Review: Nature “Futures” April, May, June 2013

Nature magazine publishes flash science fiction under the collective title “Futures“. They accept unagented submissions, pay a pro rate, and have an interesting target word count: 850-950 firm. Overall, I was less impressed than I expected. There were stories that seemed to be badly told copies of common tales we’ve heard a hundred times before.  I thought there’d be a lot more working science, too. But there were also brilliant pieces that are absolutely worth reading. (My favorites were by Lin, Liu, Spruck Wrigley, Stanger, Shvartsman, Starks, and Powers-Smith.)

June 2013

Probability-1: termination” by Euan Nisbet. (Alt history. Scientists plan to change a single molecule in the fertilized eggs that would become King George and Queen Victoria, in order to save America from worldwide sanctions.) The story seemed based too much on name dropping the alt-world’s leaders, and relied too little on plot. Plus, a scientist has a workable machine that can change molecules anywhere in time, paid for by government funding, and yet has free range to use the machine without any supervision? 2/5

Buzz off” by John Grant. (Aliens arrive to help humans become civilized, are surprised to find we won’t listen.) Straight-forward, common tropes. Relies on a joke reveal at the end. 2/5

Mortar flowers” by Jessica May Lin. (Artist in a war zone making beauty out of desolation.) Lovely. The backstory is subtle but clear, the mood sombre with the memory of lost hope, and using the scientific names for flowers–instead of a description of what they look like–works perfectly. It’s a moment with a history, a beginning, and a believable end. 5/5

Rondo code” by Tony Ballantyne. (Programmer snarking at a journalist for asking questions about her work; computer code which turns music into functional programs.) The idea is clearly more important to the author than the execution. Oddly redundant for a piece of flash; there’s no story here, just some references to stuff that’s happened, and a protag who doesn’t want to do the thing she agreed to, in order to generate faux conflict. Plus, unbelievable premise–code and music just don’t work that way. If you create a code, it’s a language, and sure you can make one which will translate musical notes into actions, but to then assume that means already-written music will do extremely powerful things, like direct traffic and manage world peace? I hate when science fiction is dumb. 1/5

May 2013

A time for peace” by S. R. Algernon. (Potential time traveller has to interview for a spot at “The Institute”.) The idea of a group or agency overseeing time travel to ensure we end up with the future they want isn’t new or original, but the story was decently written until the obvious Hitler reference. 2/5

An Alien Named Tim” by Michael Haynes. (Alien hijacks a trade ship.) Funny, with a twist ending. Would have rated it higher except for the space hookers; suggesting one catches diseases from sex with alien women is based on the classic SF method of hiding racism by attaching negative stereotypes to “aliens” instead. Not as much offensive (now that we’ve all seen it repeatedly) as it is tired. 3/5

The Plague” by Ken Liu. (Perspectives from two sides of a biological divide.) You want to use SF to talk about colonialism? Read this. It’s mixed PoV, showing both the man from the shining city, come to free the natives from their misery and woe, and the girl who doesn’t think she isn’t civilized. Both want to help the other understand or improve. Ending isn’t a true twist–it’s an abrupt, perhaps tragic, but completely understandable choice. 5/5

The Front Line” by Sylvia Spruck Wrigley. (Volunteering to fight the enemy isn’t always as advertised.) Monologue from a seasoned sergeant to his new recruit about how to survive the alien invasion; darkly funny, nice spin on an old plot. Uses “Everything You Know Is Wrong” trope to great effect, explaining backstory, setting, and probable future in a few paragraphs. 4/5

Bee futures” by Vaughan Stanger. (Future farmers vs. anti-GMO activists; robot bees.)  Surprised to see another bee story when Grant’s “Buzz off” was published only six weeks later, but they are very different. I liked the set-up and setting, and the conflict was believable, but the end… I didn’t buy. No matter how much trouble it is to grow food, why quit? And this line: “He had hoped that people would choose to die wearing flowers in their hair, but that rarely happened,” could have been a poignant ending, if it had been attached to a different story, but it’s not supported by the plot up until that point. Still, good idea, good execution for most of the story. 4/5

April 2013

The epistolary history” by Alex Shvartsman. (Letters from a man to his wife, on the same date, changed by each successive trip back in time.) This was a much smarter use of the time travel trope than Nisbet’s story. I like how the motivations change but the circumstances don’t, until so much has been altered there are no more options. The individual pieces may only tell a moment of the story, but all together it flows into a full arc. 5/5

Survivors and saviours” by Philip T. Starks. (Post-apocalyptic, testing children for survivability.) Dark but scientifically supported. The voice is stilted, which doesn’t quite work for me, but doesn’t ruin the piece either. Also, another mention of bees. 4/5

Sonic estate” by Henry Gee. (Female scientist reacts badly when former lover/business partner/rapist tracks her down a few years later.) There are a couple of threads to this story: the science–a sonic generator; the relationship; her reaction–hiding from the world; grand finale. The science is the best part, sound (no pun intended) and well-described by someone who clearly knows his subject. The relationship is pedestrian but makes sense. The reaction to being harassed/coerced into sex/raped (it’s not quite clear) by an old lover is to lock herself away from every human being ever… it doesn’t read like the natural reaction, especially when she talks about him being the same guy now as he was when they dated, so she clearly knows the problem is him and not everyone, but she’s also hiding out, so maybe that explains it. The finale is more science fantasy than science fiction–she basically does something impossible just because that’s what the author wanted to have happen at that point. It’s an idea story, with great science but only average writing, pushing the plot to the end Gee envisions, instead of showing us why that would have been the end that happened. 3/5

For your information” by Conor Powers-Smith. (Instead of checking out someone’s Facebook profile you can access their DNA instead.) It’s the bad advice trope–two roommates, one’s started a new relationship, the other talks her into nosing around the guy’s genome profile. Nosy girl targets all the “worrying” markers; nice girl lets him know she was snooping, so he dumps her. It’s updated, lightly written, with a conversational tone. Science is good, characters are good, solid 4/5


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