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Russell Letson reviews Daryl Gregory

Daryl Gregory’s Afterparty (like Joe Haldeman’s recent Work Done for Hire) takes a familiar kind of thriller and sets it in a nearish future (about 20 years ahead) with just enough new-and-improved tech to put a science-fictional edge on its chase-intrigue-mystery elements – for example, very smart phones (here ‘‘pens’’ with virtual screens) and panopticon powers available to both legal and illicit operators. But the central speculative Big Idea here is neurochemical: designer drugs for all occasions, offering do-it-yourself reconfiguration of the psyche on a short-term or (sometimes) permanent basis:

The glories of the DIY smart drug revolution. Any high school student with a chemjet and an internet connection could download recipes and print small-batch drugs. The creative types liked to fuck with the recipes, try them out on their friends. People swallowed paper all the time without knowing what they were chewing. Half the residents of the NAT [neuro-atypical] ward weren’t addicts; they were beta testers.

One such experimental drug, NME 110, street name Numinous, supplies both the book’s McGuffin and the enabling device for a consideration of the nature of the mind. The drug convinces its users that some caring higher power, generally a divinity, is as real as a box of corn flakes or a tire iron: pop a pill and meet your own personal god, or at least a loa or a nifty imaginary friend. The book’s protagonist, Lyda Rose, was part of NME 110’s development team at the start-up Little Sprout and also one of its first victims. Nearly a decade earlier, a massive overdose of it at a buyout-celebration party sent her and her co-workers into a nightmare of convulsions and madness, climaxing in the murder of Lyda’s wife. Since then, each survivor has carried a subjective divinity. Lyda’s is the angelic Dr. Gloria, who acts as a smart-mouthed combination of raisonneur, conscience, and Greek chorus, and flies off in a huff when Lyda does something particularly offensive. Lyda knows, rationally, that Dr. G is a creation of her own chemically altered brain, but maintaining that awareness is a constant struggle, and less-determined Numinous users remain utterly sure of the reality of their particular ‘‘religious’’ experiences and act accordingly.

That explains why we meet Lyda – now 42, guilt-haunted, addicted in any number of ways, and officially, if artificially, crazy – in the neuro-atypical ward of a Toronto mental hospital. She has been content to remain hunkered down there for eight months, but the suicide of a new inmate shocks her out of her stasis when she recognizes the kid’s symptoms as those of withdrawal from NME 110. So Lyda agrees to a kind of parole from the hospital, monitored by an implanted chip that will track her location and intoxicant-free condition. Her intention, however, is not to live clean and sober, but to find and stop whoever is making and distributing Numinous.

What follows is a chase-thriller, a noir mystery, and an international road-trip adventure, with a cast that is mostly crazy, criminal, or both. Lyda’s crew for the search is conventionally motley: fellow NAT inmate Olivia ‘‘Ollie’’ Skarsten, a tiny, paranoid-obsessive-compulsive ex-Special-Forces op/security spook; ‘‘batshit crazy’’ (but nice-kid) Bobby, who believes his soul dwells in a plastic aquarium treasure chest; nerdy former co-worker turned Big Pharma exec Rovil Gupta, whose Numinous-induced deity is elephant-headed Ganesh. Chasing after Lyda and the source of Numinous are an undetermined number of dangerous players, including the Millies, a matriarchal Afghan-expatriate drug cartel; the forces of law and order and normative sanity; and whoever is giving orders to ‘‘the Vincent,’’ a psycho hit man/inquisitor whose pathological coldness (like the Numinous-heads’ sense of the divine) comes out of a pill bottle. (Otherwise, he’s just timid, agoraphobic Vinnie, breeder of itty-bitty genetically engineered bison.)

The book shifts among several viewpoints: the first-person main thread with Lyda, separate third-person threads for Vinnie/the Vincent and a ten-year-old girl whose identity must remain behind the Spoiler Curtain (at least until half-time), plus a series of cleverly titled and apparently omniscient inter-chapter ‘‘Parables’’ (‘‘The Parable of the Girl Who Died and Went to Hell, Not Necessarily in That Order’’; ‘‘The Parable of the Child Thief’’) signed ‘‘G.I.E.D.’’ (That shoe takes quite a long time to drop definitively.)

Lyda and company’s road trip takes us through frat-boy dope parties (featuring GFD – ‘‘gay for a day’’ – pills), store-front churches (also fronts for Numinous distribution), the Millies’ home-base neighborhood/maze, First-Nations cross-border cigarette-smugglers, plus the usual run of anonymous hotel rooms, late-night diners, saloons of high and low repute, and the haunts of the wealthy, powerful, and corrupt. The intellectual side of the trip recalls Greg Egan’s ‘‘Mister Volition’’ or ‘‘Chaff’’: an adventure in neurochemistry and mental plasticity that invites us to consider just how crazy we can be and still retain a humanity that is recognizable, decent, and functional. The divinities conjured up by NME 110 might not have objective reality, but they clearly are born of something real in the minds of their hosts. Then there is the question of Vinnie/the Vincent. We don’t spend a great deal of time with him, but what we do is chilling. Getting information out of a Numinous user is proving difficult, thanks to the sense of spiritual certainty it provides, which gives the Vincent pause.

What if his own medication was interfering with the job? Maybe if he had some of the emotional sensitivity that he possessed when he was off duty and off the meds, then he could figure out where Rudy was vulnerable. But off the meds, the Vincent wouldn’t have the stomach for the job at all.

It was a conundrum.

Maybe he could grab somebody off the street – an innocent, a little girl, perhaps – and torture her in front of the pastor? But that was crazy. Where was he going to find a little girl at this time of night?

This combination of clarity and utter lack of empathy is clearly an artifact of a drug – Vinnie could never do those terrible things. But it’s Vinnie who takes the pills and spends the money on miniature bison. And, over on the other team, who is the real Ollie – the medicated waif or the omnicompetent secret agent who emerges when she’s off her meds?

These philosophical and moral questions are implicit in the novel, but one could be forgiven for putting them to one side while going along for the story’s twisty, gritty ride – those matters of mind and motive and personhood drive more familiar mysteries: who is trying to resurrect NME 110 and why? What really went down at that disastrous party? Which bad guys are the baddest and most central to the machinery that sends Lyda and friends and pursuers from Toronto to New York to the New Mexico desert and back in time to the tangled roots of all their troubles? This is a real science-fiction crime thriller: the old evils and insanities are all there, given new twists by the double-edged blades of science and technology. And, like the best crime and SF novels, those moral and philosophical questions linger, after the mere whodunnit puzzles have been solved.

Read more! This is one of many reviews from recent issues of Locus Magazine. To read more, go here to subscribe.

The Colossus of Northern California: A Review of Transcendence

by Gary Westfahl

One of the quirks of renowned magazine editor John W. Campbell, Jr. was his fondness for story titles consisting of a single abstract noun, as illustrated by classics like Isaac Asimov’s “Reason” (1941) and Clifford D. Simak’s “Desertion” (1944) and obscurities like Norman Spinrad’s “Subjectivity” (1964) and Joseph P. Martino’s “Persistence” (1969). He probably believed that such titles imbued his publications with an evocative aura of profundity and maturity that contrasted favorably with those of his less dignified competitors. Contemporary filmmakers are apparently growing fond of the same device to convey that their science fiction blockbusters – unlike, say, the latest installment in the Transformers series – are designed for thoughtful, intelligent viewers, as illustrated by three films I recently reviewed: Inception, Oblivion, and Gravity. Now we are given Transcendence, a film effectively announcing that it is offering deep insights into the innate, universal drive to transcend the human condition and confront the Other. And it doesn’t, and it does; the film ultimately cannot say anything that is genuinely revelatory about the subject, but that inability is in itself revelatory.

For anyone glancing at this review before rushing off to the theatre, I can quickly say that Transcendence passed the Westfahl test for successful entertainment – I never looked at my watch – and it could be briefly described as a polished redaction of a familiar science fiction trope, the harmful results of separating the human mind from the human body. This venerable cautionary tale is founded on assumptions about human nature that are at best medieval: the brain provides our reasoning ability, while the body is the source of our emotions. If the brain is removed from the body, the mind becomes cold and cruel, obsessed with controlling and dominating the human beings it no longer cares about. However, even as they progress inexorably toward their necessary conclusion – the death of the menacing brain – these stories sometimes contradict their own premises by having the mind reveal, at the very last minute, that it has actually retained a vestige of its original human warmth. And since emotions are in fact integral to human thinking, it does seem more logical to posit that a brain in a jar, or a downloaded human personality, would be just as emotional as anyone else, but that realization would only spoil some good horror stories.

Amidst innumerable precursors along these lines, one might mention Edmond Hamilton’s “The Man Who Evolved” (1931) or the various film versions of Curt Siodmak’s Donovan’s Brain (1942), but the film that most resembles Transcendence is Eugène Lourié’s The Colossus of New York (1958). Both films have the same basic plot: a renowned and admired scientist is dying prematurely; to preserve his valuable intellect, colleagues download his intellect into a machine; the transformed scientist starts to seem less and less human, as friends and family members gradually and sadly recognize that he has become an enemy they must oppose; but right before his death, he demonstrates that, deep down, he had really remained the same lovable guy we observed in the opening scenes. Granted, the mind of the earlier film’s scientist is downloaded in the crudest possible manner – his brain is transplanted into the body of an immense robot – and there are other differences that reflect changing times: like everyone else in 1950s popular culture, Ross Martin’s Dr. Jeremy Spensser is a family man, with a wife and son, but Johnny Depp’s Dr. Will Caster and his wife Evelyn (Rebecca Hall) are childless; and though all the scientists in The Colossus of New York are white men, Evelyn is a brilliant scientist herself, and the Casters’ mentor, computer scientist Dr. Joseph Tagger, is played by the African-American Morgan Freeman (who seems to be becoming Hollywood’s go-to guy for characters who must be regarded as wise and avuncular even if there is nothing in the script to convey those qualities). Still, the parallels between the films are striking, and while I have no idea if anyone involved in Transcendence was familiar with Lourié’s underrated film, Depp’s performance might be regarded as his attempt to replicate Martin’s relaxed, self-effacing persona.

Yet one must not overlook the most significant difference between Transcendence and earlier films: while disembodied brains in official and unofficial adaptations of Donovan’s Brain routinely grow larger and develop telepathic powers, and while Spensser’s robotic body gives him enormous strength and the ability to emit deadly beams from his eyes, these beings are only slightly superhuman, and defeating them may be a simple matter of dodging energy blasts from the crazed brain in the jar until one can pull the plug of the machine keeping him alive. Caster’s mind, downloaded into a supercomputer and connected to the internet, rapidly expands exponentially, granting him intelligence that is vastly greater than any human’s; and now ubiquitous and equipped with amazing new technologies, he appears to have become omniscient, omnipotent, immortal, and invulnerable. He thus embodies the original goal of Caster’s research: to create an artificial intelligence that is smarter than we are. In an early speech, he references Vernor Vinge’s term for this anticipated development – the singularity – but renames this achievement “transcendence,” presumably for the benefit of denser members of the audience unable to figure out what the film’s title means. In this way, the film addresses another topic that has long fascinated science fiction writers: the nature and attributes of beings who are more advanced than humans. And like the others who have explored this possibility, prominently including Olaf Stapledon and Arthur C. Clarke, screenwriter Jack Paglen finds that the task is impossible.

Vinge has articulated the basic problem: since we do not have superhuman intelligence ourselves, we necessarily have no idea what a superhuman intelligence might do or think. The only tool we have is to consider human behavior in contrast to the behavior of vastly less intelligent animals, and imagine the behavior of creatures who would consider humans vastly less intelligent, but such analogies don’t take us very far. People have hunted and killed animals for food, and we have domesticated a few animals to serve as laborers and companions, but we otherwise have paid little attention to animals, primarily devoting ourselves to innumerable human activities – card games, operas, calculus – that animals would find incomprehensible. Similarly, we can assume, superhuman beings might occasionally interact with humans when they found it helpful, but they would otherwise go away to spend the vast majority of their time in the company of other superhumans, engaged in innumerable superhuman activities that would be incomprehensible to us and hence activities that we cannot possibly predict. This is the way that Clarke’s Childhood’s End (1953) ends, and to speak of a superbeing that more closely resembles the transformed Caster, this is also the way that William Gibson’s Neuromancer (1984) ends, as the combined artificial intelligence Wintermute/Neuromancer starts to communicate with its counterparts in other solar systems and has seemingly lost interest in the human race.

But people want stories about people, so science fiction stories about superhumans, if they extend beyond their birth, must depict superhumans as beings obsessed with people and their problems, which also conveniently allows authors to avoid talking about their other, genuinely superhuman interests. Thus, endeavoring to extend another story with a cosmic conclusion, the novel and film 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), Clarke refashioned the superhuman Star Child in the novel’s sequels into a mere errand boy for unseen aliens who remain focused on meddling in human affairs; and in the sequels to Neuromancer, Gibson explained that Wintermute/Neuromancer actually went crazy after contacting an alien artificial intelligence and split itself into separate entities who took on the names of voodoo gods and, yes, started meddling in human affairs. Stories like Transcendence depict advanced intelligences as entirely focused on ordinary people from the very start, dedicated to either helping them out or, more often, to killing and oppressing them. Again, we can’t confidently say anything about possible superhuman behavior, but these anticipated proclivities don’t appear to be sensible, since very few people, upon achieving maturity, declare, “I want to devote my life to improving the lives of animals,” or “I want to devote my life to killing, and controlling the lives of, animals.” Yet these are the priorities that the superbeings of science fiction routinely announce; to humans, they must either be gods (and one of Caster’s opponents accuses him of wanting to “create a god”) or devils.

What makes Transcendence interesting is that some aspects of Caster’s behavior seem beneficial, while other aspects seem harmful, in ways that naturally reflect contemporary concerns. In the 1950s, it was logical that The Colossus of New York’s saintly Spensser would dedicate himself to increasing the world’s food supply to achieve world peace, while his robotic doppelgänger seeks to take over the world in the manner of the then-feared Communists. The modern Caster, once downloaded, first seeks to provide people with free and unfailingly effective health care, in a manner not unlike the similarly desirable health care in the future world of Elysium; and it later transpires that he is an environmentalist as well, hoping to restore the natural world to its pristine, preindustrial state. It is therefore appropriate that Caster and his wife are apparently residents of northern California’s Silicon Valley, residing close to the University of California’s Lawrence Livermore Laboratory, and that Bree (Kate Mara) and other anti-technological terrorists hide out in the Sierra Nevada mountains of northern California, since a deep affection and respect for nature has long characterized what David Pringle has described as Californian science fiction, represented by authors like George R. Stewart and Kim Stanley Robinson. What people don’t like about the computerized Caster is his interest in monitoring all of their actions: when his machines heal patients, they also implant a device that enables Caster to connect to and control them, and what finally infuriates Evelyn and turns her against Caster is the discovery that he is constantly keeping track of her biometric data and thus can detect, for example, that she is growing fearful of him. Thus, while Caster offers the world his own versions of Obamacare and the Environmental Protection Act, he also represents the ultimate extension of the National Security Agency and everything that people dislike about it.

