Magazine Review

Tar Vol Reads a Magazine (or Four): Reviews of Clarkesworld, GigaNotoSaurus, Asimov’s, and Analog (January 2024)

After a year of reading three magazines cover-to-cover, I’m going to scale back a little bit in 2024. It was a good experience overall, but life is getting more complicated, I have a lot pressing for my reading time, and I want to make sure this stays a hobby and doesn’t turn into a job. That said, I have one more month of a big magazine review, as my two usuals—Clarkesworld and GigaNotoSaurus—are joined with issues of Asimov’s and Analog that I bought in December, just to get a feel for all three of the classic digests. 


Regular readers of my short fiction reviews know full well that I sometimes struggle to draw the line between “good” and “great.” Make no mistake—there are some obvious greats out there, but there are plenty of borderline cases as well. When I’m getting ready to nominate for awards at the end of the year, I’ll go back and reread my favorites, and I’ll often find the order changes slightly. For my monthly review posts, on the other hand, I usually go with whatever I’d written down on my ratings spreadsheet. If I said it’s a 17/20, I’ll put it on my favorites list. At 16/20, I’ll highlight it in the post but not again at the end. 

But sometimes there are a lot of 16.5s, and that’s how I felt about January’s issue of Clarkesworld. I really liked a lot of what I read here, and a full half of the magazine had me waffling on marking a 16 or 17. So while there may not be a “write it in pen on my 2025 award nominating ballot” story in here, I still had a great time with this month’s issue. It would be a great choice for a cover-to-cover read. 

The issue opens with a story that’s both personal and philosophical, Nothing of Value by Aimee Ogden. It’s a story about revisiting an old friend after a philosophical split over transportation technology that destroys an object and reconstitutes it elsewhere, one that turned deeply practical after this became the dominant form of space travel. It does a nice job balancing the people and the ideas, and it leaves the reader with a nice punch at the end. 

Next comes a time travel story, Down the Waterfall by Cécile Cristofari, featuring a scientist who becomes obsessed with finding a way to see the world from outside the constraints of linear consciousness, and perhaps explore what may have been with a romantic road not taken. It’s a twisty story with true emotional power at its core. 

The novelette Binomial Nomenclature and the Mother of Happiness by Alexandra Munck is a story that I immediately wanted to reread upon finishing—and that’s a compliment. It features another obsessive scientist, this one seeking to develop and understand a device that allows one to see emotions, and also to see mysterious celestial phenomena otherwise kept secret by the military. Throw in communication with elephants and a neurodivergent lead whose reliability comes further and further into question as the story progresses, and there’s a whole lot here, but it was a fascinating ride. 

The issue’s second novelette, Stars Don’t Dream by Chi Hui, translated by John Chu, imagines a world in which the vast majority of the population spends their lives immersed in virtual reality, following a small group of people trying to build something in the real world. It’s an engaging, albeit slow-paced read that’s more interested in process than results. 

Just Another Cat in a Box by E.M. Auslender tells of a main waking in a deserted laboratory, only to find a world vastly changed from any he’d remembered. It’s fun to watch the protagonist puzzle out his situation, and the story manages to generate some real emotional stakes in a short space. 

Rail Meat by Marie Vibbert is a bit of a con and a bit of a romance, as a pair of thieves offer themselves as servants in a highly dangerous airship race to get close to the wealth of the owner. My tastes have run away from thievery lately, but I can imagine this story being a winner for fans of thefts and cons. 

You Dream of the Hive by C.M. Fields is a fascinating and very short story that I read at just the right time—in the midst of a discussion about how the fantasy genre handles protagonists returning to once-beloved locations. In this case, the lead has been rescued from some sort of part-organic, part-mechanical hivemind—only they’re not too happy about having been rescued. It certainly gives plenty to chew on in a very small space. 

