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.

divider2

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.

Tangent Reviews: Beneath Ceaseless Skies #198

Beneath Ceaseless Skies is always a delight to read. I don’t always necessarily like all the stories that they publish, but they tend to pick up stories with either very lovely prose or incredibly thoughtful speculative fiction. Issue #198 features a story about the life of a puritan settlement in America battling against the constant threat of the devil, and a haunting eco-tale about the ghosts of whales harnessed to the lanterns that burn on their oil.

“Or I Wil Harrie Them Out of This Land” by Thomas W. Waldroon
“Whale-Oil” by Sylvia V. Linsteadt

I loved the voice in “Or I Wil Harrie Them Out of This Land,” though the length made the story a bit tedious, and many of the strands it starts felt a bit unfinished by the end. “Whale-Oil” is a story that bleeds vivid colors into the reader’s imagination. With a fairy tale feel and brilliant imagery, “Whale-Oil” is a great piece of speculative fiction.

Read the original stories in issue #198 at Beneath Ceaseless Skies. My full review is available at Tangent Online Magazine.

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.

The Writer’s Pinch

660 words

So here’s the scene: There’s this writer, you see? He’s there hunched over his desk, burnt out cigarette between his lips and fifteen of its cousins already stubbed out in the tray and on the desk and under the typewriter. There’s an empty bottle of whiskey rolling around under his feet and no less than seven dirty coffee mugs on the kitchen counter behind him. The one that’s sitting cold by his elbow needs a wash, but he’ll give it a rinse if he remembers, or pour the stale ghosts of beans past directly into it if not.

He’s alone, because that’s the responsible thing to do when your art is tearing you up from the inside to get out, but is shit at feeding a family or keeping the water hot. He’s barely got the lights on, which was what she said when she left the last time. He pretends not to care because the hurt makes the words more real. Pain is ink and he feeds it drop by plunking drop into the machine in front of him, hitting the keys like he’s in a brawl. Bare knuckle boxing against twenty-six opponents and their stuttering, stalling, questioning peanut gallery. And he fights on, hour after hour, endlessly, mindlessly typing because when he stops is when he hears them. Every single goddamned one of them and their poison-tipped words that keep him perched on the edge of a bottle: Kook, shut-in, layabout, mooch. Knife thrusts in what was supposed to be a fair fight. And he’s fighting, damnit but all the bets are against him, and they laugh at his bruises but don’t they know this is the only damn thing he’s ever been good at?

He’s got a stack of rejection letters eight miles high and four miles deep, but he wears his one acceptance like a badge of honor. Victory on the field of battle. Welcome home soldier, you’ve done your good duty. Sorry about the legs and all; we’ll get you looked after. And then he’s gone. Forgotten in the gutters and he digs viciously at the keys, recounting it all: the struggle over the mound of bodies, the rip of bullets through his flesh, and the flash of bayonets white-hot like match flames in the cigarette-smoky air. He tears his hair out at the sound of mail sliding through the door slot: planes overhead dropping their payload. Shell after shell of bills; he prays that the atom bomb of another rejection doesn’t land in the pile. It’s PTSD and he knows it but there’s no VA for writers who can’t get published, and no support for a man who can’t work a normal nine to five because the weight of it crushes his soul already undervalued beside what worth can be ripped out of the toil of his body.

He’s pinched. His stomach. His wallet. All of it. Pinned to the wall like a bug. One more beetle out of a hundred thousand others. And still he flexes, twitching in the last synapses of life before death. LOOK AT ME, he screams into the din. I’m special. I’m unique. Inspect me. Tear out my wings and catalog them. Every book: twenty-six letters: different patterns. Different spots in different arrangements. Pigment, flourish, camouflage. In an evolution of words his are failing natural selection. Failing to stand out. Falling out of the gene pool. He’d give his kingdom of cobwebs to be a butterfly right now.

His fingers slow to a stop over the keys. They hover and then drop, the mad hummingbird pace they’ve been keeping falters in uncertainty. Is this worth it? The world returns to him. The real world. Empty refrigerators, medical bills, and the sound of angry, bitter sex through the too thin walls. His head drops like a cracked clay pot into his hands. Ash stains his keys. He’s written fifteen thousand, seven hundred and eighty-four words today and erased fifteen thousand, seven hundred and eight-five.

Tangent Reviews: Clockwork Phoenix 5

Clockwork Phoenix 5 is an eclectic collection of speculative fiction stories from a diverse cast of authors. The stories selected reflect the diversity of the authors and while some of them failed to hit the mark with me, they all have something unique to offer the reader.