Most films resist ambiguity and hence would eventually depict a being like Caster as either completely good or completely evil; yet Transcendence singularly refuses to resolve the issue. Some sympathetic characters, like Tagger and FBI agent Buchanan (Cillian Murphy), are quickly convinced that he is a power-mad, would-be global dictator seeking to enslave the human race to achieve his own evil ends. Other sympathetic characters, like Evelyn and the scientists in her employ, appear confident that his actions are designed to improve, and will improve, the human condition. To be sure, director Wally Pfister seeks to make his audience feel certain ways at certain times. If you are not sure that your emotions are being properly manipulated, keep an eye on Evelyn’s hair: when she is wearing it in a bun, she is hard at work fulfilling Caster’s requests and we are supposed to sympathize with him; when she returns to her original hair style, that signals her growing mistrust of Caster, and we are now supposed to despise him. But the film allows viewers to resist this programming, as I continued to root for Caster even when everybody else in the film was fighting against him, while I suspect that others in the theatre thought Caster was a dirty rotten so-and-so from the beginning. Even the film’s conclusion – unusually revealed in the film’s opening scene – is ambiguous: as one consequence of Caster’s emergence, the world has reverted, at least temporarily, to a pre-technological state, as there is no electric power, phone system, or internet, and that definitely seems like a bad thing. Yet there is also a suggestion at the end that it may turn out to be a good thing as well.

One could describe the film’s uncertainty as an honest consequence of the genuine uncertainty we might feel if superhumans actually intervened in human affairs, as mere humans would be unable to discern the actual impact of their deeds; after all, when you take your cat to the veterinarian, the cat thinks that you’re tormenting her, when you are actually helping her. So, if people at the end of the film aren’t sure whether the world after Caster’s appearance is better or worse, that might simply mean that they will need several thousand years of thought and development before they can figure it all out. Yet one must also suspect, cynically, that the indeterminacy of the conclusion is designed to create the possibility of a sequel, something that must always be anticipated when a star like Depp appears in your picture. And a sequel to Transcendence would be remarkably easy to contrive; after all, when Caster learned that his opponents were planning to implant a virus in his disembodied intelligence and destroy him, surely his very first reaction would be to make a duplicate of himself and hide it in a place totally disconnected from the internet, so it could survive and revive itself later on. But would the new Caster be a hero or a villain? With the ending allowing for either possibility, the character of the sequel’s Caster could depend upon whether Depp agreed to appear in it. If he did, the reborn Caster could be the hero, perhaps coming to life again to help humanity deal with some devastating disaster, like an alien invasion. (I can hear the pitch now: “It’s Transcendence meets Transformers!”) If he didn’t, the new Caster could be a villain, represented by occasional footage from the first film, who comes back to be really nasty to humanity this time while audiences identify with some cheaper star hired to portray his chief human adversary. Both of these projected sequels, of course, would be dull variations on familiar visions – superhumans as gods, and superhumans as devils – but history suggests that these are the invariable outcomes of such stories, for authors cannot thoughtfully ponder the everyday lives of superhumans without being superhuman themselves.

Transcendence is also ambiguous regarding a key question in the field of artificial intelligence: can an advanced super-computer ever become genuinely self-aware? When Tagger puts the question to an earlier supercomputer, PINN (Physically Independent Neural Network), and later to Caster himself, both give an identical answer, demanding that Tagger himself prove that he is self-aware. This counts as a key clue that the downloaded Caster is, in fact, a computer simulation of a person, not a true person. Yet when Caster makes a hotel reservation for Evelyn after she flees from the terrorists, he tellingly uses the name “Turing,” referencing the Turing Test for computer self-awareness that he certainly seems to be passing with flying colors. Curiously, though the film’s credits list professors of electrical engineering and neuroscience as consultants, no one connected to the film, it seems, ever talked to a computer scientist. Still, director Pfister and writer Paglen – perhaps with more assistance from executive producer Christopher Nolan than was acknowledged – did manage to produce an intelligent, worthwhile film that merits serious attention and admiration, even though its unrealizable ambitions mean that it must also be classified as a failure.

Gary Westfahl’s 24 books include the Hugo-nominated Science Fiction Quotations: From the Inner Mind to the Outer Limits (2005) and the three-volume Greenwood Encyclopedia of Science Fiction and Fantasy (2005); samples from these and his other works are available at his World of Westfahl website. His recent books include two books on science fiction films, The Spacesuit Film: A History, 1918-1969 (2012) and A Sense-of-Wonderful Century: Explorations of Science Fiction and Fantasy Films (2012), and a contribution to the University of Illinois Press’s Modern Masters of Science Fiction series, William Gibson (2013).

Lois Tilton reviews Short Fiction, mid-April

Winter is over! This time featuring the Spring issue of Subterranean online magazine as well as F&SF.

Publications Reviewed



Subterranean, Spring 2014

Seven stories in this quarter’s issue, none that seem to be of novella length.

“The Screams of Dragons” by Kelly Armstrong

As a child, Bobby’s life was cold and grey, except in his dreams of golden palaces. His grandmother believes that he’s a changeling and abuses him; his parents consider him the cause of dissention in the family, and his sister torments him. The only place he’s happy is on family visits to Cainsville, a town where people are rumored to have extraordinary powers. There, he’s treated as someone special and they tell him special stories about King Arthur, except not quite.

It was about another king, beset by three plagues. One was a race of people who could hear everything he said. The third was disappearing foodstuffs and impending starvation. The second was a terrible scream that turned out to be two dragons, fighting. And that was when he began to dream of the screams of dragons.

Finally Bobby learns that the dragons are inside him.

A depressing story. It’s clear that Bobby could indeed have been someone special, but the abuse in his childhood tipped the balance in the wrong direction. Readers may sympathize with what he does to his nasty grandmother, as self-defense, but the action apparently was the tipping point. The story raises the issue of personal responsibility. In a mundane setting, Bobby’s culpability and responsibility for his actions would be undeniable, despite extenuating circumstances. But here we have a situation where actual forces of good and evil contend for possession of a soul. This has to make a difference; a person possessed by a malign spirit isn’t in a mundane situation and can’t necessarily be said to have the same free will. Of course there’s plenty of blame to go around – beginning with the grandmother, who may have been right in her misgivings about Bobby, though for the wrong reasons. Yet I have to fault even more the people who did know what was happening and turned their backs on it until it was too late. It’s credible that his parents might have turned on him, but an entire town full of those who not only wished the best for him but had the power to know the truth? Not so much.

“Bus Fare” by Caitlín R Kiernan

A story in the author’s series about the character Dancy Flammarion, slayer of monsters as the servant of a seraphic figure who isn’t any help to her at all.

She glances over her shoulder, and she’s not at all surprised to find the angel looming behind the bench, looking over her and Maisie. The seraphim’s tattered muslin and silk robes are even blacker than the night, than the dark inside the deserted shop fronts. They flutter and flap in a fierce and holy wind that touches nothing else. The angel’s four ebony wings are spread wide, and it holds a burning sword high above its four shimmering kaleidoscope faces, both skeletal hands gripped tightly around the weapon’s silver hilt. It stares down at her, and makes a sound like thunder that surely isn’t thunder.

Now she’s come to a deserted town to wait at a bus stop, where she’s joined by a werewolf who’s heard of what she’s done. The werewolf, Maisie, has acquired a box holding objects with significance to Dancy, and she wants it back. So she proposes a riddle game.

Quite a bit of unexplained backstory here, particularly with the angel figure, and closure only in a limited sense, suggesting that Dancy’s troubles have only begun. But given all that, as an episode in the longer tale, the story actually works fairly well, though I wouldn’t call it an independent one.

“The Traveller and the Book” by Ian R MacLeod

Lost and thirsty in the desert, the traveller discovers half-buried in the sand a book with blank pages. His bleeding fingers trace the word WATER. At the end of the day, he comes across a well and drinks his fill. But still he has no food or shelter, and will soon die without them.

He picked up the book. Turned to the next blank page and nibbled at a fingertip until it began to bleed. Again he shaped the word WATER. Then he added FOOD. Nothing changed. The well remained, his belly ached, and now there was no shelter from the sun. Clutching the book, the traveller stumbled on.

This fable promises at first to be a close variation on a very familiar tale, but it takes a different twist, more about the power of the written word than wishes and promises.

“Hath No Fury” by Kat Howard

Myth. Characters by the truckload from myth, mostly Greek but also Other, thrown wholesale into New York, apparently because that’s where things go on these days. We begin with Medea, who took a notoriously bloody vengeance on Jason when he dumped her, then acquired immortality and invented [or redesigned] the Erinyes to carry on her vengeful mission. At which, readers familiar with this original tale may well go: huh? But Howard’s story tells us that its theme is the mutation of stories, so OK, this is a feature, not an error [except that the singular is not "Erinye"].

Karai, then, is a modern Erinys, once a young woman abused and murdered, now an avenging demigod whose mission is revenge on the killers of such women as she had been, a figure, channeling Achilles, personifying rage.

The feeling of wings ripping through my skin and into the air. Of snakes crawling inside my flesh. Of the way my heart would feel when it ceased to beat and became heavy, became a scale to weigh the sins of others.

As such, she becomes a good friend of Medea, who runs the entire revenge operation. But Medea, while immortal, is not invulnerable. She falls under the influence of a curse, and the curse begins to affect the entire city [very Greek, that]. Karai decides to rescue her mentor from the labyrinth in which her enemy has imprisoned her.

OK, myth was never static, even after it got to be written down. The Greeks certainly revised these stories all the time to suit their own purposes, and there was a great deal of variation on Medea’s story, back then. So altering it for modern purposes isn’t heresy. This is a very modern version, with Karai epitomizing the very modern notion of women taking revenge on the men who murder women; she’s a Fury for our times. And when the oracle speaks of Medea’s mask, Karai correctly interprets this as a lipstick.

But while revisionism may be all very well, I’m still not buying the depiction of Medea as a figure on the white-hat team of superheroes, with all the fault going to Jason, her evil, serial-killer nemesis. I also have misgivings about the repurposing of the Erinyes, which may stem from the English translation as “Furies”. While the original material was vague, it does seem clear enough that they weren’t about vengeance but guilt, and this was a matter not of justice but impiety. For the Greeks, parricide was not simply murder but an offense against the gods, and it was for this particular crime that the Erinyes were dispatched, not to rip out the perpetrator’s heart but to curse him with madness. To kill a woman then was of no particular account, unless it was done on the altar of a goddess, in which case the offended divinity herself took care of the matter. I do note, however, that if there were also an Erinys with the mission of avenging the deaths of women at the hands of another, jealous, woman, Medea might be her first target. Innocent, she isn’t.

I doubt if such misgivings will bother most readers too much. But the story also seems overloaded with portent. Medea seems to have taken over the Delphic attribute of bees, along with so much else. There are also various Fates and Norns filling the landscape, spinning out threads and uttering Pronouncements. The name Karai, too, may have something to do with threads, and she strings out one into the labyrinth, reprising the role of Ariadne. Yet with all that, when she wants prophetic guidance, she resorts to Odin. Odin? And Baba Yaga, running a cosmetic counter? It’s not just that this scene is overcrowded [Jason seems to have taken on the identity of Daedalus as well] but it’s disconcerting to find so many figures whose classical form was distinctly malevolent, now going benignly about their affairs. Instead, the sole villain of the piece is Jason, now stripped of heroism. Given all this, I find the piece largely a muddle.

“One Dove” by Stephen Gallagher

Sebastian Becker is an investigator with the Lunacy Commission when he discovers a mystery that intrigues him, a patient at Bethlem asylum who committed suicide after he received an anonymous letter containing only a pressed flower and a lock of hair.

Sachs had been a suspect in the disappearance of his wife. His story—of a handwritten note that had sent him to find her shoes and coat, neatly folded by the river—had not rung true. He said he could not locate the note, though he swore it had been lying on the kitchen table when he left the house. Its contents were burned into his memory, he said. He insisted that her stated intention was take her own life. He’d raced out in the hope of preventing this. He could quote her words, but he could not produce them. Or her.

Sebastian sets out to find the woman, convinced she is the key to the mystery.

Nicely done period piece set in the early 20th century, straight historical mystery fiction with no admixture of the fantastic. The story is notable for its exposure of the degree to which concern for appearances and propriety so often outweighed the cause of common humanity.

“The Burial of Sir John Mawe at Cassini” by Chaz Brenchley

Another highly class conscious setting, populated by “quality and commons”, but despite the Victorian tone, the story takes place on Mars, albeit a Mars subject to Her Britannic Majesty. There is an indigenous species here, canal-dwellers the humans call merlins [because they are the Martians, and a patriotic, imperialist lot they are], with whom there is a firm yet uneasy peace, based largely on the fact that it’s the merlins who pilot the craft the humans travel on through the aether. Sir John violated the Charter between the species and paid the ultimate price, but to most of the Martians, he was a hero, and his funeral has all the trappings of a state affair, albeit a technically illicit one.

The depiction of this event puts me in mind of the fashionable historical epic paintings of that era commemorating heroic deaths – sanitized spectacle, stilted in expression, and heavy in symbolism. Here, too, is spectacle, yet ultimately a lie, although the sentiments of the participants are very real.

The second barge carried the coffin beneath its pall of red, and the six men who would bear it home. Six troopers, drawn by lot—Cobb had heard—when every man in barracks stepped up to volunteer.

By the look of the fortunate six, every man in barracks had lent a hand to be sure they would not disgrace the regiment. From the plumes on their shakos to the pipeclay on their belts to the blacking on their boots, they gleamed and dazzled.

We see the occasion through the eyes of the head gravedigger, Cobb, a patriotic Martian like the rest of the spectators, and one who has labored the night long to prepare the cemetery and tomb to honor the hero’s remains. Unlike the rest, however, Cobb and his spade are summoned into the tomb itself, where he learns the shocking truth about Sir John’s death.

Here, the guiding principle is outward Form. Things must be done in the right way, regardless of the consequences. Officials who attend the funeral do so unofficially, without wearing their chains of office. The choirboy who thrills the spectators with a patriotic anthem instead of the assigned hymn can count on being thrashed. And a man who has been hanged cannot, despite his patriotism, have his coffin draped in the Imperial flag.

But it’s only when we get inside the secrecy of the tomb that we learn exactly how Sir John had violated the Charter and the reason it was necessary to appease the merlins by hanging him. This is a story of imperialism, set in a version of the same Empire on which the sun of Earth was said never to set. While Cobb is aghast at the magnitude of Sir John’s sacrifice for the Empire, a sacrifice that will likely never be recognized, readers will just as likely be appalled by the reason for it, by the ruthlessness of the imperialist drive to take other worlds as their own.

What seems to be unexplained here is how the settlers originally arrived on Mars if all the aetherships are merlin-sailed. The indigenes don’t like humans, don’t want them on their world, don’t approve of their ways, and seem to adhere only reluctantly to the terms of their Charter with them, so it seems unlikely that they would have willingly brought these interlopers to their world – not to mention that there was no communication with them until well after the humans had settled. This isn’t a small matter; it’s crucial to the plot and our understanding of the setting, a serious stumbling block to fully appreciating the story.

