Welcome to the biggest in my first year of magazine reviews. I’ve spent this year regularly reading three publications—Clarkesworld, GigaNotoSaurus, and The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction—but this month, I added a fourth, ending a year or so of swearing that I’d get to Asimov’s eventually. It made for one heck of a reading month, and honestly one where Clarkesworld absolutely stole the show. Let’s take a closer look!
I’ve been reading Clarkesworld every month for a little over a year, and I don’t think I’ve seen a better issue than November 2023. It’s not that every story was a massive hit—with seven or eight per issue, I’m not sure there will ever be a month where I adore everything—but the four stories on my favorites list are the most I’ve ever seen from a single magazine issue, and the worst is the bunch is a fun-but-forgettable 3.5 stars. To top it all off, the issue closes with a debut story that’s going to make me think long and hard when crafting my award-nomination ballot in a couple months.
The issue opens with Bo Balder’s “Eddies Are the Worst,” which provides a snapshot into the life of a woman struggling with societal developments both at work and at home. It’s hard to find good workers at her fish-processing business after societal shifts have pushed menial work on increasingly unreliable clones, and restrictions around family formation have left her unable to afford children while growing more and more distant from her parents. It’s a solid story, one focused more on worldbuilding and addressing small problems than sweeping changes.
It’s followed by Hannah Yang’s “Bird Girl Builds a Machine,” which draws the reader immediately into the strange relationship between a young girl and her mother, with the latter’s life focused almost entirely on building an elaborate and mysterious machine. That sense of strangeness and mystery is enough to easily sustain the tale’s scant 3,000 words, building to a finish with real emotional resonance and a sense of resolution that feels just perfect for the mystery at hand.
The first half of the issue ends with a longer short story and a flash fiction. The former, “The Long Mural” by James van Pelt tells of a generation ship stowaway finding fulfillment working on a shipwide art project, but whose fear of being found out keeps him from getting too close to any one collaborator. The story may not develop in a particularly shocking way, but it’s plenty satisfying. The flash fiction, “The Parts That Make Me” by Louise Hughes, is something of a list story, with a machine that has replaced all its original parts telling the stories behind those that have been with it longest. I find that flash has to be truly exceptional to stick in my mind for long after reading, but this was a pleasant read nonetheless.
While the Yang story stood out from the issue’s first half, nearly everything in the back half was exceptional. In “The Mub,” Thomas Ha delivers a short and unsettling piece about an artist who picks up an unwanted traveling companion. The story never explicitly states whether these mubs are creatures of fantasy or science, but the way they prey on creativity is hard not to associate with the current AI discourse. It’s not a story that’s going to answer a lot of questions, but it’s gripping and unsettling, an excellent read for those who don’t mind some uncertainty.
Next comes the novella-length opening stage to what I believe is Clarkesworld’s first serial, “Eight or Die” by Thoraiya Dyer. It tells of a South American miner who finds himself roped into traveling the multiverse with strange aliens in search of a renegade willing to commit horrific crimes to extend his own life. It’s gripping as a thriller—and I say that as someone who doesn’t especially care for thrillers—and full of fascinating interactions between the human lead and a series of alien interlopers. It’s hard to fully evaluate the story with so much of the main plot left to come in December, but part one was a truly excellent start.
As if counterbalancing the length of the novella, the issue’s penultimate story drops the word count back to the shorter end of the short story range, with Kemi Ashing-Giwa’s “Thin Ice” telling of a colonizing AI that mines out-of-the-way civilizations for art and literature to bring back to its masters. Though short, it’s emotionally intense and delivers a satisfying ending that makes it very much worth the read.
