Thursday, February 25, 2016

Quick Sips - Plasma Frequency Q1 2016 (Part 1)

I was rather bummed when Plasma Frequency announced that it would going on indefinite hiatus last year. Especially with how many projects had been shuttering, I feared that it was gone for good. But after a successful Kickstarter campaign the publication is back in a big way. And I do mean big! The first of the quarterly issues has a full thirteen stories in it, seven of which I will be looking at today. From fantasy worlds to distant stars, the stories range pretty far and wide, but there's a nice balance to everything, and I do appreciate Plasma Frequency's commitment to publishing new authors. I'll be back again either late March or sometime in April to close out this first issue, but for now I'm just going to get to the reviews!
Art by Tais Teng


"Permutations of the Soul" by Melanie Rees (3873 words)

Aww, that’s a rather cute and interesting story about fate and about choice and about guidance. The story’s central premise involves a device people consult to advise them on the likelihood any specific action will lead them to their desired life path. Naturally people sort of jump wholly at the idea and things may or may not be out of hand. In some ways I love the story because it posits this technological advancement that doesn’t become this evil overlord. That is, in many ways, incredibly benevolent and self-sacrificing. Which is weird. But that in many ways the program doesn’t just advise on how to achieve goals, it basically acts in order to try and make it happen. Which is interesting and great and something the story only vaguely brushes against explicitly. But there is this sense that the story is examining what it is to make choices and whether technology can help with that. If you listen to your device are you ceding your free will or are you embracing it and embracing that there are things sometimes that human minds are more incapable of seeing. [IS THIS SPOILERS? I DON’T KNOW] In the case of the main character, she checks her device and probably would not have chosen to listen to it, and yet she has a faith in it that is sort of paid off. In that it’s almost religious, a “God’s Plan” kind of story only here the God is a machine and the machine is actually trying to give people what they want. Which…huh. I wish there had been more to this, more about the ways the machine might prioritize which goals to work more toward, or if it’s effected by money or power. The machine is benevolent, at least to some, but is it moral? What’s here is definitely cute and worth checking out, and this story definitely left me with a lot to think about.

"Noah's Ark" by Sagnik Datta (986 words)

Well this is just a rather short and efficient story about a man on the verge of a retirement of sorts, a man who has spent his whole life more or less idle, making friends with computers and waiting for time. [PROBABLY JUST SPOILERS ALL OVER] In many ways it’s a generational tale, the watchman there to witness the slow progress of a ship that needs a human awake in case of emergency. Only there’s never really any emergency, and so the man, Noah, just waits, recreates, goes about his life with the computers on the ship for company. It’s a mostly cute piece, lightly humorous and filled with goofy little moments. There is a subtle sort of loneliness to it, too, a sadness that permeates and that is fairly well done. The premise is fairly straightforward, and the writing and execution follow, showing this man’s life as somewhat empty but also somewhat richly lived, implying that for humans the two aren’t all that different. It’s quite and it’s a bit slow, giving a nice feel of time. And there is a sense of absence to so much of this, both of mission and people. Obviously Noah is part of a large project, but because of the nature of it isn’t really informed about what it is. Instead there’s just the feeling that for him, life is the in-between, a giant holding pattern. Not a bad read.

"Coffee and Ambrosia" by Taylor Hornig (2863 words)

In some ways having something like “Millennial Fiction” to help conceptualize stories like this has been quite helpful to my reading. There is a new tradition that is already being built, and it comes from a place that this story explores. The disappointment with life and the crushing defeat of it at times. Privilege and lack and yet something deeper than that, too. A sense that wonder has left and that what remains is a pale shadow of what it could be. But sorry, this story. It follows a woman named Georgia as she is laid off from her job and faces some rather dull prospects. Not really bad prospects, as she isn’t exactly in danger of going hungry, having parents who can probably float her by indefinitely, but she’s not where she wanted. Not where she could have been had she been of her parents’ generation. There’s a sense of betrayal, almost, a sense that she is wasted. It’s something I find quite interesting and something done quite well in the story, how it comes from that sense of disappointment and weaves a bit of magic into it. A hallmark of that tradition I was talking about, where the urge is to escape into some magical realm, to get away, to be free. It’s a nicely worked piece with a strong voice and a fine bit of strange. And the ending is striking but rather softly done, graceful and captures that urge to get away, to find magic, to not let it get away. Definitely a story to spend some time with.