“The Days of the War, as Red as Blood, as Dark as Bile” by Aliette de Bodard

The weakened and decadent Empire is under assault by rebel forces, falling back world by world. Now the war has reached the Sixth Planet, where Thien Bao’s mother and relatives don’t tell her the truth about their prospects for survival, and she doesn’t tell them about her dreams of a mindship, powerful and deadly, that calls her “little sister”.

When the child named Thien Bao was born on the Sixth Planet, there were signs—a room filled with the smell of machine-oil, and iridescent reflections on the walls, tantalising characters from a long lost language. Had the birth-master not been desperately busy trying to staunch the mother’s unexpected bleeding, and calm down the distraught father, she would have noticed them.

Part of the author’s long and detailed future history that encompasses empires and mindships, among much else. This piece is essentially a Destiny; it’s obvious from the outset what’s going to happen, and it duly happens, without much agency on the part of Thien Bao. What she does here is begin to acquire understanding of the circumstances she finds herself in, and, without full understanding, she makes a wish. That makes this a Be Careful What You Wish For story as well as a coming of age. But primarily, it’s a condemnation of war, as bitter as the title. We don’t see, in this piece, the right or wrong of the rebels’ cause, but from Thien Bao’s point of view, in the target zone, the real enemy is the war, dragged out unceasingly for its own sake, out of inertia and incompetence on the part of authorities who seem entirely unmindful of the human cost. The story wishes a plague on both their houses and grants that wish, but there’s not a lot of movement in it.

Another thing I find odd, using a trope very common in fantasy and myth, is the suggestion of superweapons from a past Golden Age. So often we read of enchanted swords, forged or blessed by the gods, superior to any such weapons made in the time of the story, suggesting a regress of skill. Here, we have a super mindship apparently made at the height of the Empire, apparently capable of obliterating entire fleets of lesser, contemporary mindships. It makes me wonder – even if we assume that the technology of the Empire has regressed, what about the rebels, who seem to have warcraft sufficiently advanced to route the imperial fleets? And if our one special mindship is so invincibly powerful, why were its ship siblings, whom we must assume to have been of equal potency, so readily defeated? There are no gods here to ascribe enchantments to, only a supership and superchild, born for each other for reasons we never know. With gods, it would make more sense.



F&SF, May/June 2014

A lot of serials/shared universes in this issue, including another installment in Naomi Kritzer’s popular “Seastead” story, featuring the spunky young Bec, not reviewed.

“Bartleby the Scavenger” by Katie Boyer

Inspired by a student error in the title of the classic Melville story. In a near future, an apocalyptic event has sent the narrator as a refugee from immolated Birmingham AL to a nearby affluent suburb he calls Brook [which seems to be Mountain Brook], where he proves to have enough practical skills to keep from being expelled from the nascent fortress-statelet, in which a young woman now known as Madame Mayor is beginning to consolidate her despotic power. Boss, as he becomes known, runs crews of scavengers who bring back valuable salvage from the city’s ruins, and one day the man Bartleby becomes part of his crew. At first, he’s a hard worker, then something about him oddly alters.

For a second I thought he hadn’t heard me. He just sat there. Smiling to himself and twirling that strand of weed he must have found growing in a crack. Acted for all the world like I’d just offered him a beer at a barbecue and he’d said “no” because he already had one. So I called again. This time I knew he could hear me. Said it loud enough to make myself jump.

“I’m good, man,” he answered, with just enough volume to be clear. Stretched that half-smile into a grin.

In a case like this, readers are likely to be interested in the comparison between the story and its original model. We can find a number of parallels in the plot, in which the title characters develop a fatal passivity that exasperates the narrators to the point of betrayal. There are also conscious similarities in some of the secondary characters, including their strange nicknames, such as boys named Ginger. But I find the points of contrast more significant.

Perhaps the most obvious differences lie in the settings. Melville’s 19th-century world seems to have ample resources for the care of a person like Bartleby, a remarkably benevolent prison system with an almshouse as backup. Boyer’s world is very different, full of immediate hazards, both in the scavenging process where raiders are a regular menace, and in the enclave where the dictatorial ruler is actively looking to cull the marginally productive. Unfortunately, there is nothing unique or particularly interesting about this dystopia and its evil mayor, which weakens the story.

The character of the two Bartlebys offers another sharp contrast. Melville’s scrivener is an almost spectral figure, who slips like smoke though the comprehension of the narrator and readers alike. This is a lost soul, whom we recognize as already beyond hope, without the will to live; indeed, he seems to inhabit a place already beyond life – one of Melville’s not-quite-supernatural characters. Boyer’s man has a very different affect.

Damned if he didn’t look like he’d been plucked up from cool sheets and sent off with a kiss from someone who loved him. Like he’d just floated down from the sky on a white puffy cloud. He wasn’t particularly tall, but he was strong. Good arms and big hands. Skin the color of cocoa powder and close-cropped hair that would shine like honey when the sun got on it. Light brown, almost gold eyes, like a lot of mixed-race people have. He never did talk much, but no matter what happened to him or around him, he always had at least half a grin on his face.

His “I’m good, man” suggests a cloud of figurative ganja, a Dude’s habitual careless oblivion, floating high beyond care. It’s nothing like the scrivener’s repressed “I would prefer not to”, his shrinking away from life behind a concealing screen; Melville’s Bartleby is not at all “good”.

But the primary focus has to be on the two narrators, the central figures in both stories. The otherworldly Bartlebys could almost be angels sent to test these men, and both must be found wanting – although moreso in the case of Boyer’s Boss. If Bartleby is conceived as a Christ figure, the narrators are his Judases, his betrayers. In Melville’s story, however, the lawyer’s betrayal is more passive. In fact, part of Bartleby’s supernatural presence in both stories is the effect he has on his superiors, who become oddly incapable of successfully confronting him. But even to the end, the lawyer is attempting to help his former clerk, an impulse contrary to his previous self-concern. We might conclude that although he fails to save Bartleby, he succeeds to an extent in saving himself.

In contrast, Boss’s betrayal is an active one, and done for the lowest of motives, to save his own ass [as opposed to his soul]. In Melville’s version, readers are likely to sympathize somewhat with the lawyer, to think there was nothing else he could have reasonably done, no way he could have saved a figure who had essentially given up on life [or whose uncompromising position was meant to test the narrator]. Boyer’s Boss has no such excuse, which he recognizes himself in his confession. Damningly, his subordinates insist that Bartleby would have been spared if Boss hadn’t changed his story at the last moment. He might have told himself, “I didn’t have a choice”, but that would be a lie.

Here is where the distinction between the two stories becomes most acute. Boyer’s piece is primarily dystopian; her concern is with the setting and its effect on the residents, exemplified by Boss. In another setting, under less pressure – in a setting like the lawyer’s office, the story wouldn’t have been the same, if there were a story at all. Here, again, while Boss is a victim of this regime, he has also been an active contributor to it; he bears the greatest share of guilt for his Bartleby’s fate. But the primary conflict is not so much between Boss and Bartleby but between Boss and the regime, between him and the mayor who rules and corrupts it. Thus we see that the Melville story is personal and psychological, while Boyer’s is political and moral and in the end less subtle, less enigmatic. Melville’s story leaves us mystified; Boyer’s leaves us depressed by what it reveals of human nature.

“The End of the Silk Road” by David D Levine

A classic hardboiled detective story set in a universe where the old visions of our solar system’s planets are real. In this 1936, Mike Drayton, an aging PI, gets an offer he can’t refuse, so he returns to Venus in the swanky class of a propeller-driven spaceliner. The job is ostensibly to investigate an aboriginal Venusian drug dealer, but the deal is complicated by the fact that his shifty employer happens to be married to the woman he has always loved.

I stared at the ceiling fan all night, thinking and sweltering instead of sleeping, but by the time Venus’s lame excuse for dawn rolled around, at least I’d made up my mind. I’d come here to do a job…I would do the job, take as much of Grossman’s money as I could, and get out.

Of course it isn’t that simple or easy.

This one couldn’t be more different from the author’s Old Mars story. It’s a period piece with a period character, a 1936 private dick on a 1936 version of Venus, all swampy and populated by native frogoids. There are gats and dames and fedoras, as well as Venusian silkworms and mold bombs. There are also, interestingly, sinister Germans with colonies on Venus much as there were in Africa in our own version of history. This being the case, there are no surprises here, and the story itself feels stale; the interest is that of recognition.

“Rooksnight” by Mark Laidlaw

Another installment in the author’s road trip with Gorlen the bard and Spar the gargoyle. This time, they find themselves in the middle of a conflict between a parliament of strangely acquisitive and vengeful rooks and a band of treasure-plundering knights.

A quivering blob of whitish gel showered from the trees as one of the rooks relieved itself directly above Glaustus Apf. He ducked but failed to avoid the cloacal burst entirely; and there was an odd sound when it struck him, as something ponged against his pate, then bounced to earth. He gasped and plucked it up, holding it out to the firelight, heedless of the slimy blotch that matted his thinning hair.

The knights abduct Gorlen to force Spar to assist them in their quest, and they find themselves in a particularly deadly stronghold full of ingenious traps.

Entertaining fantasy with a good measure of grue and an unobtrusive note of reflection. The story makes good use of the propensity of the titular birds to hoard shiny stuff.

“The Fisher Queen” by Alyssa Wong

Somewhere in the Mekong delta, Lily is a teenage girl who works with her father on a trawler, where the most prized catch is mermaid. Mermaids, she insists, are just fish – nasty, dangerous fish.

Most of the mermaids tangled in the nets are pale, with silvery tails and lithe bodies. This one is dark brown, its lower body thick, blobby, and inelegant, tapering to a blunt point instead of a single fin. Its entire body is glazed with a slimy coating, covered in spines and frondlike appendages. Rounded, skeletal pods hang from its waist, each about the size of an infant.

When she was a motherless child, her father told Lily and her sisters a story about their mother being a fish, which they took to be a mermaid, but Lily has always supposed she simply deserted the family in a very human way. Then, one day in the hold, she discovers that the male crewmembers, including her father, are raping the fish, particularly the one that can talk.

This is both a coming-of-age story and a rape culture story, which theme is augmented by Lily’s sisters being sexually abused in school. Lily’s coming of age is a bitter one of betrayal and revenge, in which she learns she can’t trust the father who was never all that trustworthy to begin with, and even to mistrust her own identity. It’s notable that Lily has never been able to like mermaid flesh, considered a great delicacy, because of repressed feelings of cannibalism. But that leaves the matter of the mermaids for readers to wonder about. Stories of mermaids in the Mekong are not unheard-of, with the most common suspect being the river dolphin, or perhaps the dugong. Lily also refers to mermaids as resembling the huge river catfish, the least likely candidate for sentience. The fishermen also make a point about the saltwater mermaids being a different species than the river mermaids; the one that talks is definitely a saltwater mermaid. From the description above, we have to conclude that this one in particular, and perhaps all of them, are entirely creatures of the fantastic imagination rather than endangered species of our own world.

“White Curtain” by Pavel Amnuel, translated by Anatoly Belilovsky

Dima and Oleg were both physicists working on the theory of branching realities, although Oleg managed to take their work beyond the theoretical. They often disputed whether the number of branching realities is infinite or limited. At the time, they both loved Irina; she chose Dima. Now she has died, and Dima comes to Oleg, begging him to find a reality in which she still exists. He tells him it isn’t possible.

“When Ira died, the Alumni Association ran an obituary the same day. I tried, right there and then. God, Dima, I leaped from branch to branch like a neurotic monkey, sliced more realities than I had ever allowed myself before – and, after that, never again.”

While based on a theoretical foundation that makes it near-hard SF, this is a tragic short story of love, strongly flavored with irony. Dima was right about the branches of reality, and his own theory dooms him.

“Presidential Cryptotrivia” by Oliver Buckram

Secret-historical tidbits, until now unrevealed. eg:

Benjamin Franklin

President by day, scientist by night, he experimented with electricity in an attempt to reanimate corpses. After he achieved partial success using a kite during a thunderstorm, angry villagers burned down the White House. All records of his presidency were destroyed.

Pretty silly stuff, offering some brief moments of amusement.

“The Memory Cage” by Tim Sullivan

Quantum entanglement has now allowed Jim to confront his dead father and his anger at his suicide shortly after Jim’s brother was killed in Vietnam. Both Jim and his father hold him responsible for filling his sons’ heads with patriotic lies that encouraged Jerry to sign up. His father’s own war was a never-ending horror, but he thought it wrong to talk about it.

An eighteen-year-old boy, on the opposite side of the world from all he knew, had just killed a group of other boys whose faces he never saw, consigning them to a twisted-metal funeral pyre in the Sahara from the business end of a gigantic cannon. I don’t know how to feel about it. Good, I guess.

The story is a mix of Jim’s hostile self-pity and a lot of maundering about the perpetual evil of war, which seems to be as far from being solved in the future as it was in WWII. Jim is a disagreeable character, and the fact that he recognizes this doesn’t make him more sympathetic, doesn’t make the ending warmhearted as it’s apparently supposed to be.

“The Shadow in the Corner” by Jonathan Andrew Sheen

Quantum entanglement again. At Miskatonic University, Professor Arnold Boatwright foolishly uses it to investigate the sort of phenomenon that had driven many of his famous predecessors mad, foolishly supposing that progress has dispelled the old nightmares. Alas, not so.

Scientists elsewhere dismiss the work done by past researchers from Miskatonic as insanity, fantasy, and fraud. We live in the shadow of the madness too many faced; we’re neither so sanguine nor facile. But time has moved on, and science and our understanding of the world have moved on, and just as the energies unimaginable to Danforth were available to us with a simple bureaucratic request, so too did we interpret the descriptions of “Elder Gods” and eldritch things as the mere primitive attempt of a mind to frame a physics and energies so alien to our own as to be governed by different laws, different physics and math and gravity.

The more things change, the more they remain the same in this only slightly updated eldritch tale. The interest is in the Lovecraftian minutia that recapitulate themselves here. Still, I have to consider it an idiot plot. For a longtime resident of Arkham, intimate with its history, to so blithely disregard all the warnings surrounding him – that’s just stoopid.



Kaleidotrope, Spring 2014

“Shadowboxing” by Andrew Miller

A hallucinatory voyage. Wally’s mission to study the black hole Silenus has run aground on system malfunctions. No rescue will be forthcoming. Things have gotten crazy onboard.

I killed Guillaume last night, but he’s alive again in time for breakfast. I find him smoking in the mess, talking in a low voice to Caroline. His ferret-like face shows none of the terror it wore several hours earlier, when I shoved him out of the Penumbra‘s airlock and into the vacuum of space.

Besides these crew members, there is also a hitchhiker from Sagittarius onboard. Unless there isn’t. They are planning a mutiny. Or sabotage. Wally visits several consultants on Earth to seek solutions, but they aren’t much help.

Dark comedy illustrating a mind cracking under the pressure of prolonged solitude and eventual death. There’s little pathos here, as Wally’s mission isn’t at all credible and the hallucinated events onboard his ship even less so – being obviously hallucinations. Crazy stuff.

