The Dry Spell • 2009 • Magical Realism short story by James P. Blaylock

★★★

Summary:  Harper dares the heavens to rain using his garden gauge and hose. His rain dance seems to be successful.

Review:  A charming, quiet story less for the magical realism impact than for the main protagonist’s interaction with his wife. Just don’t expect any action or aweness factor at all.

Meta: isfdb. Published in Subterranean Online, Winter 2009. Read in The Best of Subterranean. Available online.

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The Screams of Dragons • 2014 • Urban Fantasy novelette by Kelley Armstrong

★★★

Summary:  Bobby dreams of screaming dragons, golden castles, and green meadows. He is abused by his grandmother, ignored by his parents, uncorrected by the elders of nearby rural village Cainsville. Would you consider it as a spoiler that Bobby didn’t choose the good side but turned evil?

Review:  This prequel story to Omens was too predictable in my opinion. It stays on the edge of paranormal and horror, tends towards a heavy-handed psychological interpretation of child abuse.

Meta: isfdb. Published in Subterranean, Spring 2014. Cainsville-series Prequel. Read in The Best of Subterranean. Available online.

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The Tomb of the Pontifex Dvorn • 2011 • SF novelette by Robert Silverberg

★★★

Summary:  Human dwellers formed the culture of Majipoor since many thousand years. The first pontifex remained a figure of myth and poetry. The main protagonist Simmilgord wants to uncover his true history. A position as curator for a new museum in the city where Dvorn was born and died comes in handy. He and his archaeologist friend Lutiel travel there full of hope and scepticism.

Review:  A very slow start full of buzzwords which are probably only meaningful for Majipoor fans, which I am not (yet). The story is about truth and how we work with it. The scientific background with local amateurish excavators, bullying chefs, and self-doubts feel authentic, and I liked the character developments. Some day, I’ll have to read more of Majipoor, escpecially Lord Valentine’s Castle.

Meta: isfdb. Published in Subterranean Online, Winter 2011. Read in The Best of Subterranean. Available online.

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Sixteen Questions for Kamala Chatterjee • 2016 • SF short story by Alastair Reynolds

★★★★

Summary: A physician found an anomaly hidden within the Sun. She explains her lifetime project of drilling deep to discover an alien artefact.

Review: The eponymous questions are mixed in two interviews – one defending her doctoral thesis, the second an actual interrogation when she was already famous. Thus, the story isn’t linear in time, adding a lot to the narrative structure’s complexity. The questions sometimes seemed to be artificial and not en point. The plot is based on several explorations of Hard SF: solar heliospheric oscillations to get a view into the Sun, material science to survive temperature, pressure, and gravity. A post-human part over the course of the centuries also finds its way into the story leading to a way out speculative form of Solar Dragons. Drilling down into the Sun is a way of bridging two points which made the story fit nicely into the anthology’s title „Bridging Infinity“ without reusing the often read space elevators. The eponymous main character developed interestingly, always living for her project but at the same time staying human and missing human elements – we discover how the project affected her, as well as humanity.

The story makes an interesting deviation from the author’s usual huge doorstoppers, as he had to concentrate on the topic in just a couple of pages.

Meta: isfdb. Published 2016 in Bridging Infinity.

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The Crane Method • 2011 • Magical realism short story by Ian R. MacLeod

★★+

Summary: Professor Crane made a nuisance of himself in Oxford University of 1928: He steals the outcomes of his students‘ research in Anglo-Saxon history. One of his students wants to beat his professor and be famous for the discovery of a new burial site.

Review: Light adventure prose spiked with numerous details of the given research topic. You can smell the rat almost instantly, so the many puzzle details got boring. This is one of MacLeod’s inferior works, although his narrative craftmanship shines through.

Meta: isfdb. Published in Subterranean Online, Spring 2011. Read in The Best of Subterranean. Available online.

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The Snowball Effect • 1952 • SF short story by Katherine MacLean

★★

The head of the sociology department of a college has to proof within six month that it can sustain itself financially, similarly to other departments funded by outside benefactors. He influences the local ladies of a sewing circle to use his theory of exponential growth applied to organizations. They overperform.

Review: This only slightly amusing satire extrapolates from the math’s absurdity to a predictable outcome. Neither sociology works this way nor unbound exponential growth. The story aged well and I could imagine that it would happen nowadays nearly the same way.

