Magazine Review

Tar Vol Reads a Magazine (or Three): Reviews of Clarkesworld, GigaNotoSaurus, and F&SF (March 2023)

In January, I started a new series, which I hope to continue all year, in which I read and review sci-fi/fantasy magazines. I’ve settled on three publications to follow this year: my two favorites from 2022 and a third that has been a titan of the genre for decades. I’ve yet to have a month without at least three stories I really loved among these three publications, and March was no different. So let’s get to it. 


In my eyes, the March issue of Clarkesworld was something close to their median issue: one story I loved, a bunch of stories I liked, and one story that didn’t totally click for me. Issues like this don’t have me struggling to pick a favorite, but with so much to like, they’re exactly the sort of months that keep me a loyal reader. And I suppose it doesn’t hurt that my favorite story in the March issue was my favorite Clarkesworld piece of the first quarter of 2023. 

The opening piece, “Love in the Season of New Dance” by Bo Balder, promised just the kind of alien communication story that I usually love. But while the lead’s cicada-like interlocutor’s obsession with completing the mating ritual before death may be realistic, it wasn’t necessarily the storyline I was hoping for. In fairness, I’m not sure the lead was hoping for it either, and there’s an interesting story to be found in her trying to make the best of an observation much more intimate than expected, but I nevertheless found it difficult to connect. 

Angela Liu’s “Pinocchio Photography” blends the story of a college student trying to choose a career—amidst both social and parental pressures—with an exploration of pictures and memory. They come together in the form of a job photographing reanimated cadavers participating in those family moments they no longer lived to see. The narrative was enough to hold my interest, but it was the fascinating discussion of family and benevolent fictions that really made it worth the read. 

Fiona Moore’s “The Spoil Heap” is an excellent tale of a former coder finding a robot on a trash heap after a technological apocalypse sent society back decades. Extensive flashbacks establish the character’s pre-apocalyptic life, informing both the catastrophe itself and the lead’s response to her present-day find. Probably not a story that will shock veteran readers, but it’s well-executed and a lot of fun. 

The issue’s sole novelette, Shari Paul’s “Bek, Ascendent,” tells the story of a woman who until recently thought herself the lone survivor of her people’s destruction being sent to support their resettlement and finding herself thrown in with old friends and old enemies. It’s a short novelette that neither surprises with the twists nor fully explores all the nuances of the sprawling empire taking charge of smaller people groups recovering from disaster—though it does gesture at more going on under the surface—but it’s a plenty engaging read nonetheless. 

Shih-Li Kow’s “Failure to Convert” takes up the story of clones who must jump through hoop after hoop after hoop to earn the recognition of legal personhood, in a society becoming increasingly prejudiced against them. It’s a well-written and often chilling piece that offers more questions than answers. 

My favorite piece in my issue, and my favorite Clarkesworld piece of the year so far, came from an outstanding new writer who appeared thrice on my 2022 favorites list and is already starting on 2023. Isabel J. Kim’s “Zeta-Epsilon” is a heartfelt piece about a man raised from birth to provide a human bridge to the ineffable mind of a starship. It opens with a puzzle box—why did Zeta commit suicide, and why didn’t Epsilon prevent it?—before diving into Zeta’s childhood, his intense connection with the ship, and the aspects of his life that became untenable. It’s a fascinating story with emotional depth and even a pinch of humor. This one is the whole package. 

After the intensity of “Zeta-Epsilon,” the next story continues the AI theme with a little more levity. Louise Hughes’ “AI Aboard the Golden Parrot” tells of a sentient theme park pirate ship that has taken to the seas collecting robot castaways. There’s still some tension in their mission to rescue imprisoned drones, and the details turn into a bit of a whirlwind at time, but it’s a fun read all told. 

The fiction section of the March issue closes with perhaps the most mind-bending piece in the set, “Love is a Process of Unbecoming” by Jonathan Kincade. The dreamlike narrative is told mostly from the perspective of an organism that has infected and perhaps possessed the human who would ordinarily be considered the main character. It starts as a tense survival story from an upside-down angle, with the perspective then widening to glimpse the family struggles that have led to the story’s main action. Utterly disorienting but skillfully told, I suspect this story would reward a second read. 

March’s non-fiction section opens with a dive into the parallels between certain real-world plants and famous fiction landscapes, such as The Book of Koli, Annihilation, and Semiosis. The two interviews are with Nadia Afifi and the people behind Galactic Journey—a fanzine I’d heard of but didn’t know much about. I have to say, I love their concept, and I also love a pair of R.A. Lafferty stories appearing as honorable mentions on their 1960s Best of the Year posts. 

Finally, Neil Clarke closes with an editorial on the difficulty of surviving as a genre magazine—particularly in light of Amazon’s decision to end their subscription program—and the decisions Clarkesworld is making in an effort to move forward as sustainably as possible. 


GigaNotoSaurus rings in the month with what will be among their shortest pieces of the year, “Once Measured, Twice Cut” by Anna Martino, in which a half-human pharmacist in post-war England does his best to help both his human and his secret winged patients. It’s easy to read and immensely satisfying for readers who enjoy fantasy healers just trying to help people. Perhaps it all comes together a hair too neatly, but I was still happy to read it. 