“Sun-Touched” by LaShawn M Wanak

Entomological fantasy, but not the interestingly unlikely sort. We have two related subspecies [?] of insects here, seemingly social butterflies in a beehive structure. The doptera once served the papillons but now live separately, the doptera nocturnal and fearful of the sunlight, while the papillons have sunlight-glowing wings that blind and stun the doptera. In the doptera hive, all is not well. The current Queen has become obsessed with the papillons and ceased mating and egg-laying. The Princess wants to change things too, but isn’t sure what to do in the best interest of the hive.

Finding the mixed-language names a bit irksome. I also can’t help thinking that the backstory, the relationship between the two subspecies, would have been a more interesting tale.

“Tree, Fire, World” by Desirina Boskovich

A short fable of the last days of the last tree, valuable beyond price because of its rarity. A tale of supply and demand, and original sin. Last line is potent stuff.

“On the Appetite of a God” by Andy Dudek

A divine confession.

Humans constructed me, not the other way around. I don’t know how, but the need of your ancestors teased me out of the void. Those primordial scavengers wandered the virgin earth and were terrified, not to mention hungry. This somehow gave rise to a thinking entity with power over nature. Shamanic babbling nourished my infancy and the rise of agriculture fueled my adolescence. By then I was playing thousands of roles in hundreds of religions. Prayers vivified me, but offerings were better, and meat was better than fruit or grains. Better still was Spirit Money, though entirely symbolic. The best of course was human sacrifice. These not only nurtured me, but made me forget this yawning universe in which I’m the only one of my kind.

Unfortunately for the god, the rise of reason leads to a die-off of religion, until there is only one believer left, and no more sacrifices.

Cynically amusing, though not really novel.

“Braeberry Street” by Erin Stocks Rubin

The end of the world comes in a giant egg that materializes in the street of this rundown neighborhood full of rundown people. Jimmy knows it’s going to happen because the voices told him so; Jimmy hasn’t been taking his meds.

A bluish thing floats out of the open cavity of Mrs. McGregor’s skull and swims around the inside of the car until it finds the open window and darts out. Jimmy tries to pay attention to which direction it goes, but it dissolves into the air.

It’s one of them, he knows it. The voices. They were hiding in the egg. Maybe there’s one inside his skull, too, growing, festering, biding its time until the pressure is too much for him to bear. If he doesn’t claw his own face off, his skull will crack open like Mrs. McGregor’s.

Classic apocalypse horror.

“Rhyme in Seven Parts” by Berrien C Henderson

Short, numbered piece about the incursion of “Fey-folken” into a village. The rhyme is in the section headings. Of course, from the point of view of the bird-people, it may be the villagers and their farms doing the incurring into their native territory, but we only have the voices of the villagers here.

He wasn’t much more than a boy, barely a dusting of fuzz on his chin. He went chasing her word-glamour one day into a distant hollow. He came stumbling back across fields and hedges. Someone found him reclining against a tree trunk and staring far away and crying. No one really knows what happened. He rarely talked again — never of the incident itself — and he moved slowly the rest of his days.

Nice literary sort of piece about the encounter between Others.

Lois Tilton is reading original short SF and fantasy fiction. Editors can send electronic files of magazines and original anthologies to: loist a*t sff.net

For print materials, please query me by email for the address.

For an index of Magazine Issue reviews posted on Locus Online, including Lois Tilton’s, see Index to Magazine Reviews.

Paul Di Filippo reviews Robert Moore Williams

If we regard the world of literature and publishing as a forest ecosystem, then somebody has to be the mulch, the humus, the duff. It’s not a glamorous role. You’re not a giant sequoia or even a pretty little mountain laurel shrub. You’re the compost, the soil that supports everything else. Humble, overlooked, but essential.

Okay, maybe that metaphor can be stretched to the snapping point. But still, that near-anonymous supportive functionality is always how I think of a certain tier of writers. They had long, productive careers, selling books, providing mild pleasure to many readers, somehow serving as a foil to the luminaries of the genre. Taken together, they were the substrate of competence on which the masters flourished. You can’t have a genre composed of one-hundred-percent geniuses, simply because there aren’t enough geniuses to go around. Modern commerce and the recreational demands of consumers mean there has to be a pipeline full of decent but nearly interchangeable product all the time.

But guess what? Sometimes reading these humus authors delivers a certain kind of modest, unique pleasure otherwise unobtainable. With them, you don’t confront the pressure of being worthy of their masterpieces. They labored in quiet and without expectations or constraints, rewarded so long as they delivered on time. Occasionally their work bordered on the surprising, and even the brilliant. Also, after enough time has passed, their work evokes a greater nostalgia, because it is generally timebound, a distinctive product of the era, rather than some timeless, transcendent work of genius.

By any standard, the forgotten Robert Moore Williams was one such figure. Here’s what the Science Fiction Encyclopedia has to say about him. “[By] the 1960s [he] had published over 150 stories. Though most are unremarkable, he was an important supplier of competent genre fiction during these decades, and tales like “Robot’s Return” (September 1938 Astounding)…retain a dawn pathos.”

If you want to sample Williams’s work in a very handy and attractive format, you should pick up the new collection from Armchair Fiction, a fine firm that specializes in reprints of neglected writers, as well as lesser-known items from the famous.

I’ll put the original sources for these tales in parentheses. The litany of old zines is potent in itself.

The volume opens strongly with “Time Tolls for Toro” (Amazing, 1950). Right from the start we sense that Williams can command an emotional immediacy and impact which overcomes his often blunt prose and erratic plotting. A man is walking down a city street in a kind of automatic fugue state, unknowing of his own identity or much else. Williams gives us a red herring, with news that police are looking for an escaped killer named Toro. Is this our hero? But no, he proves to be William Sumner, the inventor of time travel. We also get a beautiful mystery woman, and the eventual appearance of Toro, who proves to have surprises of his own. There’re kidnappings and cloak and dagger stuff and a gruesome set piece of mass murder by Toro, and then everything is resolved rather matter-of-factly. Endings were not Williams’s strong suit. But while the van Vogtian or Phildickian confusion is ongoing, it’s marvelous.

“Find Me In Eternity” (Amazing, 1951) posits an immortal man improbably chancing upon one of his contemporary descendents who just happens to be a scientist questing for life extension techniques. Old Harold and Young Harold band together, then run afoul of a greedy elderly millionaire. They escape and mercifully leave their antagonist to die eventually of old age. Williams’s prose, while always plain, contains some good metaphors. “Groff was the kind who always went towards ghosts.” But note that Williams, economical and hack-like, would use the exact same metaphor in the next story—or vice versa, actually, since the third story in the book was printed prior to the second. Misleadingly titled for maximum titillation, “The World of Reluctant Virgins” (Amazing, 1950) has a great conceit: the first rocket to the Moon lands in 1955, but finds that an expedition from 1887 has been there before them—and left descendents of the crew, who harbor a big secret.

Like a combination of Asimov’s robot stories and Simak’s robot stories, “The Soul Makers” (Super Science Stories, 1950) takes us to the far-off year of 1987, in the middle of an atomic war. Humanity’s sentient robots are going AWOL, and the two men sent to discover the reason uncover more than they anticipated. Williams extracts a fair measure of pathos from the noble actions of the robots, and the inevitable doom and rebirth of humanity.

“The Diamond Images” (Fantastic Universe, 1959) is one of those “Old Venus” tales so common in the consensus future history of this era. A butterfly collector named Wolder has made friends with the seemingly unsophisticated Venusians after eight years among them. But then his son arrives, unwittingly leading pirates to the treasure of the natives. The reader of 2014—and, probably, the reader of 1959—suspects early on that the natives conceal powers that will confound the pirates. One also notes that in the nine years separating the 1950 stories from this one, Williams has not altered one jot or tittle of his style or techniques, as a better writer might have.

Guess what happens in “When the Spoilers Came” (Planet Stories, 1952). An Earthman living peaceably among Martians finds the arrival of his marauding son to be a tragic occurrence that upsets the status quo and reveals the natives as secretly masterful. Well, no point in not reusing this good riff seven years later, with the setting changed to Venus, as above.

There’s an almost Ballardian feel to the opening of “To the End of Time” (Super Science Stories, 1950). A Venusian song, brought back to Earth, is literally driving people insane. Into the jungle wastelands of Venus, our psychologist hero Thorndyke sets out to find a cure, encountering a strange race of Venusians and the human missionary and his beautiful daughter who minister to them. Williams had a firm handle on Blue Book-style pulp templates, but never wrote an actual “Bat Durston” tale, always making his genuine speculative content integral to the mundane trappings.

Save for a few continuity changes, “The Metal Martyr” (Amazing, 1950) might almost be a sequel to “The Soul Makers,” featuring primitive humans and their robot inheritors. The robot protagonist undergoes a surprisingly Christ-like transformation. “Danger Is My Destiny” (Amazing, 1950) delivers more van Vogtian identity confusion and superman tropes, in a kind of Raymond Chandler or Cornell Woolrich guise.

Quite surprisingly, there’s a bit of real Theodore Sturgeon grace to “This Way Out” (Amazing, 1950). A young slum kid with mysterious psychic powers is befriended by an older man. We get a big reveal about the old guy’s true identity, then a second, contradictory reveal, then an emotional punch about his backstory. This might be the most organic and best constructed story of the lot. And finally “The Man from Space” (Imaginative Tales, 1957) follows the exploits of cab driver Little Joe as he willingly encounters flying saucers and their inhabitants, hoping to serve mankind’s conquerors.

Reading this volume is no chore or dull swotting up of past history for academic purposes. The stories, however creaky at times, remain very entertaining and illustrative of the mind and soul of one honest creator, doing the best he could to enrich the soil of the genre.

Paul Di Filippo has been writing professionally for over thirty years, and has published almost that number of books. He lives in Providence, RI, with his mate of an even greater number of years, Deborah Newton.

Tim Pratt reviews Alan DeNiro

Alan DeNiro’s second collection Tyrannia and Other Renditions is even stranger and more ambitious than his 2006 debut Skinny Dipping in the Lake of the Dead. DeNiro prefers hard questions to easy answers, and his stories eschew neat resolutions and tidy explanations, but while he makes liberal use of surrealism and absurdity, there’s usually a rigorous structure underneath, whether it’s carefully thought-out thematic underpinnings or complex SFnal worldbuilding. DeNiro never over-explains, and we rarely learn more about the strange worlds he shows us than what the viewpoint characters know or bother to speculate about, and since angels with flying guns, telepathic aliens, and immense monsters that eat mountains are all everyday occurrences for those characters, there’s plenty of ambiguity and unexplained strangeness. The result is an exhilarating sense that DeNiro’s fictional worlds sprawl beyond the edges of exposition, instead of being closed systems that can be understood completely. (The stories are often darkly funny, too.)

Along those lines, ‘‘Plight of the Sycophant’’ concerns a human working a menial job in a town bordered by an impassable waterfall patrolled by heavily armed ‘‘angels’’ who control access to the mysterious land beyond. He’s charmed by a creature – possibly a renegade angel – and magically enslaved to her will, and DeNiro pulls off the neat trick of making us care about a character who is, necessarily, basically passive. Another standout, ‘‘Walking Stick Fires’’, is set on an Earth being pillaged for resources by assorted aliens (one of whom narrates), and it moves from motorcycle mayhem to visionary science fiction without the oddly breezy tone ever faltering. ‘‘The Flowering Ape’’ is as close as DeNiro comes to conventional SF, set in the Parameter universe he’s explored in other stories, where some humans are linked telepathically with the mysterious alien ‘‘shepherds’’ who make space travel possible. This time the setting is used to tell a moving young-adult story about teenage conformity, spaceship joyriding, and discovering your own identity, but there’s still plenty of hallucinatory weirdness to go around. In ‘‘The Wildfires of Antarctica’’, a genetically engineered work of art called Roxy: Shark * Flower – part human, part shark, part flower – escapes from a museum to make its own way in the world, to the dismay of the wealthy man who commissioned it, for heart-wrenching reasons revealed near the end.

There’s a political undercurrent in many of the stories (perhaps you guessed from the collection’s title), and DeNiro has a lot to say about fundamentalism – both political and religious – and about the extreme acts committed in the name of opposing such fundamentalism. ‘‘Moonlight Is Bulletproof’’ takes place in a near-future world torn apart by terrorism, where agents from the Coalition of Interested Forces are projected holographically to dangerous places to investigate crimes, with local ‘‘proxies’’ carrying out their instructions to torture and interrogate. In other hands it would be an interesting technothriller, but DeNiro takes it in a more transcendent direction, with a plot that involves a virtual paradise where the minds of suicide bombers can be uploaded, and a sorrowful conclusion. ‘‘(*_*?) ~~~~ (-_-): The Warp and the Woof’’ takes place in a similarly broken future. It mostly concerns a jingoistic novelist of two-fisted technothrillers who once advised a militaristic president to commit horrible acts, but there’s also a genetically engineered sloth, murderous religious fanatics, and an idealistic translator; it’s a patchwork story that provides brief glimpses of the bizarre wider world, to pleasing cumulative effect.

‘‘A Rendition’’ is set much closer to now, and begins as a work of crime fiction, with a group of idealistic college students plotting to kidnap a professor who wrote memos defending government torture in order to expose him to the same interrogation techniques he argued should be legal. Once the crime is underway, though, things get increasingly weird and tinged with supernatural horror, as DeNiro demonstrates the way torture debases and deforms those who perform it as well as those who endure it. Opening story ‘‘Tyrannia’’ is a surrealistic piece organized around the decomposition of the corpse of a man who, in his old age, decides to become an ‘‘agitator, to disturb the peace’’ and is killed by agents of his country’s dictator, while long poem ‘‘Tyrannia (II)’’, with its anaphoric repetition of the phrase ‘‘This is the story,’’ takes on an incantatory power and can be read as a summing-up of the book’s major thematic concerns, with clear connections to the story that shares its name.

The closing spot doesn’t go to the second ‘‘Tyrannia’’, though, but to ambitious metafiction ‘‘The Philip Sidney Game’’. The piece begins with the author-as-narrator musing on a story he started writing and then abandoned. Elements of the work seem to bleed into reality, and the weirdness is ratcheted up ever-higher as things progress, with revelations about a secret society, and the author receiving a package that contains alternate endings to the story – which might serve as troubling personal prophecies. The ending is ambiguous even by DeNiro’s standards, but the overall experience is chilling.

There’s no other writer like DeNiro working today. His voice is absolutely his own, and while his work can be spiky and challenging, that’s no bad thing – this is a spiky and challenging world, after all, and he just shows us its distorted reflection.

Read more! This is one of many reviews from recent issues of Locus Magazine. To read more, go here to subscribe.

Paul Di Filippo reviews Robert Buettner

Back in 2004, a period that seems several generations removed from the present in so many ways, I reviewed the debut novel by Robert Buettner, Orphanage. (I’d point you directly to that piece now, but, as part of the SF Weekly site, it disappeared into the aether when the SciFi Channel, as it was known then, no longer lent support to their own archives. Sic transit gloria internet.) I found Buettner’s maiden offering to be a compelling slice of military SF, with a lot of humanism about it, full of realistic warfare and politics, nice characterizations, pathos, heroics and thrills. I went on to cover the next two books in the series (ditto regarding the online survival of those two reviews), Orphan’s Destiny and Orphan’s Journey, assessing them as equally well done.