Finally, the rare Clarkesworld flash piece (Clarkesworld doesn’t publish stories under 1000 words, but the definition of “flash” is non-standard, and I personally use the 1500-word threshold in my spreadsheet), You Cannot Grow in Salted Earth by Priya Chand was the surprise of the issue for me. It’s written from the perspective of an old-timer after the age of space exploration has ended, and the story is more about what the lead can’t bring herself to say than the stories she actually tells. It brings remarkable power in such a short space, hinting at a heartbreaking story while keeping its precise boundaries shrouded in the fog of memory and regret. My recommendation list had just one story under 1500 words in all of 2023, but that number has been matched in the first month of 2024. 

On the non-fiction side of things, we had a recap of the works published in Clarkesworld in 2023, along with a dive into what we know and don’t know about the history of Venus and interviews with authors Seth Dickinson and Caitlín R. Kiernan. 


GigaNotoSaurus opened 2024 with a short story, The Nine Lives of the Door Spirit by E.A. Petricone, an episodic tale of exactly what the title suggests: a spirit inhabiting various doors over the course of nine lives. While the story is told in a series of vignettes, there’s a real character arc here, as the door spirit remembers and changes—both for better and for worse—on the basis of previous lives. The vignettes are varied in tone, with a fair serving of darkness and some light peeking out now and again, but they’re individually compelling and come together to make a satisfying whole. 


I loved a handful of Asimov’s stories in 2022, but my first experience with a full issue was disappointing, and I opened 2024 eager to give it another chance to determine how well the magazine fit my reading tastes. 

And the January/February 2024 issue started with a bang, with the novella Proof of Concept by Kristine Kathryn Rusch. I’d read murder mysteries on passenger vehicles before—in fact, this was not even my first murder on a cruise ship in space in the last six months—but Rusch keeps the momentum moving forward so well, always ready with a new piece of information to keep the reader wondering what’s around the next bend. The revelation of the killer isn’t jaw-dropping, but it’s a read that stays entertaining throughout and is boosted by a victim whose backstory generates a whole lot of pathos. 

It was followed, unfortunately, by a few stories that didn’t land as well for me. To Eat Your Own Head by Nkone Chaka is the story of a scientist struggling for funding to study a strange, two-headed snake who can’t even seem to get the funds to keep her robotic assistant in repair. It’s a solid story that flits between character backstory and academic politics, but not one whose memory lingered long after reading. 

The Adherence by Jeffrey Ford is another competent tale that doesn’t necessarily linger. It tells of a man whose wife had disintegrated years before, in a freak accident related to the cheap household goods relied upon by all but the rich. He’s given the chance to revisit her disappearance–a chance that may or may not be a con–and what he finds may not be quite what he expects. Next Lucifer’s Lode by R. Garcia y Robinson uses virtual reality to mash up Sherlock Holmes with Wyatt Earp and space opera in a novelette whose many pieces never totally cohered for me. 

But Early Adopter by Zack Be returned to the style of sci-fi I like so well, telling the very personal story of an early adopter of a neural assistant. There’s a bit more sex than I was expecting, but at its heart, this is a story of a man struggling through anxiety and depression—mostly in the context of online dating—and the ways new technology may exacerbate or alleviate it. 

Lisa Papademetriou’s It Goes So Fast is another example of the sort of sci-fi I enjoy, with a mother dead set on being able to afford a proper living space for her growing child. The main character is far from perfect, neglecting the present in favor of a memory-recording device and internally celebrating the death of a neighbor that may put a piece of precious real estate onto the market. But she falls short in a relatably human way, and if the story isn’t a happy one, it certainly feels honest. 

After the Winter Solstice by Sean McMullin poses a fascinating science problem in a world where people hibernate during the winter—one that reminds me of Sydney Shoemaker’s philosophical essay “Time Without Change.” But there’s also fractious political backstabbing, and that plot line doesn’t resonate quite as strongly with such a short on-ramp. 

The short story Augher, Clogher, Fivemiletown by Ian McDonald adds a pinch of literal magic to ASMR in a satirical take on social media influencers and online popularity cycles. It’s a clever story that feels just as empty as it means to be. 

