Frustrations with the Digital

As much as I like the internet and my laptop and the easy access to information at the press of a button (or more recently the tap of a screen) there are some things that I will always enjoy more in their analog form. Books are one such thing. I have a Kindle. It’s loaded with books, but I only really read it at work, where the convenience of not having to deal with pages is its biggest draw. Most touch screen command centers are also beginning to draw long, confused pauses from me, though as I get older, I find that a lot of my interactions produce long, confused pauses.

This week I added an item to my list that I never thought I’d ever add: real human interactions. Anyone who has ever had to deal with the cheerful yet automated voice of customer service knows what I’m talking about. It is infuriating and humiliating to have to yell your requests repeatedly into the phone for an automated system that neither has the capacity to recognize your frustration, nor has any clue what number you’re trying to select.

Interestingly, this exercise in hair pulling was brought on by yet another technological failure. I have been trying to be greener with my bills recently, by making them all electronic. While also saving a tree or two, this vastly reduces the amount of paper I later have to shred. This, however, also puts me at the mercy of The Machine (in previous generations known as The Man) as I had the unpleasant, Kafkaesque misfortune of discovering last Friday.

When I found my cell phone bill in my inbox, conspicuously showing me a figure several dollars higher than what I’m used to, my immediate instinct was to run a fine-toothed comb through the damn thing to find out what I was being over-charged for this time. Which was when I discovered that, no matter how many times I tried, I could not log into my account. That produced the thought of, “Oh shit, I’ve forgotten my password again,” because really, who can remember four dozen random arrangements of 15 uppercase, lowercase, numbers, symbols, and neolithic cave drawings all of the time? So I angrilly reset my password, and yet the problem did not go away.

Time to call customer service.

Well, it was a busy day for customer service. Thirty minutes spent waiting for ‘an available agent’ after the five minute maze of dial pad commands was not what I wanted to do with my morning. So I left my number for a call back and went on with my business.

My call back came in at the appointed time, and everything was going well, (I was bopping along to the elevator music) when suddenly it stopped and I’m patched through to a line.

An empty line.

The call didn’t drop. There was no dial tone. There was nothing but a faint white noise. Evidently I had been patched through to an agent who had left his headset on his desk while going off to take a wee. I waited for five minutes before I gave up in disgust.

Next option: live chat.

I like live chat slightly less than automated phone systems, if only because chat bots are becoming way more advanced every year and my fragile optimism coupled with my paranoid cynicism is always worried that I’m going to be the one that lets an AI pass the Turing test that then ushers in the robot apocalypse. Don’t laugh, it could happen!

As it happened, Veronica, my assistant was instantly on my radar. First of all, come on, no one has been named Veronica since “Archie” comics. Secondly, she spoke (or, I guess typed) a little too robotically. There are certain casual nuances to human communication that Veronica just didn’t seem to pick up on. Or else my phone company has a script written by an emotionless tin man that their employees are never, ever allowed to deviate from. But whatever. Veronica needed to be tested.

Me: Hey, Veronica, what’s your favorite animal?

Veronica: My favorite animal? giraffe

Very clever Veronica. Your programming has allowed you to deviate off your script. Time to throw another wrench into your machinery.

Me: Giraffe isn’t an animal, Veronica.

Veronica: No? Then what is it?

Damnit, Veronica, you’re not playing the game right!

Me: Veronica, can I speak to a real human please?

Veronica: I am a real human.

Touché, Veronica. Touché.

Clearly I was outmatched. This was either a very, very clever chat bot or else a very confused and possibly offended human woman. I may never know. Not until the robot uprising begins, that is.

In the end she gave me a very complicated work around that involved making a new account with a new email address and password. And while she wasn’t able to definitively prove to me that she wasn’t a metallic imposter, she did inform me that the error I had been experiencing was because my phone company had decided to muck around with their website, and had inadvertently locked a huge number of their customers out of their accounts. I told Veronica that their web developer needed to be fired, and possibly needed to be the first fleshy human to be put to work in the mines.

Whichever.

