Magazine Review

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

The second whirlwind month in a row has seen me settling into a new house, finishing up a year of Hugo reading, and opening my third year of SPSFC. So it’s been a bit of a quiet month for short fiction, but it was also a three-magazine month with the release of the bimonthly Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction. So if my magazine review is a hair late—by which I apparently mean “no longer in the month I’m reviewing”—that’s why. But as always, I read some pretty good stuff. So let’s get to it. 


There were a lot of familiar authors in the September issue of Clarkesworld, with Clarkesworld veterans Arula Ratnakar and D.A. Xiaolin Spires joined by RJ Taylor (off an appearance earlier this year in F&SF) and Nnedi Okorafor offering a big name for the headline. Okorafor opened the issue with “Stones,” an intriguing story of a sentience born in space who traveled galaxies before an unfortunate run-in with humanity. It’s a quality story, one focused as much on what followed the disaster as on the incident itself. It’s followed by D.A. Xiaolin Spires’ “The Queen of Calligraphic Susurrations,” which felt like a direct response to the rash of AI-assisted stories being submitted to magazines like Clarkesworld. Unfortunately for me, it was one of those pieces where I could see the beauty in the writing style more than I could really immerse in the story. 

Nika Murphy’s “A Guide to Matchmaking on Station 9 tells of a synesthetic matchmaker turning to a former lover to try to place a difficult client. Despite coming in just over 4,000 words, it manages to tie multiple subplots into a satisfying–if not shocking–ending. A fun one, without doubt. Next comes the issue’s extended centerpiece: “Axiom of Dreams” by Arula Ratnakar. The novella tells of a mathematician who combines an experimental chip designed to help solve problems in her sleep with recreational drug use. The result is a story split between the real world and a dream world, with reflections on math and personhood and even a subplot about sabotaging military research. There’s a lot going on, and I don’t know that all of it quite comes together, but it’s an audacious premise and a story that remains interesting throughout its extensive length. If you like your stories to push boundaries, give this one a look. 

But my favorites of the September issue all came from the back half. “The People of the Dead Whale” by Djuna, translated by Jihyun Park and Gord Sellar, tells of a world tidally locked with its star, habitable only in a thin strip of water between the baking light side and the freezing dark side. Society survives on the backs of oceanic behemoths, but when they begin to sicken and die, the refugees receive little sympathy from those afraid their own whales will die if they bring on survivors of disease. It may not be a happy tale, but it’s a gripping one, and one that avoids descending into nihilism, even when the subject matter seems to justify it. Really good work. 

“The Five Remembrances, According to STE-319” by R.L. Meza is a classic “combat robot breaks from its programming and acts with heart” story, and with a word count that barely eclipses flash fiction, I expected it to be competent but unexceptional. Instead, I was sucked in from the beginning, and it only got better as the story progressed from the throes of battle to the immediate aftermath to the long-term aftermath. Sometimes a familiar story is just told so well that you can’t help lose yourself in it, and for me, this is a perfect example. 

The final piece in the September issue was another short robot story, “Upgrade Day” by RJ Taylor, which tells of a man who signed his afterlife over to a tech company in exchange for funding of his career as an aspiring chef. It turns out that this bargain goes very badly in many cases, but the robot imbued with the lead’s consciousness is bought by a kind and loving family–a family that’s not quite sure what to do with the increasing costs of annual upgrades. It’s a sweet tale, but not an easy one, with plenty of reflection on making difficult decisions while feeling the alternatives disappear by the year. 

The letter from the editor again sees Neil Clarke return to the issue of Amazon ending their magazine program, urging those who subscribed via Amazon to explore other ways to read their magazines. Clarke has been as far ahead of this as it’s possible to be, and as a big fan of SFF short fiction, I hope his pleas have been heard by Amazon readers. 

The interviews, as usual, were fascinating and made me want to explore the work of those being interviewed. S. L. Huang discussed The Water Outlaws, a reimagining of the Chinese classic Water Margin, and the interview had plenty to say about drawing from Chinese sources as an American writer, as well as how Huang thought about feminism, heroism, and just general fun in The Water Outlaws

The second interview with Jared Shurin explored cyberpunk—a whole lot of cyberpunk. Shurin’s upcoming The Big Book of Cyberpunk has over 100 stories, and the interview brought out a side to the subgenre that I hadn’t really known existed. 

As usual, there was one science article, this month on radiation, how it’s unlikely to turn you into Godzilla or Spiderman, and at what levels it will kill you. 


The long story in this month’s GigaNotoSaurus is the novelette “Tiger-boy’s Theater of Shattered Truths” by Antony Paschos, a tale of revolution in a world that has forgotten the use of technology and that aggressively restricts the public from access to any remaining artifacts. Fair warning, there’s quite a bit of sexual content here–something I expect to see in full-length novels but gives me more pause in shorter works (especially if I’m reading over lunch at the office). Apart from that, it features an engaging writing style, but the conceit of telling concealed history to potential revolutionaries never totally clicked for me. 