Burning Grannies by Rory Harper explores a strange world in which people appear as old women and get younger as they burn as fuel. An interesting world, but one I’m not sure I ever got my mind fully around. It’s followed by the flash fiction The Scalar Intercepts by Michael Cassutt, which tells the story of an AI reporting on one of the last organic beings in its study of possible avenues to avert an oncoming disaster. A competent story, but like so much flash, one that doesn’t linger in memory. 

Completing the set of mystery novella bookends is The Death of the Gorgon by Greg Egan, the investigation of a mining disaster with a lot to say about fanaticism and a significant subplot about the reliance on AI. It was an entertaining story that put a satisfying cap on the issue as a whole. 


Of the three classic digests, Analog is the one that least appeals to my taste, so I hadn’t sampled it extensively. But when a real-life acquaintance appeared on a table of contents with a few authors I’d loved in the past, I figured it was a good time to buy an issue and give it a real try. 

Unfortunately, I mostly found my biases confirmed. Over the last year or so, I’ve regularly quoted Bora Chung’s paraphrase of Russian literary theorist Boris Eikhenbaum saying “a short story is like climbing up a hill. Whatever you see on top should be different from what you see at the bottom of the hill. Therefore, in a short story, the ending is the climax.” I don’t necessarily hold every short story to that standard, but it’s a model that I really like—a story that makes you see things differently at the end is one that justifies its existence. 

And reading a whole issue’s worth of Analog stories really demonstrated how differently structured they were compared to my preferences. Not everything, of course. But lots of Analog stories are just science problems. People must demonstrate their scientific ability to accomplish some task, or must think on the fly to escape a sci-fi peril. And most of them are competently written, they just had a tendency to fall into that three-star range for me—the “this is fine, but I just don’t care all that much” zone. For readers who like that sort of thing, by all means, grab a subscription. But I’m not going story-by-story like in my usual magazine reviews. Instead, I’ll highlight a few that I found noteworthy for their quality or for having interestingly different structures. 

From the River to the Moon by Kelsey Hutton certainly keeps the science, but the problem is more a change in perspective than a particular obstacle to solve, as an elderly Michif woman comes to terms with the need to abandon her terrestrial home to help the land heal from the wounds inflicted by humanity. It’s a solid character portrait in a short space, with a satisfying emotional arc. 

Marie Vibbert’s The Handmaiden-Alchemist may be more of a science problem, but with an interestingly different setting, as a 16th-century woman turns her study of science to resist the affections of a man who won’t take no for an answer. 

The middle of the issue has a string of stories that I found some of the strongest in the issue. The novelette Places You Have Never Been by David Cleden explores strange phenomena that look like portals to another world but have proved nothing but deadly to those too close. There’s certainly some experimentation here, but a compelling background that helps drive reader investment. 

Song of Nyx by Sam W. Pisciotta is a very human story about a man working through his marital troubles by using an interspecies device to communicate with a lone whale—herself processing difficult feelings at being the last of her kind. Then Barreira Do Inferno by Madeline Barnicle explores the struggles leading up to the launch of a Brazilian space mission. It undoubtedly has some fun “the tech problems you run into when you’re not in a movie” element, but there’s a real emotional arc that starts with a firing and goes back to explore all the little backstory elements that recontextualize it. 

The novelette Hull Run by David Goodman is mostly a “surviving peril” story, but it was written well enough to pull me in anyways. There’s enough backstory with the teenaged protagonists to provide an emotional investment, and when the danger strikes on their ill-advised race across the outside of a ship in the upper atmosphere of Venus, the storytelling takes over and keeps the reader hooked the rest of the way. 

Finally, Paytron of the Arts by Raymund Eich is an engaging story of a writer struggling with whether to stay true to his artistic vision or to pander to the audience whose patronage has allowed him to pursue writing full-time. There are plot developments that won’t come as a surprise to an experienced reader, but the lead’s plight is compelling enough to carry the story regardless. 

January Favorites


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