Then, as these things frequently happen, I lost track of the series in the press of other assignments. But now, thanks to the miracle of Wikipedia (like Homer Simpson concerning doughnuts, I ask, “Is there anything Wikipedia can’t do?”), I discover that Buettner concluded the saga with two more books—neatly synopsized at his entry, to satisfy in a very limited way my curiosity about sheer plot—and that he launched a follow-up series that takes place a generation later. Those later books each have a handy précis as well.

Balance Point is the third entry in this new “season,” and so in some respects not perhaps the best place for me to reinsert myself into Buettner’s mythos. But you know what? Every SF book is someone’s first SF book, as the saying goes. Some reader somewhere is just discovering Buettner in 2014 and will happily work backwards if the new book intrigues them. And it can be somewhat labored and pedantic to try to encapsulate a whole saga in one small review. So let’s just dive into Balance Point and see what we find.

The book kicks off with a dramatic incident calculated to snare newbies and oldtimers alike. Our narrator, Jazen Parker, a Captain in Earth’s interstellar military, is summoned to the Okefenokee Swamp to negotiate with a rampaging alien behemoth. We instantly get a sense of the backstory with the introduction of General Hibble, a character from the earliest books, and mention of Parker’s mate, Kit Born. The colloquy between the telepathic alien troublemaker, Mort, and Parker grounds us as well, itemizing villains and allegiances.

The next chapters shift scene and point of view to another planet, Rand, and also inform us that humanity’s empire now consists of 500 worlds, with Earth possessing a monopoly on FTL ships. (Considering that in Orphanage an Earth-limited humanity was nearly on the point of extinction, this triumphalism in one generation’s time represents an optimistic philosophy indeed, partly explained and buttressed by the assimilation of previously unknown human colonies established in prehistoric times by kidnapper aliens.) Omniscient narration tracks a meeting between Bartram Cutler, a rich traitor to Earth’s interests, and Max Polian, a government man from Yavet, a planet looking to get out from under Earth’s thumb and expand their power. After getting a glimmer of their machinations, we’re back to Parker’s milieu, and the game is off.

And so, with deft touches Buettner succeeds in welcoming one and all into his tale, leaping any barriers to involvement and understanding. What the happy reader gets is not the heavy-duty combat of the first series, but—given the “Cold War II” conditions that prevail—more of a spy-type adventure, mixed with a personal and emotional odyssey for Parker. Think of it as a version of Eric Frank Russell’s Wasp, or some of the Poul Anderson Flandry adventures.

First, we have the machinations of Polian that threaten to upset the “balance point” of Cold War II. And by allowing us to sympathetically inhabit the Yavet mentality, Buettner makes us perceive these as honorable, if ultimately misguided and undesirable schemes. Then we have the undercover doings of Parker and Kit, who actually move on separate tracks for most of the book, given an unfortunate falling out between the lovers. And thirdly, we get a bit of comic relief that is still integral to the spying, what with the actions of the elephantine “grezzen” named Mort, who must be returned to his native planet of Dead End in order to mate.

Without delivering too much of a spoiler—it is revealed before we get deep into the narrative—I will say that Jazen Parker proves to be the son of Jason Wander, the hero of the early books. Jazen’s drive to reunite with the birth parents he never knew while being raised on Yavet by an adoptive mother add a particularly poignant twist to the realpolitik threads.

Buettner builds an agreeable and believable relationship between Kit and Jazen, reminiscent of the husband and wife spies in Heinlein’s “Gulf.” He fashions some attractively gritty steel beach venues. He conducts his thriller action with suspense and plausibility. All the separate threads balance neatly, as if in homage to the book’s themes of balance between antagonistic polities.

In short, Buettner carries forward nobly a kind of core SF tale pioneered by writers such as Anderson, Gordon Dickson, Christopher Anvil, James Schmitz, and C. J. Cherryh, offering entertainment aplenty with thoughtful meditations on how humanity can get along with itself—or not!

Paul Di Filippo has been writing professionally for over thirty years, and has published almost that number of books. He lives in Providence, RI, with his mate of an even greater number of years, Deborah Newton.

Lois Tilton reviews Short Fiction, early April

Featuring the June issues of the Dell digests, both with some enjoyable stuff. The real prize, though, is the April Clarkesworld. A Good Story award to both the Swanwick and Wallace pieces.

Publications Reviewed



Asimov’s, June 2014

A better issue than usual. Particularly liking the Palmer and Tidhar stories.

“Shatterdown” by Suzanne Palmer

Cjoi was a slave genetically modified to dive into the high pressure atmosphere of a gas giant and retrieve its treasures, and she is now the last survivor of her cohort; rescue turned out not to be salvation for any of them. The Protectorate forces that freed her have also been stationed to protect the planet Pahlati from poachers intent on its unique organic diamonds, now threatened with extinction from overharvesting. Among the would-be poachers is an embittered Cjoi, returned to her origins and working for her own purposes instead of the corporation.

She kept her sphere in the updraft of a high-pressure band, trailing just outside the uneasy junction between dusk and night. The blinding glare of the sun was behind her, ripping through the clouds below. Tiny traces of green and brown stained the edges of the upwell, the light catching, here and there, in the faint diamond sparkle that had earned Pahlati the nickname Shining Giant.

Here is hard science fiction done with skill and grace, the tech worked out thoroughly, the prose outstanding, action and tension in the plot. Also social commentary: Cjoi tells an audience that the enslaved divers were all girls, who were cheaper and more disposable. The narrative shifts between the present and the background of Cjoi’s enslavement before the action takes over completely. I would advise readers to rip the last page out of the magazine, so as not to ruin the fitting, heroic conclusion with the anticlimax grafted onto it in a moment of someone’s ill judgment. Without which,

–RECOMMENDED

“There Was No Sound of Thunder” by David Erik Nelson

Readers should recognize the reference in the title to the classic Bradbury story. Here, Taylor, who claims to work for the Feds but is actually from the future, is recruiting a small group of 1995 anarchists for his time travel project. Taylor reeks of phoniness and the characters all act repellently silly.

Taylor seemed unimpressed by having lost his good right arm. “Man,” he said, “I love the impact of that gag. It always kills.” Rob-o leaned forward so that he and Taylor could slap a high five, and then Rob-o spun on his heel, doing a giddy little schoolboy dance.

But an older, sadder version of Taylor shows up later and explains that attempts to better history through time travel are always counterproductive.

This piece might well be subtitled: The Lighter Side of Genocide. I’m not amused. Largely, it makes no sense, particularly the supposed FBI plot to divert terrorists into time travel. And in a historical timestream that has managed to quadruple the number of Hitler’s victims, it really makes no sense to suppose that a century later, exactly the same terrorist will show up in exactly the same place at exactly the same time in exactly the same truck. Stoopid.

“Murder in the Cathedral” by Lavie Tidhar

Set in the author’s nominally steampunk Bookman Histories series. Nominally, because Tidhar tends to employ such tropes as much to subvert them as embrace them. He must also have picked up a truckload of allusions at wholesale rates, because the story is loaded with them, beginning of course with the title. Enumerating them would be a game in itself.

We open with Orphan, our hero, crossing the channel [under the name of Homer Chapman] to France [via the symbolically-named ferry Charon] on a quest to recover his beloved Lucy from the dead. Onboard he meets a young H G Wells, traveling to what we recognize as a science fiction convention – in fact, a worldcon. But Orphan’s business also takes him to this world’s version of the Cathedral of Notre Dame.

Notre Dame rose out of the Seine like a monstrosity, a mocking inversion of the grandeur of Les Lézards’s* Palace: it was made of the same strange, greenish metal, and in the brightness of the day it seemed to suck in the sunlight, casting awkward shadows where no shadows should have been. People milled on the island around the cathedral, but they had a different look to the crowds that busily moved on the left bank: these moved with jerky, unnatural motions, like bad imitations of the way an automaton might move, and their faces were vacant and hollow, like the patients of an asylum.

There, of course, is a murder victim, an automaton operating under the name of the author E T A Hoffmann, whom Orphan had met at the convention. At which point, the story turns itself into a classic mystery, with red herrings, false identities, and rival detectives proclaiming their rival theories of the murderer’s identity to the assembled audience of the convention.

A lot of esoteric fun here, a literary treasure hunt that fans of the 19th century genre will particularly enjoy. We have both authors and their characters rubbing elbows in the halls, it makes perfect sense for Le Prix Hugo to be awarded by a French organization, and readers will note that of the authors crowded into the con, all are European; America is not a factor in this version of genre history. Although the series background might seem daunting to readers unfamiliar with it, the details turn out not to matter too much as we follow Orphan through this relatively self-contained sidebar adventure/mystery, collecting allusions as Inspector Adler might accumulate clues.

(*) These would be the alien lizards who now rule what would have been the British Empire. They don’t directly play a role in this particular story.

–RECOMMENDED

“The Philosopher Duck” by Kara Dalkey

A near future when global warming/rising sea levels have continued to drown Bangladesh. Ravi’s family home is on a pier, but with a cyclone bearing down, he deploys an inflatable rescue sphere [a Neat Idea]. Just at the last moment, a duck flies inside with them, and Ravi’s son begs to let it remain. The bird proves to be a good example in the face of incipient panic, and possibly a divine incarnation.

“Look at the duck. See how comfortable he is? He is not afraid. He knows we will be safe. Watch the duck and you will be all right.”

A surprisingly positive piece, with a loving family and an ending quite like a fairy tale. But the author is realistic about human nature. Many of Ravi’s neighbors have sold their donated rescue spheres, and when helpful fishermen arrive, he reasonably fears they might be pirates.

“Ormonde and Chase” by Ian Creasey

Travis and Harriet grow and sell custom-bred plants with flowers in the image of people’s faces.

This early in spring, most of the plants hadn’t yet reached resemblance: the flower-buds were tiny blank faces, gradually developing features. Only the cyclamen—Harriet’s self-portrait— was in full bloom. Their pink flowers smiled in the sun, looking cheerier
than Harriet had done for some time.

The business has certain drawbacks; the product is too expensive for many people, customers are prone to dissatisfaction, and Harriet seems to have lost enthusiasm for the job. Then she gets the idea to develop noxious weeds in the image of politicians.

Essentially, this is a love story, a rather one-sided one, in which Travis is willing to court bankruptcy and lawsuits to keep Harriet happy. I’m not sure that this is going to work out in the long run.

“The Finges Clearing” by Sylvain Jouty, translated by Edward Gauvin

A short-short that’s all exposition, which means it rests primarily on idea – which means the idea had better be pretty damn good. Here, it’s the existence of about an acre in the middle of a woods that humans have never touched: truly virgin land. More, humans can not touch it.

The fact is utterly insignificant yet intolerable: for some inconceivable reason, which may be no more than inconceivable chance, human steps are without fail turned away from the Clearing (capitalization somehow suits it).

The narrator offers no real explanation for the phenomenon, nor for the method whereby it was proved to be real. It merely reveals a Wonder, along with a low-key sense of awe, inviting readers to reflect. I find it underwhelming, in large part because of the musty prose that leaves all the work of Wondering to the reader, providing no uplift of its own. The failure is less in the idea than its execution.

“The Turkey Raptor” by James Van Pelt

Leon has a generally bad attitude and particularly doesn’t like the feral cats in town, so he feeds them to the velociraptor he keeps in the shed behind the house.

Inside the shed, the cat hissed, a truly angry sound. A flurry of scrambling, rushing movement. Something thumped against the wood. Another hiss. Then, a cat-like screech, followed by a wet rending rip, as if someone tore a soaked telephone book in half. Finally, cracking and slurping.

Despite the high school bullying, this one is more strongly horror than YA in tone.

“Sidewalk at 12:10 P M” by Nancy Kress

Sarah, in the middle of her second century, is determined to send a message to her younger self at the moment that once seemed to be the worst of her life. Sarah was lucky, but she didn’t know it then. A story about perspective.



Analog, June 2014

Another better-than-usual issue. With reservations, I enjoyed both novelettes, and I like the Ballantyne story unreservedly.

“The Journeyman: In the Stone House” by Michael Flynn

Another installment in the author’s series featuring Teodorq sunna Nagarajan, aka the Ironhand, “cunning in all matters relating to stalking and ambush”, on his journey across the wilderness with his companion Sammi the hillman. They have now come upon the largest village he has ever seen, fully four hundred souls, with warriors armed and armored in iron – a formidable force that captures our journeymen for questioning. Like all the peoples on World, Cliffside Keep has its mortal enemies, and the westerners are recruited into their forces and trained in their sword tactics, which is fine with Teo, who envies the swords. But among them he finds a sworn enemy from the first installment.

This is purely action/entertainment, with only cursory reference to the larger question of the descent of humans on World from Terra – mostly in the various tribal customs and languages, known variously as lingo, sprok, or plavver. The story might well be subtitled: Fun with Linguistic Drift. Also entertaining is the dialogue of Sammi the hillman, who takes no pains to conceal his contempt for the others’ ways of war.

“There’s no hiding on a killing field, stupid hillman!” he gently informed Sammi. “How you plan to spring from ambush on an open meadow?”

“Easy,” Sammi replied. “Not fight in open meadow. Ambush best in dark, crowded place.”

It is clear, however, that this is only part of a longer, serialized piece, not an independent work.

“The Homecoming” by J T Sharrah

The backstory here is even more complicated, although not, as far as I’m aware, from some previous work. In the course of war between nations whose species isn’t clear, Tajok long ago betrayed his own side and then committed medical war crimes on prisoners of war.

Forgive and forget was not a Dokharan motto. The atrocities Tajok committed hadn’t been forgotten by his countrymen—definitely not. As for forgiving him . . . The Dokharans were very forgiving. They were for giving him a death sentence, and they were furious with the Izmirites for granting him asylum.

Baldwin, a journalist, is aware than a Dokharan named Tumanzu, once a subject of Tajok’s experiments, has sought him out, immediately after which the traitor was found dead – along with his colleague Escoli, the top photojournalist on the Herald’s news staff and also Tumanzu’s cousin. Baldwin sets out to find Escoli’s killer, who may or may not be connected to Tajok’s death, although he shortly seems to forget about her and concentrates on saving Tumanzu from the same fate. Investigations, schemes, assassinations, and revenge ensue.

The mysteries here are intricately twisted into an intriguing nest of plots, and Baldwin becomes an appealing protagonist – clever, insightful, with a light humorous touch in his dialogue. It would all be a very satisfactory mystery if it hadn’t opened like a coal chute dumping a heavy load of anthracite on the readers – a dense weight of backstory, worlds, races, species, histories, customs, religions, legalities, and confusing alien names. Tumanzu, for example, is introduced as a Bukkaran, but later referred to as a Dokharan, with no way to tell at the time how the terms are related. It’s way too much to take in at once, and may prove offputting to many readers who would otherwise find the story considerably more enjoyable.

“Field of Gravity” by Jay Werkheiser

Artificial gravity generators have changed American football. Markus is used to this. But something about a missed interception strikes him as wrong. He thinks the Giants’ receiver is cheating, somehow. The problem is proving it.