Fantasy & Science Fiction

After the January/February issue overwhelmed me with extended pieces tied to existing SFF universes, the March/April issue of The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction was a breath of fresh air. The sixteen stories included just two novelettes and no novellas, and while a couple were situated within existing mythologies, this didn’t provide a true barrier to entry. 

Let’s start with the pair of excellent novelettes, both of which brought their fair share of whimsy. Peter S. Beagle’s “The Weremouse of Millicent Bradley Middle School” has something of the flavor of an urban legend becoming all too real, with a witchy and vindictive math teacher terrorizing her students, who must either grovel or find a way to fight back. Sometimes a story just doesn’t have to break new ground to be an utter delight. Also delightful is Eleanor Arnason’s “Mr. Catt,” telling of the adventures of a six-foot, bipedal feline—in a world mostly consisting of ordinary humans, mind you—who decides on a whim to acquire a dragon. As you might imagine, things don’t go quite as expected, but they go wrong in an extremely entertaining way. 

Circling back to the start of the issue, we find two short stories by authors I’d enjoyed immensely in longform and was excited to see here. Lavie Tidhar’s “The Station Master” offers an entertaining bit of slice-of-life in his Central Station universe, whereas Tade Thompson’s “The Sweet in the Empty” provides a heart-pounding tale of family and revenge in a fantastical long-ago Arabia. I’m not usually a reader of sword-and-sorcery, but I expect those who are will like this one even more than I did—which was quite a bit! 

Continuing the theme of classic fantasy stories well-executed is Jonathan Louis Duckworth’s “Spookman,” the story of a man who can see spirits of the dead on a mission to find a runaway in a haunted forest. A fun read with an eminently satisfying conclusion. 

Switching from fantasy to sci-fi, we find my favorite short story in the issue: M.H. Ayinde’s “Piggyback Girl.” The Black Mirror-like premise involves an influencer signing a contract allowing her followers to literally see through her eyes. The piece does demand that readers overlook the utter lack of genre-savvy by the lead character, but the sheer intensity of what comes afterward makes up for the credulity in signing the initial contract. The social commentary is on point, and the rising panic as the lead begins to see the walls rising on all sides makes for a truly gripping read. 

The latter half of the issue didn’t blow me away quite like the first half, but I still found a lot to enjoy. There were a pair of looping, twisting sci-fi tales that have both reader and characters questioning what’s real. Matthew Lebowitz’s “Ouroboros”—about a scientist researching technology that can bring dreams to life—was a particular favorite, and Marlon Ortiz’s “Mnemonic Longings” was a solid tale of a sentient spaceship processing its relationship with the only human to survive a devastating extraterrestrial conflict. 

“Moonlight, Wing-Wake in Fog” by Rick Hollon literalizes the concept of masking one’s true self from the world, telling of a group of shapeshifters trying to keep themselves safe from implacable colonizers bent on their destruction. It’s followed by Nuzo Onoh’s “The Madding,” which should appeal to readers who like some African folklore in their horror. 

Amanda Dier’s “Escape Velocity” is a small-scale, personal tale about the transformations one undergoes while chasing their dreams, and how they live with those transformations. It’s followed by Lauren Bajek’s prose poem “Pantoum on a Generation Ship,” a flash piece whose title is a wonderfully clever play on the ultimate story. I have seen other reviewers marvel at the story for following the stringent repetition structure of the Pantoum style of poetry, but as someone unfamiliar with the form, the specifics passed me by. Still, a piece well worth reading! 

Marie Vibbert’s “The Subway Algorithm is Half-Constructed” follows grad students talking about AI projects, but it’s much more a story of learning how to interact with other people—a subject in which every major character has their own struggles. K.C. Ahia’s “Solar Boy” also follows a lead with a fresh STEM degree, this time an engineer scrabbling for one of the scarce jobs working on spaceships. It’s not a hard read, but it’s simultaneously a story of trans belonging, a problem-solving sci-fi, and a story of intrigue and betrayal. For a piece as short as it is, it felt to me a hair overstuffed, and I would’ve appreciated just one or two of those elements having more time to breathe. 

The issue closes with a pair of fun mythopoetic stories. Kathleen Jennings’ “The Five Lazy Sisters” is a fairy tale about…well, five lazy sisters looking for a way out of running a ferry for their whole lives. Then E. Catherine Tobler caps the issue with “Remembered Salt,” about a bewitched house flying up from its forest home and seeking adventure and pieces of memory. For readers who enjoy short fairy tales without too much emotional intensity, it’s an excellent pair to finish the issue. 

As always, F&SF also has poetry and reviews, and this month had a fascinating dive by Arley Song into beloved genre magazines throughout history and what became of them. It’s a good read on its own and dovetails especially nicely with Clarke’s editorial. 

March Favorites

  • “Piggyback Girl” by M. H. Ayinde (short story, F&SF)
  • “The Weremouse of Millicent Bradley Middle School” by Peter S. Beagle (novelette, F&SF)
  • Zeta-Epsilon” by Isabel J. Kim (short story, Clarkesworld)

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