“The Wind at His Back” by Jason Kimble
“The Fall Shall Further the Flight in Me” by Rachael K. Jones
“The Perfect Happy Family” by Patricia Russo
“The Mirror-City” by Mary Brennan
“Finch’s Wedding and the Hive that Sings” by Benjanun Sriduangkaew
“Squeeze” by Rob Cameron
“A Guide to Birds by Song (After Death)” by A. C. Wise
“The Sorcerer of Etah” by Gray Rinehart
“The Prime Importance of a Happy Number” by Sam Fleming
“Social Visiting” by Sunil Patel
“The Book of May” by C. S. E. Cooney and Carlos Hernandez
“The Tiger’s Silent Roar” by Holly Heisey
“Sabbath Wine” by Barbara Krasnoff
“The Trinitite Golem” by Sonya Taaffe
“Two Bright Venuses” by Alex Dally MacFarlane
“By Thread of Night and Starlight Needle” by Shveta Thakrar
“The Games We Play” by Cassandra Khaw
“The Road, and the Valley, and the Beasts” by Keffy R. M. Kehrli
“Innumerable Glimmering Lights” by Rich Larson
“The Souls of Horses” by Beth Cato

I have five favorites in this anthology. First, Patricia Russo’s “The Perfect Happy Family” for its charming characters and its minimalist, surrealist apocalyptic setting. “Squeeze” by Rob Cameron is a wonderful benign ghost story, and the closest to a classical narrative in this anthology. Rich Larson’s “Innumerable Glimmering Lights” is a fantastic alien protagonist story that loops in a way that makes me smile. I appreciated Sonya Taaffe’s “The Trinitite Golem” for the way it slips fluidly between reality and myth and fantasy. Finally, “The Sorcerer of Etah” I enjoyed for its arctic setting and the interesting way it presented problems for the main character.

My full review can be found at Tangent Online. Clockwork Phoenix 5 can be purchased on Amazon.

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: Nightmare#40

Nightmare #40 had a story with a similar theme as the last Nightmare issue I reviewed, which threw more for a bit of a loop. It was the best story in the issue, so I can’t complain, but the coincidence made me smile.

“Angel, Monster, Man” by Sam J. Miller
“Vulcanization” by Nisi Shawl

“Angel, Monster, Man” is a bit of a lengthy story, but it was my favorite of the issue, both for its subject matter and for its presentation. “Vulcanization” I liked less. I didn’t like the main character, I thought the pacing was off, and the emotion stretched too far into satire to make sense within the story.

My full review is available at Tangent Online. Read the original stories on Nightmare’s website.

Tangent Reviews: Heroic Fantasy Quarterly #26

I sometimes feel that it’s hard to place my specific tastes in literature. Much like my music listening habits, I’ll read almost anything (with a few exceptions) and I’ll dump on my favorite genres as often as I’ll praise works in genres I hardly ever delve into. There are a few things though, that I really look for to improve my opinion of a particular work: strong characters, decent plot, contextually plausible events, and if not humor then at least clever writing. I can enjoy pretty much any story, so long as it has those elements. Except I also have ridiculously high standards, and when I read a story that doesn’t quite do it for me, I say so. So it is with issue #26 of Heroic Fantasy Quarterly. I love the genre, fantasy is near and dear to my heart, but I couldn’t get fully into these three stories:

“The Blue Lamp” by Robert Zoltan
“Beggar’s Belief” by Jon Byrne
“The Voice of the Green Flame” by J.R. Restrick

The best of them is absolutely “The Blue Lamp.” It has a decent rise and fall of tension, and some characters I could get behind, but it meandered a bit and some of the mystery fell a little flat. Still, it’s a solid fantasy story for anyone looking for a read and run sort of experience.

My full review is at Tangent Online. If you wish to read the original stories, they can be found at Heroic Fantasy Quarterly.

Tangent Reviews: Aurealis #86

Issue number 86 of Aurealis has two short stories that may or may not appeal to fantasy fans. Personally, I wasn’t entirely impressed by either of them. “Potkin” is the stronger of the two, if only because “Adrift on the Smokey Sea” felt way too on point for an adventure story. If you like Sherlock Holmes style stories where the protagonist and his side kick already know all the answers to every not-puzzle they encounter, then it might be the story for you. As for me, I like a little sense of danger and the unknown in my reading, and this story didn’t do it for me. “Potkin” on the other hand, has a few good things going for it, but it feels too short to contain everything it’s trying to say. Read the stories and judge for yourself.

“Potkin” by Janet Haigh
“Adrift on the Smokey Sea” by Lachlan Huddy

My full review is at Tangent Online. You can purchase this issue on the Aurealis website to read the original stories.

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.