand apart from the crowd.

3.5 dictators out of 5 could use more friends on Facebook.

Friday, March 4, 2011

Diving After the Moon

Short Story by Rachel Swirsky
Text and Audio published free at Clarkesworld

Norbu is an astronaut who never appreciated his mother, Jamyang's, old stories. Norbu is part of the first moonwalk for the country of Qinghai, formed from a chunk of fallen-apart China and Tibet. When everything goes to hell because of the political posturing of larger powers (Egypt and Australia!), Norbu and his crew prepare to suffocate while Jamyang begins a fantastic plot to rescue them.

The combination of astronauts and fable-like fantasy involving monkeys may jar readers at first, but it's a really funny/apropos solution that Jamyang comes up with, considering the set of rules she's playing by, and any reservations you have about how, exactly, everything is working will be resolved by the end.

Let's just say that this is definitely a Science Fiction story in my book, and the ending is sweet and sad and very well written. The mother-son dynamic is what holds the story together, but it's also a reflection on the symbolic value of manned spaceflight and the importance of storytelling.

Three common themes in modern SF, but done exceptionally well, with a heartwarming/sad/thoughtful story to back them up, also monkeys.

4.5 chains of monkeys out of 5.

Three Oranges

Short Story by D. Elizabeth Wasden
Text and Audio published free by Clarkesworld

Stepan is ordered to use the Three Oranges, as in the fairy tale (but with more fairy sex), as a bribe to get Sergei Prokofiev, writer of "The Love for Three Oranges" the opera, to return to Stalinist Russia. Stepan wants to keep the Oranges for himself and defect to Canada.

You should definitely read the fairy tale, or at least a summary of the fairy tale or a summary of the plot of the opera (see my various links) before reading this story if you want to have much clue what is going on. Or listen to/read the story twice, that works just as well. But some bits of the secret fairy magic Cold War are more obvious with some background.

It's a neat setting and a neat type of magic, and I appreciate the lesson learned by sadistic Stepan. I really enjoy how this world works. But there isn't much to the actual story, although I can't get over how much I like the oranges and the magic left in the world. Also the writing is good.

3 oranges out of 5.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Widows in the World

Novelette by Gavin J. Grant
Free Online from Strange Horizons (part 1, part 2)

Frequently seeming weird for weirdness sake, part two is really making up for part one in this novelette. I'm not opposed to strangeness in fiction, in fact I generally like more of it, but for most of it's length, the rambling weirdness doesn't seem to be going anywhere, although there is, just barely, a comprehensible enough plot to keep me reading.

In the end, the positives about evenly make up for the negatives, but I'm not sure serialization was the best idea here, given the unevenness of the story and it's reliance on the second half. Either way, it was over-long.

I won't go into plot detail, as I can't summarize all the crazy details of the world in a reasonable length, and the plot is both so convoluted and so simplistically short that either I give it all away, or ramble for pages talking around the central issues (as the story does). All these things amount to my standard criticisms of surreal post-singularity stories, which often seem strangely alike. But there is some good humor here regarding the Husband and the dog and I actually laughed a few times during the more nonsensical bits, which counts for quite a bit.

But what really redeems the story is the ending, which throws a lot of the earlier nonsense into a more reasonable light, a promise the author seems to make early on which I'd given up believing in by that point. But there is a plot, and it is kind of sad, kind of funny. In the end, the story delivers a surprising emotional punch and fond reminiscence of childhood memories of your grandparents. The theme is that nostalgia is often better than perfectly accurate memories, and while I do enjoy the theme, and it was hinted before, it is so divorced from much of the story as to not have a strong enough impact.

I like the ending, and the prose amused me in places, but overall this story was longer than it needed to be. I'd dock points for that, but I read it quite fast, without putting it down, so although the wordcount is high, the reading time is lower than average for this sort of story. If you're going to read it, just keep reading without trying to figure out too much.

Oh, and using the term "haggis" for living chimera creatures is just awesome.
3 marauding haggises out of 5.