Fantasy & Science Fiction

In addition to the usual poetry and reviews, this month’s F&SF featured four novelettes and eleven short stories, with four flash-length shorts immediately surrounding the nearly novella-length centerpiece.  And like this month’s Clarkesworld, it really saved the best for last. 

The magazine opens with a pair of novelettes: “Shining Shores” by Max Firehammer and “Bayanihan” by Maricar Macario. The former is a cosmic horror piece that was always going to be a tough sell for this not-so-into-horror reviewer, but I didn’t really feel the atmosphere at the beginning, and I was more grossed-out than horrified by the buckets of gore that followed. I certainly won’t steer horror fans away from it, but it’s not one that pulls in those without prior attachment to the genre. The latter is told in a series of out-of-order diary entries and features a Filipina immigrant to Mars in a world where Martian technology and culture—due in no small part to its role as meeting place for various alien species—has left Earth something of a backwater. It’s compelling from the beginning and includes plenty of reflection on the pull between two worlds, and how you can never return to exactly the same place you left. 

Next comes an entertaining time-hopping tale—“Sort Code” by Chris Barnham—in which a man following a near-death experience finds himself in a series of historical or literary scenes, and always manages to find the same companion. It’s followed by the issue’s first flash, Phoebe Wood’s poetic romance “What We Found in the Forest.” Worth a read if you like prose poems, but unfortunately, my feelings on flash are well-known at this point. 

This leads into the issue’s longest selection: “Three Sisters Syzygy” by Christopher Mark Rose. It opens with an amnesiac pilot flying a mission in space with her two sisters, an attempt to study Earth’s three moons on the vanishingly rare occasion of their conjunction. But as the mission progresses, it becomes clear that the lead isn’t the only one whose memories aren’t quite aligned, and their journey becomes more and more mind-bending. It’s one of those stories that I’m not entirely sure what to take from the ending, but the ride was certainly interesting. 

Immediately following the centerpiece are three more flash fictions, and as usual, they didn’t really stick with me. “Mixtapes from Neptune” by Karter Mycroft reflects on a failed relationship between researchers in horrible conditions on the fringes of the solar system, and “To Pluck a Twisted String” by Anne Leonard tells of a mother trying to piece together how her artist son fell afoul of the sorcerers that control their land. Neither are unpleasant reads, but neither has much staying power. The final flash, on the other hand, is both more unpleasant and has more staying power. A. Humphrey Lanham’s “My Embroidery Stitches Are Me” literalizes a lifetime of physical trauma in embroidery stitched into the skin. An uncomfortable story, no doubt, but a noteworthy one. 

The issue’s final novelette, “Upstairs” by Tessa Yang, tells of a young family getting their big break, leaving their old neighborhood to head into the sky where the rich people live. But it’s hard to leave the old life behind, and some people in the old life are willing to make it even harder.

“Teatro Anatomico” by Getty Hesse provides yet another bloody entry in this month’s issue—am I forgetting how open to horror and horror-adjacent fiction F&SF can be, or is this a spooky season special? At any rate, this one stars the daughter of one who has overcome prejudice regarding her sex to come to prominence as a doctor in medieval Venice. Unfortunately, her mother’s success has some with a set of constraints she’s convinced are necessary to secure a good reputation. The lead chafes against these bonds…and on the closing night of Carnival, tugging against bonds can have garish results. 

It’s followed by a story less bloody and more creepy, as Andrew Crowley’s “Night Haul” tells of a trucker trying to make ends meet by hauling questionable cargo through uncanny, empty highways. The author’s note mentions that it was inspired by the Demeter, and as a Daily Dracula reader, that reference was well-timed for me. Even not being a big horror guy, I enjoyed this one. 

Next, Kel Coleman’s “On the Matter of Homo Sapiens” tells of robots exploring just what they’d lost with the eradication of humans, and Jenny Kiefer’s “Sugar Steak” tosses severe helpings of body horror onto a bad first date. The former is more my speed than the latter, but both seem solid examples of their respective subgenres. Nina Kiriki Hoffman’s “Growths” poses an interesting dilemma, with a girl of two worlds forced to either hide or eradicate the sensory organs that make her more than human, but in its limited word count, it doesn’t explore the topic as much as I’d like. 

And finally we come to the last story: “If I Should Fall Behind” by Douglas Smith. It’s a tale of a teenager with the ability to see possible futures, using it mostly to keep himself and his lover one step ahead of the mysterious forces that have pursued them since his ability first manifested at a summer camp years before. The premise is interesting enough, but the narrative voice is absolutely outstanding and takes the story from fun and entertaining to one of my very favorites of the year. I mean, just check this out: 

A three-times-tried, three-times-died fear screamed in his brain. He booted that fear away so he could memorize his death scene before this chance branch slid into the never-will-be. Memorize. Brain camera. Click.

I’ve read enough multiverse stories to be fairly well-acquainted with the various ways they end, but even if this one doesn’t expand my world of possibilities, it’s an emotionally satisfying cap on a tremendous tale, a tale which itself is a tremendous cap on the September/October issue of F&SF

September Favorites



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