And capping off the issue is my favorite piece of the bunch, made even more impressive by it being author Tia Tashiro’s first professional publication. “To Carry You Inside You” is the tale of a woman with a brain chip that allows her to upload other consciousnesses into her body. After increased regulations ended a promising career as a child actress, she makes ends meet as a surrogate for the dead, using her body to house the consciousnesses of the departed for short meetings with their surviving family and friends. The story follows one job in particular, interspersed with flashbacks following her life from first implantation all the way to the point where she begins her surrogacy career. While it’s on the longer side for a short story (around 7,000 words), it’s impressive how much ground “To Carry You Inside You” is able to cover without ever feeling overstuffed. Political and social controversies about the technology constantly run in the background, while the lead’s fraught relationship with her own mind brings real emotional oomph to the tale. It really is the whole package, and it’s going to have me thinking hard in a couple months when constructing my nominating ballots for both the Hugo Award for Best Short Story and Astounding Award for Best New Writer.
The non-fiction section of the issue includes reflections by Neil Clarke on his time at the Chengdu WorldCon—including bringing home a well-deserved second Hugo Award for Best Short-Form Editor—and the science article taught me some new and interesting things about aging wine in space. The interview section usually blows up my TBR, but I’m not sure I like heists quite enough to rush out to buy the work of David D. Levine, and I’m honestly not sure what to think of Cory Doctorow—I’ve heard so much about his near-future science fiction and heavy emphasis on the political, but not enough to get a good sense of whether it would be my speed. I’ve heard it suggested that his short fiction provides a reasonable litmus test into his style, so perhaps I’ll start there.
For the second month in a row, GigaNotoSaurus’ long story is a novella, and it’s my second read this month heavily featuring a neural chip that can modify personalities. “Ghosting” by Kelly Lagor introduces readers to a woman whose life seems to be an endless parade of drugs and hookups, with periodic memory deletions keeping the inevitable bad breakups out of sight and (literally) out of mind. But an equipment theft and anonymous emails from a jilted former lover force the lead to confront just what kind of chaos she leaves in her wake.
Protagonists who live to get high and have sex have never particularly appealed to me, but the mysterious stalker was enough to pique my curiosity, and Lagor writes the whole thing well enough to sustain my engagement through the length of the novella. It leans a bit more toward the character study than mystery, but character and plot come together nicely for a satisfying conclusion.
The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction
My year of being a regular with The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction comes to a bittersweet close this month with the November/December 2023 issue. Like the November Clarkesworld, this issue has one lengthy novella surrounded by a whole bunch of shorter work, and this month’s F&SF dives right in with the showpiece, “The Many Different Kinds of Love” by Geoff Ryman and David Jeffrey. It’s a very slow-moving story about research AIs in the seas under the surface of Saturn’s moon Enceladus, seeking meaning and adventure after a prolonged period of no contact from above. They fill the void with their own research into both their submerged world and the human sense memories involved in their programming. I wouldn’t say the plot necessarily builds to a conflict, but it does include a conflict that leaves this feeling like more than just an AI slice-of-life—perhaps it’s instead an AI coming-of-age tale.
Afterwards, the transition to short stories begins with Amal Singh’s “Karantha Fish.” I’ve read Singh before in Clarkesworld and am impressed with how he crafts a dystopia, though this entry is less dystopia and more of a rigid fantasy society. The narrative is as gripping as always, but I found the solution in this entry a bit too neat, keeping it from the level of some of his other work. Next, Anya Ow’s “Longevity” is much more of a dystopia, and much more satisfying, with its focus on making meaning and how one person can make a difference through seemingly small actions in their sphere of influence. It’s well-told and uplifting. Then the issue dips into horror with “All That We Leave Behind” by Charlie Hughes. As regular readers know, I’m not a big horror guy, but this one is effectively chilling, with a book club taking the place of the campfire in one of the traditional horror setups.
What follows is a series of four straight dragon stories, two prose and two poetry. The first is far-and-away the longest, with J.A. Pak’s “Portrait of a Dragon as a Young Man” offering a pleasant, centuries-long slice of draconic life in his first interactions with humanity. After the two poems, the dragon section closes with a list-based flash fiction, “Twelve Aspects of the Dragon” by Rachael K. Jones—a perfectly fine piece, but like most flash, not one that especially sticks with me.