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This seems like as good a time as any to announce that my short story, “Customer Service” has been accepted by the Canadian magazine Neo-opsis. It will appear in a future issue that I will be more than happy to pimp out once I have more information.

In the meantime, the ink continues to [slowly] flow into other projects.

There will be updates.

Sometime.

Maybe.

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Tangent Reviews: Analog, 3/2016

I think it says a lot about the strength of a writer’s skill when they can grab the attention of a reader who doesn’t read in their genre very often. Science fiction doesn’t usually grip me as hard as fantasy, spec fic or horror does, but nonetheless, the science fiction stories published in Analog give me something to think about, and something to enjoy.

The March issue featured the following original fiction:

“Drummer” by Thomas R. Dolski
“Elderjoy” by Gregory Benford
“Snowbird” by Joe M. McDermott
“The Coward’s Option” by Adam-Troy Castro
“The Perfect Bracket” by Howard Hendrix and Art Holcomb
“Unlinkage” by Eric Del Carlo

It’s rare for me, but I enjoyed nearly every single story in this issue, with “Snowbird” and “The Coward’s Option” being my top picks.

Find my full review here at Tangent Online. To subscribe to Analog, click here.

Tangent’s 2015 Recommended Reading

If you’ve taken a casual look at my blog recently you might get the impression that I do a bit of reviewing. Actually, I do a lot of reviewing, though lately not so much on the books I’ve been reading for pleasure. Frantically writing my own fiction has eaten up a large chunk of my time, on top of the reviews I do for Tangent Online.

Tangent is a fanzine started back in 1993 that reviews the works from the short story to novella pro-paying market. Occasionally they’ll review novels, and there are articles and other interesting stuff out there for the SFF minded.

At the end of every year a list is compiled of what the review team felt were the best of the best to be published that year. Stories we like are given a zero to three star ranking, depending on whether they’re just ‘good’ or mind-blowingly life changing. Keep in mind that these are already stories that have been accepted into professional publications, so these are double-vetted stories of pure awesomeness.

To see the 2015 list, visit Tangent Online here. You have to scroll down some, past the explanation of the list (summarized above) and some stuff about Sad Puppies that I’m not going to get into here.

Anyway, if you’re looking for some spectacular short science fiction, fantasy, or horror reads and aren’t sure where to start, give this list a look. I’ve picked quite a few choice stories myself.

Tangent Reviews: Fantasy & Science Fiction Jan/Feb 2016

It’s been a while since I had the pleasure of reading another issue of Fantasy & Science Fiction. They publish enough stories and at such great quality that there are usually several per issue that I really enjoy. The January/February 2016 issue is no exception.

“Vortex” by Gregory Benford
“Number Nine Moon” by Alex Irvine
“Smooth Stones and Empty Bones” by Bennett North
“The White Piano” by David Gerrold
“Caspar D. LuckinBill, What Are You Going to Do?” by Nick Wolven
“Robot from the Future” by Terry Bisson
“Squidtown” by Leo Vladimirsky
“Touch me All Over” by Betsy James
“Telltale” by Matthew Hughes
“The Visionaries” by Albert E. Cowdrey
“Braid of Days and Wake of Nights” by E. Lily Yu

Of the above twelve stories, “The White Piano” is hands down my favorite. The voice and the frame story both form a very complex piece of writing craft and I can absolute appreciate the work that went into the formation of this story. “Telltale” is another great story. It’s part of a larger, ongoing narrative, but new readers should have no problem understanding the character and the premise, nonetheless.

Read my full review at Tangent Online Magazine. The issue can be purchased from Fantasy & Science Fiction’s website.