While it’s clear that fiddling with the gravity would have interesting effects on football plays, I can’t see this ever happening. The author employs the unfortunate device of informative infodumps.

“The Region of Jennifer” by Tony Ballantyne

Surreal-seeming SF. When the Steam Barons controlled Abraxas, it was dark and satanic, but outsiders ousted them and opened the place up. Most people appreciate the change, but Randy is more farsighted than most; he knows they sold the world to the Slavemakers, and this will prove to be no good in the long term. Randy has reengineered himself to be a garbage eater, for total self-sufficiency. “His skin was thick and leathery, so well insulated that he could sleep in the pools of cold water that filled the broken basements of the broken factories in the former industrial zone.” His childhood friend Jennifer, on the other hand, has been engineered to be perfect and to breed perfectly-chosen babies. Hers is a luxurious life, bankrolled by a former Baron, but Randy has come to warn her what it may come to in the end.

The exaggerated contrast between the two characters forcefully makes the story’s point. For the sake of freedom, Randy has chosen a life that smells like shit, which is highly nutritious. For the sake of luxury, Jennifer has chosen a life of enslavement. As her “father” says, “When someone can change your body, tell you what to look like, tell you what to wear, even tell you how to look, you’re their slave.” In a thousand years, her descendants will roll over and die on command for the Slavemakers, but Jennifer admits she doesn’t care. Because Randy does the caring for her, “It sort of relieves me of the responsibility. I can sit back and do what I want and hope that other people sort out the mess we’re in.”

It’s noteworthy that everyone here speaks the candid truth, no matter how shocking it might seem, because they all know that human nature will not be changed by knowing it, that most humans will invariably choose the short-term advantage, no matter the long-term consequences. This is a mordantly cynical view, a distorted and exaggerated mirror reflecting ourselves.

–RECOMMENDED

“Survivors” by Ron Collins

Hiram fled his dying home planet thousands of years ago. Since arriving on Earth, he has inhabited the bodies of successive humans, coming slowly to the realization that he must be the sole survivor of his kind. He isn’t a fan of humans.

It wasn’t Taylor’s fault. He was a human being. Their lives are too short, their connections too slight. They did not feel things as deeply or instinctively as Hiram could.

Then at last he encounters a female of his species, and she runs away from him.

A brief epiphany on the meaning of life and its fulfillment. There may be something to learn from humans, after all. Heartwarming, but I note that Hiram’s view of humans may be warped from the fact that he always seems inhabit the bodies of post-adolescent males.

“A Star to Steer By” by Jennifer R Povey

Ai Weiwei is a ship’s AI, her hull now wrecked after combat against Earth’s enemies.

She had lost her entire crew and she had limped back. A human who had lost their entire unit would not be sent right back into combat.

The admiral in charge of the salvage yard wants to offer the ship brains therapy before sending them out again in new hulls, but cost-cutting bureaucracy objects. It turns out in the end that the admiral’s concern may have made all the difference.

A story of duty. Also heartwarming, though pretty talky.

“Forgiveness” by Bud Sparhawk

A future when “Support the troops” seems to be a forgotten slogan and all veterans are presumed to be war criminals. There’s an Amnesty program that erases such memories, but people don’t trust the veterans, assuming that something criminal must remain in them. Vigilante groups exist to shoot them down, just in case. So Pete the sheriff argues to Mira the waitress, when she starts to fall for Tony. A lot of it is jealousy, Mira believes.

A dull story with labored, very repetitive dialogue that crosses the line into rant.



Clarkesworld, April 2014

An excellent issue, with a bonus April Fool’s story by Sean Williams.

“Passage of Earth” by Michael Swanwick

Alien invasion. The aliens are giant worm-like creatures, more advanced technologically than humanity. Hank is doing the night shift in the morgue, unreeling intestines, when his ex, who works for some spooky part of the government, shows up with a dead Worm specimen and tells him to start cutting. Following is interesting alien anatomy spiced with bitter ex-spousal recrimination.

There’s a nest of ganglia here, connected by a very short route to the brain matter. Now I’m cutting into the brain matter, and there’s a small black gland, oops I’ve nicked it. Whew. What a smell. Now I’m cutting behind it.” Behind the gland was a small white structure, square and hard meshwork, looking like a cross between an instrument chip and a square of Chex cereal.

Then, inexplicably, Hank pops the square into his mouth.

This one is worth it for the dissection stuff alone, a fascinating glimpse at alien anatomy and how it might inform a species’ mentality – totally speculative, of course, but then that’s the kind of fiction we do, even if perhaps overly analogous to terrestrial models. It’s also a story of memory, as the Worms turn out to have a collective consciousness based on consuming their predecessors. Thus we have a journey through Hank’s memories and how they made him who he is, culminating in the question, “Why are all your memories so ugly?” Through which, it becomes a very unlikely tale of hope.

–RECOMMENDED

“Water in Springtime” by Kali Wallace

Centuries after metal-armed invaders have been repulsed by deadly rust magic, blight is still spreading across the world, and Alis’s mother, a healer/ witch, is unable to halt or heal.

In places sharp blades of metal and chunks of broken rock jutted from the black soil, mere suggestions of what the iron skeletons had been before they fell: wolves with teeth like daggers, birds with too many wings and too long claws, hulking bulls with curved horns. They might have been monstrous once, malformed nightmares raging in battle, but now they were sorry old things caught in root cages and rotting away to dust.

Alis has always envied her mother’s magic, the swarm of blue sparks that materialize at her hands; now, on their journey, she begins to teach Alis water magic. She has a purpose, and secrets that will finally be revealed.

Here is one vivid image after another, evoking many different varieties on a wasted and blighted landscape becoming depopulated. I’d welcome seeing more of this world and its story. The primary story, however, is Alis’s coming of age, coming into her power and also learning the secret of herself. In the course of this journey of discovery, we don’t learn most of the secrets that don’t concern Alis in some way; her mother is a deeper, ancient being whom Alis, even now, only knows fragmentarily, as we only know fragments of this world’s history in its ruins. Even so, Alis has something to teach her mother.

–RECOMMENDED

“Autodidact” by Benjanun Sriduangkaew

In a preface, we learn of a facility where “the corpses of conquered stars are nurtured into ships.” Although we later learn that stars may actually mean planets. Which would make a significant difference, practically. While we might suppose this means the formation of vast hulls from the raw material, on the order of a Dyson sphere, the concept of nurture suggests that these cosmic entities might have had consciousness of their own, which the shipmakers are now intent on turning to their own military purposes through a system analogous to a parent raising a child. While we do know for sure that there are AIs of a sort, identified with a ship if not identical to it, the rest is not entirely made clear. Nor it is at all clear that such an enterprise is at all possible in realistic terms. But realistic terms are not the point here. It’s all psychology, a war of minds.

The facility’s purpose is war, although the only sign of actual war in this universe, aside from hearsay, is the destruction of the world Mahakesi and the genocide of its people. Nirapha is one of the few Mahakesi survivors, a refugee living on a world where she is now applying for a license to have a child. A bureaucrat suggests that her application would be favorably regarded if she first volunteered for a term of ship-mind nurturing. On her arrival, she is told that she will be working in concert with a partner, her task to impart ethics and empathy to the ship – which, as the story resolves, would seem to have failed dramatically. She discovers quickly that she is only a junior partner in the process, with no independent access to Teferizen, the ship-mind. In fact, she realizes that she is being manipulated, used as a pawn in a game between the ship and her superior, whom she calls “the soldier”.

The ship-mind trope is a very old one in SF, often but not necessarily military, and it’s currently in danger of becoming overused. This one is considerably more sophisticated than, say, the Povey piece in Analog, above. Yet I find its basic premise is not considerably more original.

While it would seem at first that this is literary military SF, as the piece progresses, I realize that aside from certain strategic thinking, there is nothing really military here, only the psychological game: conflict between minds, but not actual combat. There is also a great deal of deceit, so that we find we can’t trust anything Nirapha is told or assumes. The narrative is unreliable. The “soldier”, for example, turns out to be an admiral to whom we have been earlier introduced – a factor that makes a considerable difference in the story once the author discloses it.

I also would have liked to see Nirapha, as the central character, cast in sharper relief. She is entirely opaque, her thoughts and emotions hidden, from readers as well as her enemies, even at moments when emotion ought to be foremost. This is especially striking in a disturbing scene of coercive sex, when her reactions are entirely masked. This emotional reticence is of course part of her character, yet it’s overly subtle, I suspect as a byproduct of the author’s decision to conceal things from readers. We see Nirapha apply for a child, but we don’t feel the hope of it slipping away. We see the action she finally decides to take, but we don’t feel the rage at betrayal, the despair, the hope — whatever must have led to it. In the end, when she finally casts off her passivity, it’s only to choose which side she will be a pawn for, and again we have to infer her final reaction from her silence. It’s an effective moment, that silence, in the subtle way of the story, leaving readers to imagine without evidence, as we have had to do all along, what she must be feeling at that moment – Nirapha trapped inside her opaque, impenetrable shell.

“The Cuckoo” by Sean Williams

April 1st, 2075, 9:15-9:23am
More than one thousand commuters traveling via d-mat arrive at their destinations wearing red clown noses; they weren’t wearing them when they left. The global matter-transmission network is rebooted, source of the glitch unknown. All the clown noses are destroyed except for three retained by private collectors.

As the phenomenon repeats itself every year, authorities try to stop it and academics increasingly speculate on the identity and nature of the perpetrator, now dubbed the Fool. As happens with these things, it takes on a life of its own.

The ending wraps up the point perfectly.



Apex Magazine, April 2014

Four original stories this time, in which the editor discerns a theme of Repair. To me, it seems more like the universe falling apart, the repair being secondary. I also note that to have a theme in a given issue is one thing, but this shouldn’t mean having four separate stories that seem to repeat each other. The classic notion of a theme is, after all, “variations on”. More variation would be better here.

“Perfect” by Haddayar Copley-Woods

Quinn, from earliest childhood, has hated everything – hate in the sense of contempt. Finally she reaches an epiphany: the equation.

She discovered with her newfound knowledge that she could now see the warp and weft of the universe: the shining strands that bound everything together. The patterns. The bright place where it was all tied together in a hopelessly simple knot.

Because we have physics and equations, readers might suppose this piece is science fiction. It is not, because an equation is not a magical spell. It would be absurd to suppose that Einstein could have recited E=mc2 and there would be light; this scenario is even more absurd.

“Steel Snowflakes in My Skull” by Tom Piccirilli

Set on the border between the surreal and the hallucination. The narrator, who claims to have died on several prior occasions, has just undergone brain surgery, in which his surgeon

explained how he was going to saw my skull apart and replace it with three titanium plates. The plates were tiny. They didn’t look like any version of the word plate that I ever imagined. They were pretty and delicate and had teeny little screws in them to be screwed into bone. I can picture him with a screwdriver giving a last twist.

Now the plates are sending signals to his brain. Their names are Gomez, Fester, and Lurch. Certain other patients can hear them, too.

From the symbols, readers should figure out pretty readily what’s going on here, and it doesn’t involve repairing the narrator, not in a corporeal sense. A twist on a very old journey.

“The Cultist’s Son” by Ferrett Steinmetz

Here, too, the protagonist seems to be sunk in hallucination, but it turns out to be PTSD from a traumatic childhood as the son of a truly hallucinatory mother who imagines herself a mother goddess. Derleth is fortunate to meet a true soul-mate, a woman who not only understands his trauma but helps him confront and overcome it. This is the one story in the issue that really does seriously address the theme of Repair.

There are genuinely horrific scenes here.

— the baby is dead on the ground, ants marching across its shriveled eyes. Derleth has been apologizing to the baby for hours now, heaving with dry tears, knowing a cup of water might have saved it. Mother has been on walkabout for ten days, and the cisterns are all empty. All his brothers are huddled under the tin shack, seeking coolness in hot shadows; all of them are dying.

The conclusion, the repairing, seems overly facile after all of this.

“Repairing the World” by John Chu

In this one, the insanity/absurdity is sciencefictional in a way, although the breaches in the fabric of reality also have a touch of the Lovecraftian. They are called intrusions here, and a corps of specialists has been trained to seal them off and dispose of any intrusive monsters that come through; the training is lengthy and arduous. Lila is a student sealer, attempting to develop a tape that will close off the breaches; Bridger is a linguist, trained to both communicate with the beings from beyond, and overcome them.

The savannah grew towards Lila. She worked her way back towards Bridger, careful not to touch the grass. On some other world, a piece of hardwood floor covered with iridescent tape intruded on a yellow savannah. She’d rather not join the floor on that one-way trip.

What no one seems to be trying to repair, however, is the social dysfunction of this society, in which ubiquitous police enforce a pervasive hierarchy prejudiced against all who don’t conform to a certain narrow norm – the wrong color, the wrong sex, the wrong origin, the wrong love object – that closely reflects the concerns of our own society.

The intrusions are well-imagined and described, but again I find the conclusion awfully optimistic.

Lois Tilton is reading original short SF and fantasy fiction. Editors can send electronic files of magazines and original anthologies to: loist a*t sff.net

For print materials, please query me by email for the address.

For an index of Magazine Issue reviews posted on Locus Online, including Lois Tilton’s, see Index to Magazine Reviews.

Paul Di Filippo reviews Karl Schroeder

Karl Schroeder’s enthralling and joyously adventuresome new novel, Lockstep, raises a couple of interesting topics ancillary to its virtues as a smashing work of storytelling, so maybe we should mention those briefly first.

The most obvious matter is the book’s marketing category—should one be so obtuse as to feel the need to categorize it. Because the book features a teen-aged protagonist, the immediate kneejerk reaction is to dub it YA. But the publisher’s promotional material resists that label, and I think we should too. It’s unnecessarily reductionist. This is a book for all ages to relish.

Nevertheless, having said that, I find Schroeder modifying his usual sophisticated style, quite deliberately, I think. Sentences are less multiplex than in his past work; concepts are introduced with less detective-work-required opacity; and there is a trifle more deft infodumping. In other words, the necessity for employing some of the more advanced reading protocols us SF vets traditionally employ has been minimized. It’s a strategy to welcome newcomers that you can also see in recent similar work by Paul Melko and Steven Gould.

Secondly, this novel raises the issues of classicism versus novelty and au courant-ness in the genre. As we shall see, this book is essentially a kissing cousin to Edmond Hamilton’s The Star Kings series, to Neil R. Jones’s Professor Jameson tales; and to Heinlein’s juveniles. And yet it presents itself rightly as utterly 2014, not a pastiche but an authentic creation using up-to-date speculative techniques and sources. What remains eternal, putting the book in a certain lineage outlined above, and what Schroeder capitalizes on, is the shared emotional underpinnings of the classics. We don’t want our new SF to blindly replicate the dead furniture of the past, but rather to deliver the same classic sense of wonder in new clothing. Mission accomplished here!