“Meeting in Greenwood” by R.K. Duncan reimagines much of American history as a struggle between cosmic forces, with the lead receiving intel from beyond the grave that sends him across the waters of death with a Confederate agent hot on his heels through the fires of 1921 Tulsa. It’s followed by two straight bird stories, with Samantha H. Chung’s “The Pigeon Wife” translating a Korean folktale into a New York setting, with a single woman trapping—and exploiting!—a pigeon husband to help make rent, with results much more satisfying to the reader than the lead. “Los Pajaritos” by Sam W. Pisciotta is another flash piece, with remembrance of a lost love interspersed with the construction of clockwork birds.
“Pluto and Travis D Work the Door” by Brooke Brannon dives into a diasporic community in Miami telling stories with elaborate patterns on clothing. The setting is the real strength here, as the villain and resolution both lean a bit neater than I prefer. “Indigena” by Jennifer Maloney is another flash piece with quite a different diaspora, a group of space travelers arriving on a new planet to find it changes them as much as they do it. Then “New Stars” by Christopher Crews provides one final flash, with a father and son watching the late family patriarch’s ship race on even after his death.
The final two short stories are on the short side and lean a bit too far into the worldbuilding for my tastes. “High Tide at the Olduvai Gorge” by Kedrick Brown skewers the myth of meritocracy in a story about a people arriving to Earth through a wormhole and instituting a society designed to make the cream rise to the top—as long as they are fabulously wealthy. Renee Pillai’s “Prisoner 123 is Guilty” tells of the daughter of a wealthy family imprisoned for her attempts at kindness to the family of her lower-class servant. Both stories write their political messages in 72-point font, which isn’t inherently a deal-breaker. But they just don’t have enough story to really grab me, instead standing and falling on the portrayal of an unjust world. If the reader isn’t won over by the worldbuilding and the politics, there’s just not much else there.
The issue closes with a last novelette, “Fools and Their Money” by Meighan Hogate. It’s told from the perspective of an avian scavenger who may have served as a minor antagonist in a traditional epic fantasy. In this story, however, the destined hero makes an untimely end, and an admittedly unpleasant narrator takes the story in an entertaining direction in a wonderfully clever bit of storytelling.
As always there’s also poetry, which I don’t feel at all qualified to review, and a few non-fiction pieces. This month, I found the science article particularly memorable—revisiting the magazine’s first science column on its 65th anniversary. As it turns out, our understanding of space dust has changed quite a bit since the time of Isaac Asimov, and the explicit tracing of space dust in sci-fi from the 1950s to the present made for a fascinating short read.
Another non-fiction piece particularly near to my heart was Arley Sorg’s survey of six major American genre magazines in 2022 to determine how often they published authors from outside the United States. Without personally reaching out to each published author, it was a messy endeavor, but four of the six surveyed came out around 75% US-based authors. One of the major outliers? Clarkesworld, who published authors from 19 different countries and saw more than a third of their stories come from abroad. In what was perhaps my favorite fiction month of reading Clarkesworld, I’ve been given yet another reason to give it pride of place in my monthly reading rotation.
Ever since being wowed by a handful of their 2022 Reader Poll Finalists, I’ve been meaning to give Asimov’s a closer look. I was planning to start in 2024, after finishing up a full year of F&SF, but after seeing a new favorite author in their November/December 2023 table of contents, I decided to jump in a bit early.
The issue opens with one of three novellas, “The Ghosts of Mars” by Dominica Phetteplace, which tells of the first human born on Mars trying to sort out just why the equipment seems to be going haywire after everyone else evacuated. It’s not a story that drives forward quickly, with plenty of time to linger on the lead’s grief after the loss of her father and her varied relationships with her mother, her mentor, and her online best friend. But while there’s certainly interesting character work going on, and the central mystery is satisfactory, I felt the story could use a bit more forward momentum.