 

Meta: isfdb. Published in Galaxy Science Fiction, September 1952. Read in The Big Book of SF. Available online.

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The Prayer of Ninety Cats • 2013 • Dark Fantasy novelette by Caitlín R. Kiernan

★★★

Summary: You are a movie enthusiast, paid for reviewing a restored black and white fantasy film featuring the Blood Countess.  This time, she is not a vampire but a witch, and you have to ignore your surrounding and suppress your bladder’s distress to follow the story to the end.

Review: The Blood Countess has been a historical Hungarian mass murderer, influencing folklore and the Dracula myth. The film is followed in two layers, one describing the film’s essential scenes in snippets of stage directions. The other layer constructively debates the material as a metafiction from a second person point of view. Both render the poetic and horrific atmosphere masterfully; it is astonishing how only a few dense but vivid snippets can bring to life a complete film and you think you really watched it. The story was not only dark but also amusing, as the reviewer preemptively formulated a review just like this one:

Pedantry and nitpicking is fatal to all fairy tales. You will write that there are people who would argue a wolf lacks the lung capacity to blow down a house of straw and that any beanstalk tall enough to reach the clouds would collapse under its own weight.

This is one case of fiction where the prose inspires awe in the reader without drawing him into the story itself. I found the metfiction more interesting than the film snippets, maybe because the fantasy content didn’t grab me. And I certainly didn’t leave out a walk to the restroom just to read through to the end of this novelette.

Meta: isfdb. Published in Subterranean, Spring 2013. Read in The Best of Subterranean. Available online. It won the World Fantasy Award 2014.

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The Indelible Dark • 2013 • SF novelette by William Browning Spencer

★★+

Summary: Noel lives off authoring detective stories. Now, that he’s switched to a dystopian SF story, the new setting intrudes into his life:

“Meditate on karma, my friend. The dark gets on us, and it’s indelible and we pass it along. You carry the suicide virus in your heart, and any chance encounter can infect others.”

Review: This metafiction isn’t easy to decipher. The narration switches tiers from chapter to chapter back and forth, sometimes lingering within the author’s reality, sometimes in the dystopia. It soon becomes clear, that not only the author writes the story but the story influences the author, just like the circular karma: „Our world has a fondness for the circular. That is karma, after all.“ The dark stains that seem to follow the author don’t seem to be coincidence, but the story leaves many threads dangling.

I liked the conceptual structure, but neither characters nor narration, nor structure sticked with me. I wasn’t tempted to think long about it.

Meta: isfdb. Published in Subterranean, Spring 2013. Read in The Best of Subterranean. Available online.

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Every Heart a Doorway • 2016 • Magical realism novella by Seanan McGuire

★★★★

A charming story about yet-another-weird-boarding-school, a Hogwarts 2.0 with Nonsense vs. Logical instead of Slytherin vs. Gryffindor. Of course, the YA tropes had to be nourished – there is the question of identity, the ever-present „parents want to have back their little girl“, romance vs. sex. But the author built a charming setting that every speculative fiction reader yearns for. Because who wouldn’t like to get his own doorway to flee reality like Alice’s Wonderland or Narnia? Well, me. I wouldn’t.
Nice characters, easy to read narration, a predictable plot, and a rushed ending. A quick read, fine filling of blanks between two novels.

Meta: isfdb. Published 2016 at Tor.com. It won the Nebula Award 2017, and was finalist as Hugo, Nebula, and Tiptree nominee.

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Beyond Lies the Wub • 1952 • SF short story by Philip K. Dick

★★★

Synopsis: A space ship crew runs out of food. They plan to cull the pig-like wub, an alien animal that they acquired on their latest planet stay. Suddenly, the wub begins to discuss philosophy with them and doesn’t want to be eaten.

Review: PKD’s first published story begins like a typical Golden Age SF story featuring aliens and psychic powers, but after a while shows his typical style: Never expect to be told the correct reality, always expect a different truth behind the next door. It is both humorous and melancholical, and has a fascinating ending. The philosphical discussion about Odysseus is not futile but reflects the wub’s mental voyage. Far more lies behind the obvious: PKD criticizes sentient animal consumption. For a far more thorough analysis, I’d like to refer you to the PKD fan site.

Meta: isfdb. Published in Planet Stories, July 1952 and reprinted numerous times. Read in The Big Book of SF. Available online.

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