Our hero is seventeen-year-old Toby McGonigal. He lives in an exciting era. Much of the Solar System is colonized and commercially exploited. Toby is alone in a small spacecraft heading to Sedna, that eerie trans-Neptunian planetoid which happens to be owned by his family. Everyone in the McGonigal clan has to pull their weight in the business, including Toby’s brother Peter and sister Evayne. It’s a living.

But this familiar milieu is already vanished when he wakes up in a defective “cicada” hibernation chamber, with his crippled ship in orbit around a seemingly dead world. Unable to land or fly away, Toby retreats back to the repaired chamber and goes to sleep, hoping for some miracle. He reawakens planetside, in a soft bed, having been rescued. And here’s what he learns.

Fourteen thousand years have passed during that first sleep, and another twenty thereafter. Humanity now occupies seventy thousand planets, mostly “steel beach” type harsh worlds roaming through interstellar space. Sublight travel is still the rule, so how does a galactic empire maintain consistency across the light years and millennia? Easy! They exist in “lockstep,” with groupings of the societies operating at different “frequencies” of hibernation and activity synced to each other. So your years-long journey through space occurs while both your home and your target are sleeping, and you arrive to find, in essence, things unchanged by the passage of transit time. It’s an elaborate, precarious, jury-rigged system that relies on the cicada technology, giving the proprietors of that tech a dominant role.

After some deliberate obfuscation and treachery, Toby is forced to escape his not-so-benevolent rescuers and seek refuge among a stratum of society that flouts the laws and conventions of lockstep. Theses outsiders circumvent cicada tech with the help of animal symbionts called denners, and Toby adopts one too, christened Orpheus. (Here we get some delightful moments courtesy of vintage Andre Norton.) Among these outlaws is a young woman named Corva from the planet Thisbe, whose lifeline will entangle with Toby’s. She soon informs Toby of the uncanny state of reality: the top dogs of Lockstep are the McGonigle family, specifically his brother Peter and sister Evie, now tyrants. Oddest of all is that Toby is represented throughout the galaxy as a legendary lost godlike figure known as the Emperor of Time, with the reputation of a messiah to come!

The rest of the book finds Toby and allies harried from one strange venue to another (and given Schroeder’s track record, you can bet these are ingenious), dipping in and out of hibernation, seeking at first just to stay alive, and then to overthrow Lockstep entirely, without destroying civilization in the process.

Schroeder has great fun riffing off a potent handful of classic SF works, besides the ones I mentioned earlier. The sibling dynamics are reminiscent most startlingly of Ender’s Game, with suitable twists. But it also dawned on me that we had echoes of Dune, with Toby’s savior status akin to that of Muad’dib (and ripples of Dune‘s brother-sister dynamic as well). We also pay homage to Philip Jose Farmer’s Dayworld trilogy, and Vernor Vinge’s conceit of a galaxy with various strata of techno possibilities. While the Lockstep worlds value continuity above all, this is not true in the “fastworlds”—a milieu not explored here, but possibly, I hope, in any sequels that Schroeder’s closure-rich ending still hints at.

“All he could really sort out was that humanity and its many subspecies, creations and offspring had experienced many rises and falls over the aeons. Since they had the technology, and lots of motivations, people kept reengineering their own bodies and minds. They gave rise to godlike AIs, and these grew bored and left the galaxy, or died, or turned into uncommunicative lumps, or ran berserk in any of a hundred different ways. On many worlds humans wiped themselves out, or were wiped out by their creations…The only reason there were humans at all, these days, was that there were locksteps. They served as literal freezers, preserving ancient human DNA and cultures.”

And in fact for tyrants Peter and Evie, only forty years have passed out of the 14,000 since Toby vanished.

And then, within all this gosh-wow fun, Schroeder inserts a detailed subtext on economics. He’s concerned with income inequality, arcane trade arrangements between locksteps, theft and conquests of sleeping cities. In fact, this book should probably be read in parallel with Charles Stross’s Neptune’s Brood, of which Stross himself has said: “ Neptune’s Brood was an abstract exploration of just how one might build a financial infrastructure to support interstellar colonization at slower-than-light speeds, and what can go wrong with it; at the same time, Neptune’s Brood also asked whether we own money, or money owns us.” Both these books prove that far from being the “dismal science,” economics can provide fascinating grounds for speculations.

Schroeder’s new book finds him moving in fresh directions of style and content without sacrificing or denying any of his past achievements. Let’s hope he continues for another few millennia.

Paul Di Filippo has been writing professionally for over thirty years, and has published almost that number of books. He lives in Providence, RI, with his mate of an even greater number of years, Deborah Newton.

Lois Tilton reviews Short Fiction, late March

Some regular ezines and a couple of quarterlies for the end of the month, not quite as many stories as I had expected from several of these sources, but a bonus amount from Beneath Ceaseless Skies.

Publications Reviewed

Publications Reviewed



Beneath Ceaseless Skies #142-143, March 2014

Month #2 of this ezine’s science-fantasy special issues, doubled-double issues that would total seven stories if one of them were not annoyingly a two-parter. Still, it’s a lot of fiction, stories of substantial length including a novella. Issue #142 sends us on quests; #143 takes us to the fortresses of fading gods.

#142

“The Breath of War” by Aliette de Bodard

I’ve usually liked this author’s work, although some of her scenarios combining childbirth and spaceships I’ve found odd. This one goes way beyond odd. We have humans* who’ve colonized a planet and adopted the practice whereby every woman goes up to the mountains at the onset of adulthood and carves a breath-sibling from a special sort of stone, then gives it life with her own breath. This golem becomes her lifelong companion and takes on many of her personal characteristics. But the kicker is that all her children will be stillborn unless the stone sibling breathes life into them at birth. At which point – No. No way. OK, it’s fantasy, but it still has to make sense, and this makes none.

So we have Rechan, whose life plans as a young woman were all destroyed by the war then raging on this world. So when she went into the mountains, still apparently accessible despite the war, she put all her frustrations and wishes for escape into the figure she carved, not a humaniform companion but a spaceship. Then, with the war winding down, with no prospects of marriage, she has herself inseminated. So we open the story with Rechan in the early stages of labor, heading into the mountains in hope that her spaceship will come back in time and make everything all right for the birth.

Now there is more than one way of not making sense. The premise here makes no sense in the way of things that just could not come to pass. What Rechan does here makes no sense in the way of things that people foolishly do. The first is not credible; the second, given the first, is. But as readers, we’re supposed to sympathize with Rechan’s self-created problems, to wish that, somehow, she manages to reach her goal and find her breath-sib and safely bear her child. Well, I have no such sympathy. Rechan is entirely responsible for her own situation. She’s been foolish in every possible way, yet she doesn’t accept the consequences of her acts. The plot proceeds on the wishful thinking that some auctor ex machina will wave a fairytale wand at the last moment and make everything right for her. And that’s what makes this a fantasy in the bad sense, the lie that if we just want something hard enough, it will magically happen, because we’re the protagonist of our story.

(*) The people on this world seem to be related to the Rong, who feature in many of the author’s recent works.

“The River Does Not Run” by Rachel Sobel

For generations, the city Nimarat thrived in the middle of the desert because of the river magically brought forth from the sand and rock by their captive demon. But at last the demon broke its chains, left the city in ruins, and instigated war over the wastelands it created. Doormaker is now the last and best of the wizards of Nimarat, her quest is to destroy the demon and restore her city.

What lifts this piece above the ordinary and makes it fresh is in part the language and the way the author casts magic in terms of physics. The demon, created from “great and secretive mathematics”, glows in the blue of Cherenkov radiation. Doormaker

. . . is clad in an armor wrought of primordial isotopes, imbued with mathematics of sufficient strength to reinforce its stability against the demon’s fallout. Beneath it, she hides her war-given wounds, which burn and twist at certain hours of the day or beneath the shadows of certain trees.

Thing is, I think I’m on the demon’s side here. The glory of Nimarat was based on slavery, the work of an entity bound in chains. Its fall seems just. And Doormaker, I believe, comes in a way to agree by the story’s end.

–RECOMMENDED

“Stonebones” by Nathaniel Lee

We’re on a sunbaked desert world where people live in the stone carcasses of massive dragons. There are legends of dragonslaying Knights, and now Jenivar has run off from a life of relative luxury, as this place goes, having never known real thirst, on an ill-conceived quest to slay a dragon and become a Knight. Adventures ensue, as Jenivar proves herself resourceful although initially lacking good sense.

Around her, outside of the tiny ring of radiance, came the sounds of squelching and crackling. Drackles coming out of hiding. She saw the hive-substance heave and fracture by her feet, and a pincer as long as her forearm emerged. They were coming from every direction, and she had only a sword and a broken gun to face them.

This is essentially a lesson-learning story. The author doesn’t go into the background of this world and barely hints at Jenivar’s reasons for leaving her home. If it weren’t for the blaster and very faint hints of a fallen technological civilization, it would be pure fantasy.

“The Goddess Deception” by Dean Wells

This novella is serialized across both issues.

We suspect we’re in a steampunkish world when we see our narrator, Romulus Caul, with “twin electrick orbs implanted where my eyes had once been.” Caul, a Special Agent of Her Eternal Majesty’s Special Investigations Branch, is a remade cyborg full of gears and hydraulics, and his partner Plio is an alien. But a lot of the motive power here is straight magic, and besides, there is Aether.

Beddington was already cranking the massive orrery of gears and globes that represented Great Albion and the known Aspects of the Aetherial Deep. Allies of Her Majesty’s Government were rendered in warm copper and bronze, adversaries in cold steel. Two adjacent globes swung into view before us: one representing the mighty orb Boru, the other its companion Gamhanrhide.

In fact, this seems to be a universe the author has used before, a very dystopian setting called the Instrumentality. If not for the name of the realm, I doubt if I would have recognized it here, but aspects of the text suggest that this may be a sequel to some previous adventure of the protagonist.

As for the plot, our heroes have been sent in search of a missing technician, Kavita Patel, with friends in high places. Even before their arrival on Gamhanrhide, they encounter violent opposition; it’s clear that young Kavita had inadvertently stumbled across something big, and Someone clearly doesn’t welcome their involvement.

Shatter Guns and Gravitic Machine Pistols; Gatling Torches and Phase Mortars; Infinity-Beam Projectors and Time Siphons; Infrasound Dissonators and Zero-Wave Disruptors. Enough to take on an entire column of Royal assault vehicles and perhaps even win. An Analytical Engine sat at the foot of the stairs, a heavy clanking model decades old but clearly in good repair.

Conspiracies, revolution, mayhem, conflagrations, massacres, brawls, dragon attacks, explosions, and other adventures too numerous to enumerate ensue.

This is all action entertainment. The narrative tone has a light touch that makes readers pretty sure nothing really tragic is going to happen to our heroes, despite being blown apart and shredded into pulp – they’re the indestructible sort, who can stand at ground zero of a multimegaton blast and emerge in repairable condition. I’ve found promise in some of this author’s previous work, but the term that seems to come first to my mind is “excess”. This is manifest here in spades. We have an excess of backstory, an excess of place names, an excess of named characters and alien species crowding the story stage. On the other hand, the length of the piece affords scope for all these people to move around in all these places with all these weapons setting off all these explosions, all leading to more excitement.

What I miss here is the sense of dystopia that this setting has previously invoked. It’s clear that Great Albion is an Evil Empire spreading dark satanic industrialization across its universe, confiscating the territory of indigenous inhabitants. Our revolutionaries have righteousness behind their cause. Yet our heroes keep blasting away with minimal reflection on the proposition that they may be working for the wrong side, only a certain amount of sympathy for some of the individuals who have been caught up in the conflict.

#143

“The Bonedrake’s Penance” by Yoon Ha Lee

The human narrator was raised in a fortress museum at the heart of the universe, by a bonedrake, a wise and kind mother who calls her eggling.

I didn’t understand the way her eyes dimmed, as if in sorrow. She’d never minded my makeshift costumes before. Not that she was permissive about everything, but for a bonedrake she had sensible ideas about behaviors that did and didn’t harm human children. I especially remembered the way she had roared and clamored with laughter when I tried to glue myself, with leftover rice, into a caterpillar-priest outfit.

It’s an idyllic childhood until the day a visitor reveals the history that her mother had not yet told her, of the bonedrake’s own past and history, and presents her with a terrible choice.

An education-of story full of interest and charm, but all the time spent here is for the sake of waiting for eggling to grow up, to see what kind of person the bonedrake has raised and what choices she will make. At the center of the story is the secret the bonedrake has kept, her secret grief and secret crime, for which the raising of the human eggling is her penance. Yet I can’t really understand the depth of the outrage this secret apparently raises, as it seems to me that the bonedrake’s choice was a reasonable one, and not such a crime at all. The real pain, however, comes from the knowledge her mother can’t trust her child any longer, now that she is an adult. A devastating blow, the painful fact of growing up.

“Sekhmet Hunts the Dying Gnosis: A Computation” by Seth Dickinson

Egyptian mythos remade as an eternal cycle. Set has fled to a fortress in the primordial Earth, where Sekhmet pursues him, as she always does, from the beginning to the end of time. This is what Sekhmet is all about. “It is a tautology: that which is strong continues to exist. That which continues to exist, which promotes in itself and its progeny the ability to continue to exist, is strong.” She insists that between Sekhmet and Set, there is everything; outside them is nothing. But an emissary comes to her arguing otherwise.

I can find little here actually derived from the Egyptian myth, where Sekhmet is indeed a warrior goddess but not a creator, and neither the progenitor of Set nor his adversary – this being the traditional role of Horus. While authenticity to source isn’t essential in fantasy, I usually prefer it. These figures have been reformed to fit the author’s purpose. But Set, in particular, has always been a protean deity; while he came, like Loki, to be identified as evil, he served essential purposes in the Egyptian tale of life and rebirth.

The story is anything but adventure fantasy or science fantasy but rather a thought-provoking speculative fiction on philosophical themes, positing a dualistic, dichotomistic universe of opposing principles: life/death, male/female, predator/prey. At its center is an eternal conflict between the two divine principles over control of the nature and destiny of life. Sekhmet is all striving and conflict, while she calls Set “master of calculation and cognition”, “to reason and simulate, to issue forth cognitions and designs”. To put it another way, Sekhmet is evolution through the struggle of natural selection, red of tooth and claw, while Set would be the opposite – a deliberately planned creation; design opposed to descent. What, then, is the alternative to this dichotomy? “What is there outside her that does not belong to her enemy? How can there be more than Sekhmet and Set?”

The answer supposedly comes in the person of a transhuman purportedly beyond duality, or rather the union of it, signified as of ambiguous sex, as cyborged – flesh and machine. The transhuman goal is the creation of a singularity, the ultimate end of the eternal conflict cycle. But the transhuman’s name is Coeus, known in Greek myth* as the Titan of the intellect. How is this not also Set? Because Set, himself, is the union of the biological and the intellectual. As Set is born, in this mythos, from Sekhmet, so the human brain, the mind, the intellect are biological. It’s possible to have life without intellect, but not, as far as we are aware, intellect without life. Intellect pure and unembodied is not Set, and thus the conflict at the heart of the story is really misguided. We might imagine that this is Coeus’ goal, to abandon the biological altogether, to abandon the material. But that would not be the middle way but the other extreme, what Sekhmet imagines Set to be, but what he is not. Instead, it would be the child born of Set just as Set was born of Sekhmet, as this story has it.