The short story segment opens with “Embot’s Lament” by James Patrick Kelly, the story of a bot assigned to observe the past finding itself aghast by the terrified flailings of a woman trapped in an abusive marriage and struggling to see the way out. It’s not necessarily a surprising story, but it’s absolutely a gripping one.
It’s followed by the piece that inspired me to pick up this issue in the first place: “Berb by Berb” by Ray Nayler. This story is connected to some of his other work that I haven’t yet read, but it makes an acceptable standalone, delivering a heartfelt tale of one person trying to do the best they can in a world that has gone to pieces around them. It’s a theme Nayler returns to often, and it makes for a good read every time.
It’s in turn followed by the issue’s sole novelette, “The Open Road Leads to the Used Car Lot” by John Alfred Taylor. It’s a delightful time travel story that’s less a puzzle and more a reflection on different conceptions of the future, with careful exploration of the 1939 World’s Fair by an author who was himself fascinated by it as a child.
Unfortunately, two of the next pieces take a hard turn to the didactic in a way that I found frustrating. “Neptune Acres” by Robert R. Chase is a piece about the hubris of development in environmentally hostile areas. There is enough story to keep the preaching from filling too much of the short story length, but it ultimately goes about like you’d expect. “Death of the Hind,” on the other hand, goes about like you’d expect but at a full novella length. Perhaps readers of the previous entry in this universe will have a better time with this one, but I found the generation ship story from Kevin J. Andersen and Rick Wilbur too much of a morality play about science denialism—particularly from the lead’s older relatives—that felt like a Covid story in space. I won’t say the behaviors represented were unrealistic, it’s just that the story didn’t breathe any new life into the premise.
Wedged in between those two was “Meet-Your-Hero” by Prashanth Srivatsa, which also wasn’t especially surprising—it’s just the kind of story the title suggests, and in a wildly stratified society where the poor are barely scraping out an existence, there aren’t many ways for it to go—but was more engaging in the telling. The short story section continues with “The Four Last Things” by Christopher Rowe, which is undoubtedly the most mystifying piece in the issue. It’s an ambitious story about a motley crew put together to observe the possibly-intelligent marine drumming on an unexplored planet, and how each crew member responds when disaster strikes. But it leans very much into the weird, and I confess that despite the quality of the prose, I wasn’t quite sure what to take away from it.
But after some frustration in the middle, I enjoyed the last two short stories pretty well. “The Disgrace of the Commodore” by Marguerite Sheffer is a flash fiction about a ghost watching those left behind and pondering his legacy, seeing how actions that had provoked either pride or shame in the moment actually echoed into the next generation. Despite its scant length—something that often leaves me waiting for the story to start even after it ends—I felt there was a strong central core that made this very much worth the read. It’s followed by “In the Days After” by Frank Ward, an intriguing and often touching piece about the aftermath of an event that leaves society starkly divided between the affected and the unaffected.
The issue is capped by one final novella, “Blade and Bone” by Paul McAuley. And like “The Ghosts of Mars,” I found something to like here but felt there were structural issues holding it back. In this case, the novella spends about half its length setting up a military conflict between a band of mercenaries and violent rebels. But the battle itself is fairly ho-hum, with the real story coming in the aftermath, as a pair of stragglers try to survive despite injuries, harsh conditions, and very different ideas about the best course of action. If the back half had been an independent novelette, I expect I’d have enjoyed it pretty well. But taken as a whole, the novella seemed out of balance, with too much of the narrative dedicated to scene-setting. Perhaps it was trying to subvert expectations about a military sci-fi novella, and perhaps I—not being a big mil-SF fan—wasn’t the right audience, but I just found it took too long to really get going.
- “Eight or Die (Part One)” by Thoraiya Dyer (novella, Clarkesworld)
- “The Mub” by Thomas Ha (short story, Clarkesworld)
- “To Carry You Inside You” by Tia Tashiro (short story, Clarkesworld)
- “Bird-Girl Builds a Machine” by Hannah Yang (short story, Clarkesworld)