Tangent Reviews: Sci Phi Journal #8

Going way, way back (god I haven’t updated in months, even the crickets have packed up and moved on to more active audiences) I reviewed the 8th issue of Sci Phi Journal in November of last year. None of the stories in particular caught my attention, but here is what issue #8 had to offer:

 “The Trade’s On” by J’nae Rae Spano
“Be Careful What You wish For” by L. P. Melling
“reBirth” by Katherine Gripp
“The Pondering Pacifist” by John Kaniecki
“Walk” by Gunnar De Winter
“They Shall Be As Gods” by John Rovito

Like I said, none of this issue’s stories really stood out to me. In each something important seemed to be missing to really bring the concepts alive. As a result, I never felt fully satisfied with what I read. Sci Phi Journal is, however, still a young publication, and a dedicated venue for soft science fiction, primarily philosophy. As it grows into its own audience and niche I expect the stories it publishes will be tighter and more vibrant all around as well.

My full review of the issue can be found at Tangent Online. If you wish to read the original stories, you can purchase the issue on Amazon.

Tangent Reviews: Apex Magazine

Last month I returned to review Apex Magazine, which is quickly becoming one of my favorite publications for short science fiction and fantasy. Issue #77 contains the following stories:

  • “When the Fall is All That’s Left” by Arkady Martine
  • “Super Duper Fly” by Maurice Broaddus
  • “All Things to All People” by D. K. Thompson
  • “Me and Jasper Down By the Meth Shack” by Aaron Saylor
While all the stories are strong in their own way, “Me and Jasper Down By the Meth Shack” was my favorite, simply because of the strength of the voice. It takes elements of storytelling that might have otherwise been trite on their own and made them novel and entertaining. As always, I recommend reading the original stories, which you can do by subscribing to Apex Magazine at the link above, and if you’re so inclined take a look at my full review at Tangent Online.

Tangent Reviews: Apex Magazine

Issue #76 of Apex Magazine features four pieces of original fiction:

  • “Child, Funeral, Thief, Death” by Tade Thompson
  • “Find Me” by Isabel Yap
  • “Frozen Planet” by Marian Womack
  • “Mountain” by Liu Cixin (translated by Holgar Nahm)

I was most taken by Isabel Yap’s “Find Me,” a story about a girl dealing with her grief via a peculiar, not quite real, not quite imaginary friend. The emotion is thick in the story, giving even its fantastic elements a weight of truth that makes the whole thing easily relatable to the reader.

You can find this issue of Apex here. My review for the above short stories can be found on Tangent.

Tangent Reviews: Uncanny Magazine

The September/October issue of Uncanny Magazine has four very well constructed stories, though the two that stuck out to me are Keffy R. M. Kehrli’s “And Never Mind the Watching Ones,” and Liz Argall and Kenneth Schneyer’s “The Sisters’ Line.” In particular, “And Never Mind the Watching Ones” struck a cord with me, possibly because of novels from my youth that continue to give me warm, fuzzy feelings when I think of them. The remaining original fiction in the issue is “Find a Way Home” by Paul Cornell and “The Oiran’s Song” by Isabel Yap. They’re all definitely worth the price of the issue, which you can purchase here.

My review on Tangent can be found here.

Tangent Reviews: SQ Mag

This is the last one, I swear. I would have bundled them all together, but I like to separate them by publication when I can. This was my first time reading SQ and it was decent. None of the stories reached out and grabbed me by my soul, but I don’t remember detesting any of them either. I reviewed, “The Florist” by M. B. Vujačić, “Stairwell” by Ron Riekki, “Home Delivery” by Michelle Jager, “Inner Dragon” by James Aquilone, and “Bot Malfunction” by Iulian Ionescu. My review of all five of these stories can be found here.

Tangent Reviews: Strange Horizons

I’m even more behind on posting my Strange Horizons reviews. Poor blog, you have been so neglected, haven’t you? But deadlines, paid work and my personal writing come before blogging time and I’ve been burning the keyboard with other things recently. And now for catch up number two. (My reviews behind the date link, original stories behind the title link.)

Karen Myres’ “The Visitor” was my favorite of these by far. I don’t want to spoil it because I love the story so much but if you don’t read any of the other stories on this list, you should read this one. “Beyond Sapphire Glass” was also nice. The narrative style is odd, but it grows on you as you read it. “20/20” was fairly good too, though I swear I’ve read a story just like it not long ago.