"The Herpetologist's House Call" by Jarod K. Anderson (973 words)

This is a short and nicely executed piece that plays out a bit like a joke. A man and a robot snake walk into a bar. And yet there’s also a few very nice moments in the story, especially in the beginning, that sell the work as a whole. Because the joke itself wasn’t my favorite part. The twist at the end is well foreshadowed and worked, and doesn’t oversell itself there, but in some ways it works only because of the exaggerated awfulness of one of the characters. Which is a comedy tradition and makes that ending all the funnier for it, but I actually had more fun unpacking the joke, which in many ways is about art and about appreciation and the capitalist nature of art. That this artist’s work is so elegantly refined and yet appreciated only on the surface, only as a farce in some ways, and that, in the end, he comes to believe that it’s easier to change people than it is to change is art. Which is an interesting thought. Obviously here there’s an element of “capitalist doesn’t appreciate art and so is punished by the canny artist,” which is fine and rather humorous. The story works for that, and perhaps it just got me thinking but there’s still that idea of it would be easier to make a human more a human than a snake less a snake, and the “nature” of people, and whether people are more inherently awful or good, and if they are good then how does one go about “fixing” awful people. But that might have wandered a bit far off course. Really it’s a nice flash fiction with some excellent lines and solid construction.

"Sacrificial Virgins for Hire" by George S. Walker (2568 words)

This is a rather fun story about belief and about knights and dragons and virgins. Especially coming off the last story, the issue is keeping the humor high and fast, this story a fantasy where a young man goes seeking a virgin to lure a dragon terrorizing his village. The knight is rather hopeless, inexperienced and na├»ve, but in this case those are things that kind of help him. Because the key to besting a dragon is belief. And that’s where the story does a great job, showing the magic of conviction and confidence, how sometimes imagining something enough can help to make it the case. The story does a nice job too of the characters (or really just the would-be virgin) being acutely aware of the tropes at play and further aware how far she can bend and break them. Though the story is told from the knight’s perspective, it’s the woman he’s with that comes up with the plan, who sees it through. And in some ways it’s her that possesses the strongest magic in the story, the ability to believe. The humor is nicely done and the situation a mix of ridiculous and terrifying. The character work is solid and the plot itself, the way that everything resolves, and that last line, are all very nicely balanced. Especially with that title it’s a story that might have been a lot more cringe-inducing, but as it is it’s a fun romp with a great meta-commentary on itself and on the genre in general, twisting expectations while still delivering a very entertaining read. Indeed!

"Back-up to the B-Team" by Adrian Simmons (1021 words)

This story looks at a group of survivors stuck on a planet, their ship disabled, their reactor damaged. Without alternate fuel, they’ll only have power for ten years, and the story jumps through the time they spend during those ten years, following the most senior engineer left alive after the crash. It’s a rather bleak story, but it’s also one that’s got a bit of hope and a bit of fire in it, examining how people react to a complete shift in their lives, how they are able to try and make the best of a bad situation. Details about what the people were before is left vague, but there is a nice numbness at the beginning, the sense that things are in complete disarray, and also the sense that these are people who have known each other for a while. And the story excels at showing how the people cling to how things were, to the power that makes things easier for them, hoping against reality that they’ll be able to keep it, that they’ll somehow find a way. And I like that the story takes a bit of a chance with the ending, seems to settle on an idea of engineering that isn’t quite so bound to the technology the people were born to but the technology that is still sustainable and reliable. That in many ways they have to decide if they are to be defined as people who have crashed or if they are willing to adapt more wholly to the situation. There’s a nice progression in the story, with the time jumps and the changes in the characters, and it’s certainly worth checking out.

"On High" by Scott Shank (5547 words)

This story take a look at culture and prophecy and bargains, and manages to craft a rather compelling (if also rather bleak as hell) tale about a man damaged by the loss of his sister. Really, the story does a nice job of showing that about the main character, Abishish, that he has never been whole since the loss of his twin sister. As a twin myself, it’s an interesting concept and one that’s sold well, that this man identified himself in part by her, because he wasn’t the eldest son, because it was his relationship to her that made him special. And in losing her he lost a large part of himself, eventually taking a sort of exile to watch over the Oracle of his people. It’s an interesting premise and the setting is built quite well, though perhaps though aside from the absent sister I feel like there was a bit of a lack of female characters. Still, I liked the arrival of the outsider and the confusion there, the want of Abishish to do the right thing and his desire to reclaim what he has lost. The story does go in some pretty dark directions at the end, and does nicely set up the crumbling of the hope that it had built throughout, the thought that maybe there will be healing. The story opts instead to sort of gutpunch the reader and leave them, like Abishish, rather devastated as the curtain falls. It’s the longest story of the issue so far, and quite nicely done!

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