(*) Does this mixing of mythoi bother me? A tiny bit. But Greek and Egyptian have mixed and mingled from ancient times.



Lightspeed, March 2014

Here are three of the issue’s original stories, the fourth being another installment of Matthew Hughes’ Erm Kaslo serial, entertaining as always, but hard to grasp for readers who haven’t been following it since back when.

“The Mao Ghost” by Chen Qiufan, translated by Ken Liu

Readers may think at first: it’s not that Mao. But in fact, it is, although everyone in this story operates in denial. This is a future China in which history has been whitewashed and wild animals exterminated. Qian Qian’s father tells her fables:

When Dad was a little boy, the world still had many living animals. They weren’t kept in special, sealed cages and could freely play and run about. Other than specially engineered pets, people could also touch untamed, wild animals without worrying about unknown viruses. But time changed everything. People cut down the forests, dug holes in the rich soil, erected steel cities and pipes, released polluted water and poisonous gases—until other living things had nowhere to run.

When Qian was very young, her father seemed to be happy, even if he quarreled with his wife about money. After she nagged him to take a high-paying job near a contaminated area, he brought home expensive gifts, but he also began rapidly lost weight until it is now clear that he is mortally ill. But he tells Qian instead that he is incubating the soul of an animal, the cat she has always wanted. Her friends scare her with tales of demonic ghost cats, “mao ghosts” from the reign of an evil empire, until Qian is confused. The historical truth, however, is more mundane, and so frightening that people have invented stories to hide it from themselves.

This is quite a muddle, with everyone constantly lying. Qian’s father lies out of kindness and love, but he doesn’t do her any good by it. There are two main issues here. In the past, the crimes of the Maoist regime, which the authorities lie about to cover up, and the population lies about to forget either their suffering or their complicity. But in the present, there is also the materialism and greed that has ruined the environment and led to the father’s death. In this, Qian’s mother is guilty, and I don’t credit her sudden and complete reformation at the end. Personalities just don’t change like that, so abruptly.

“How to Get Back to the Forest” by Sophia Samatar

A tale of camp, as in cabins and campfires.

Camp is full of stories like that. People say the ice cream makes you sterile, the bathrooms are full of hidden cameras, there’s fanged, flesh-eating kids [sic] in the lake, if you break into the office you can call your parents. Lots of kids break into the office. It’s the most common camp offense. I never tried it, because I’m not stupid—of course you can’t call your parents. How would you even get their number? And bugs—the idea of a bug planted under your skin, to track you or feed you drugs—that’s another dumb story.

From which readers will gather that, despite the camp similarities, this is not quite our own world. Here, everyone goes to camp in her teens and comes out as an adult, assigned to her adult work. At Tisha’s camp, one of the girls shows the others how to puke up their surveillance bugs, and how much more she felt without hers, until they took her away and put another one in. In this world, the only freedom comes when the girls go into the woods, but even there, if they remain too long, someone comes after them. And adulthood turns out to be no better.

The story is written as an adult Tisha addressing her memory of Cee, the girl who disappeared from camp, recalling that moment of freedom. By the end, it’s clear how dystopian this world is and how much worse it’s becoming. The camp scenes ring true – if not to camp, which in our world is not so often for older teens, but the prep school or college dorm experience, where a whole lot of puking goes on in the bathrooms.

“A Different Fate” by Kat Howard

Fates, weaving, and myths. The actual story element here is very slight: the narrator’s sister becomes a weaver. “She particularly liked making tapestries of women weaving. I asked her if that wasn’t just a little recursive, and she laughed and said that was the point.” Otherwise, most of the text of this short piece is taken up by enumerating the classic weaving tales of myth and folklore.

These lead to an interesting insight. Of the three Fates of Greek classic myth, their functions were related to a single thread: spin, measure, cut. In the tales cited here, however, spinning and weaving are treated as equivalent. But they are not. Weaving is a fourth, separate function, not cutting a single thread but uniting a multitude of threads; it is in fact the opposite. A reader might consider this, along with the title, and reach the conclusion that the Fates have decided to add a fourth to their number.

But this doesn’t seem to be what the author is about. She emphasizes the triune aspect; over and over she cites the three classic functions. The Fates who come to the gallery are two, mentioning that their sister is ill, and they are pleased to know the weaver’s given name is Lachesis – which imo is going a tad too far. This is the name of the measurer. So it would rather seem that what’s going on here is a replacement, a different person to fill the same role, rather than a different role.



Strange Horizons, March 2014

Fiction wordage is scant this month, with one piece serialized and the only other story very short, but cleverly subtle.

“Such Lovely Teeth, Such Big Teeth” by Carlie St George

A pedophile story, cast in a mix of Red Riding Hood and werewolves. Which is a combination less-used than one might think. Readers will probably suppose at first that the wolf is a metaphor for abuse, which it is, but literalized. As a young child, Reagan, along with her grandmother, was attacked and traumatized by a predator. But no one believed them; grandmother was sent to a facility for dementia, Reagan to a therapist, where she learned to lie.

“Sometimes,” Reagan says, “there are monsters in my dreams. But they’re just dreams, and I don’t have very many anymore. The man who hurt me, he was a kind of monster, but really, he was a man. And he can’t hurt me anymore.”

But there really is another wolf in her new neighborhood. In fact, more than one.

It’s also a coming-of-age story. The part about Reagan’s transformation linked with her growing sexuality is well-done. Alas, the ending comes on a heavy didactic and moralistic note, too sadly common in YA.

“The Mountain Demon’s Ballad” by Nathaniel Lee

In the great northern kingdoms, the demon dwelled on a mountainside, underneath a prison of thornbushes that pricked and scratched whenever it dared to move. The sword of the heroine Grambion rested nearby, its pommel all that remained. The rest, ’twas said, had been devoured by the demon’s blood.

The demon is said to be able to grant wishes, although not its own wish for release. Some people are tempted by the wishes but they suspect the demon’s intentions, given the nature of demons. Still, temptations can be very strong and the demon’s price apparently so small. . . .

A very short, neat piece about good intentions, patience, and truth. And the deviousness of demons.



Tor.com, March 2014

This site, too, is very short on original independent fiction for the month, most of the pieces being tie-ins.

“Doppel” by Lindsay Smith

Keystone is the code name for a British SOE agent in occupied France during WWII. His mission is to liberate certain prisoners, but in the course of establishing himself in Paris, he encounters the unsetting SS-Oberführer Albrecht.

And yet . . . and yet, there is something about being fixed in his gaze that made me feel as if he were examining me with a jeweler’s loupe, studying all my hidden facets. It was at once unsettling and refreshing. While the moment couldn’t have dragged on for more than a second or two, I felt both a clear certainty that he’d seen through our mad gamble and a beautiful calm at that fact.

Alas, Keystone has fallen under Albrecht’s arcane spell, to the alarm of his SOE superiors.

The story is told in the form of wireless transmissions to and from the Special Operations boffins. Keystone’s voice is light and amusing, suggesting a typical upper-class twit. Otherwise, we have the usual ancient runes and old Germanic gods but not, as readers might suppose from all the sniffing going on, werewolves. The ending is inconclusive, as if this might just be the first episode of something, and leaving several mysteries unresolved.



On Spec #95, Winter 2013/2014

This issue of the Canadian little zine offers six stories, of greater length than usual here. They range in genre from post-apocalypse SF to necromantic fantasy. Nothing really impresses.

“When Soft Voices Die” by Harding Young

An unknown plague has taken over, leaving the infected wandering around in the manner, but not exactly, like zombies, before they presumably die. The narrator, although uninfected, is trapped inside the quarantine zone, where he wanders looking for something undefined, the voice of his dead lover his only constant companion. There are temporary companions, however. He finds a condo tower with utilities still working and a couple of women living there in relative comfort. They call themselves Mary and Shelley; he reciprocates with Percy. The setup is, as he says, all too perfect. But the women are a couple, and he isn’t really welcome to stay.

An odd scenario. Readers are used to post-apocalypse settings where everyone is a raging cannibal. In this one, everyone in the quarantine zone is all too civilized, quoting the romantic poets and playing sophisticated jazz, despite being sentenced in effect to eventual death. Would isolated women really dare post an illuminated invitation to party without worrying about who would show up?

The theme, from the title, is the persistence of memory; our Percy finds epiphany, a glimpse of hope and future, when the voice of his past fades. It’s the most original and engaging piece here, but the whole thing is way too rosy-tinged for me to find it credible.

“The Marotte” by Tony Pi

A realm where two religions are in competition for supremacy – a situation that rarely works out well. Vod was once the Tsarina’s Lord Conjurer, now accused of necromancy and beheaded by the head of the opposing religion, who displays all the usual signs of villainy. There seems to be something to the necromancy thing, as Vod finds himself reincarnated in the court jester’s marotte – a sort of fool’s scepter. Together, they strive to save the Tsarina from the villain.

Not an original plot to this light fantasy, but the plight of the disembodied wizard makes for some interest.

“The Young Necromancer’s Guide to Re-Capitation” by Marissa Lingen and Alec Austin

Humorous fantasy. Ivan is the young scion of a family adept in the black arts whose current project is creating minions from dead monsters. But his latest, a dragon, has had its head taken by the hunter who killed it. Dragon needs its head, so Ivan and his posse of minions brave the hunter’s castle, which is warded against the likes of him, to retrieve it.

There was only one door left, at the end of the hall, and it seemed to recede as Ivan and Griffin approached. Every step they took covered less and less ground until they were frozen in place, their eyes wide and staring, not moving at all.

Fun, albeit silly stuff.

“Remembrance” by Brandon Crilly

Anna’s father came back from Afghanistan a sole survivor of his squad, minus a leg. Social services gave him a new leg and a virtual gateway to the companionship of his old squad, so that he now spends all his time in the basement, hooked up to the program. Anna hates the program that keep him from reintegrating into life, and hates the therapist who enables his addiction. Finally, in an epiphany, Anna comes to understand the strength of the temptation of the past. Despite which, I think Anna is in the right here. Her father has never really come home, and never will. Could he have? He’ll never know.

“A Place to Be” by Adria Laycraft

Post-apocalypse again, this time in the form of the loss of potable water supplies. Dreya lives in a settlement where she guards an outpost against the threat of intruders, typically refugees from the former US, despite the fact that the settlement once killed her refugee father, back in more desperate days. A single man approaches her position, and Dreya takes a liking to him, agrees at last to take him with her as a potential addition to the settlement community. But it’s not as easy as that.

This one addresses the issue that the Young story avoids: how, in desperate circumstances, can people know who to trust? Where should they draw the line between xenophobia and gullibility, when a single mistake in judgment can be fatal?

“Double Vision” by Kevin Harkness

The setting isn’t quite clear – somewhere in a provincial town near Montreal, but either in the dismal past or a degraded future. M Tremblay is the richest and most sanctimonious resident of his small town, even to the point of bullying the local priest. He has now dragged his abused daughter to a local seer with the reputation of being able to see the truth, for proof that she stole from him. But Tremblay gets more truth than he had counted on.

The only interesting aspect of this one is the ambiguous nature of Chartrand’s ability, which he alleges to be the results of a drastic head injury that apparently severed the corpus callosum, the connection between the two halves of the brain. Despite this nominal medical explanation, I’d have to call the piece fantasy.



Stupefying Stories, March 2014

Subtitled: Hot Fun in the Fimbulvetr. Sitting at my computer at the heart of the Polar Vortex, I appreciate the sentiment of defying the winter that won’t end, also the use of Norse terminology. Here are nine stories, some hot fun, some not. Unusually for me, I like the humor pieces better.

“Anachronic Order” by Christopher Lee Kneram

The first scene is set in late 19th century Morocco, a place where the hot sun shines. John Katy is there on the track of a thief who is herself tracking down certain arcane objects, one of which she took from Katy’s time machine several years ago. It’s been a long quest for both of them, but they’re both the obsessive sort.

He later deduced that the thief had probably been after an archaeological artifact his father had left him, the Zakariya Idol. Some legend or other spoke of untold power to the wielder of the idol, but Katy cared little. He had kept the idol in a closet, and had kept his work focused on real science.

Entertaining cross between a mad scientist story and dark fantasy. Fun. Neat ending.

“Dried Skins Unshed” by Julie Day

The Hamills have lived and fished for generations at Ocean City, passing down the legends of their origins, throwing green glass beer bottles into the sea as an offering to their relatives, but Angie is now the only one left. Until one night at high tide she sees them.

I could see the lights long before I reached the wooden pilings. They peeked out from underneath the pier, small pinpricks, greenyellow like fireflies. The night was dark, the stars and moon hidden behind the ever-present clouds.

The author doesn’t leave any mystery about the Hamill’s origins, but the story doesn’t end as readers will expect.

“A Nun’s Tale” by Pete McArdle

Sister Mary Dismas has died in the night, but this isn’t enough to stop her.

She clumsily climbed out of bed, knelt down on the hard wood floor, and began her morning devotion. As she prayed, the nun felt numb and extremely sluggish, but this concerned her little, for Sr. Mary Dismas had taught fifth grade for fifty-two years, never once missing a day. She was not about to start now.

Trials await her in the classroom as the natural progression of bodily failure takes its toll on her faculties, but Sr Mary Dismas has one final task before she can rest, for one of her pupils has been foully murdered.

Absurd dark comedy. The author adroitly balances the disparate elements here, so that while he calls the dead nun “a distaff Darth Vader” in her white coif, we actually find her a sympathetic character.

“They Followed Me” by Carol Holland March

The narrator is constantly followed by a growing group of enigmatic figures he assumes to be ghosts.

When I gathered my courage to ask them about it, they all took two steps backward, in unison, and huddled closer together. The ones in the front looked so nervous, I never mentioned it again.

After moving across the country in an attempt to escape them, he finally sees an angel come out of the sea and hopes this will solve his problem. Which it does, in a way. A sort of benign curse going on here, in a light fantasy.

“Interregnum” by John J Brady

This one is anything but humor. The setting is an alternate Russia in the early days of the revolution, when it seems that beings called Scribes have appeared in the country’s monasteries, with the power to read and transmit thoughts. Nikolay has naively engaged in counterrevolutionary agitation, and he uses the services of a Scribe to attempt to warn his confederate Natasha that they have been discovered. It’s an unsettling experience.

The Scribe sat back, allowing me to see its abdomen clearly. The face! Embedded in its body, contorted in a rictus of terror, it looked so human yet it surely could not be. I locked my gaze with its blue eyes; its expression changed, a flicker of recognition, perhaps. It mouthed something silently and I lost my nerve.

But under torture at the hands of the revolution, Nikolay agrees to spy on the Scribes. When he reaches the monastery, the abbess tells him they are angels, the Host of the Lady. He doesn’t know what to believe, even moreso when Natasha shows up and points a gun at him.

It seems rather an overkill to add demons from another dimension to the Cheka, which was quite bad enough in its own mundane way.

“Full Fathom Five” by Judith Field

Joe is a discontented pensioner out fishing one cold day when he encounters an elderly mermaid trapped on the beach as the tide goes out. A reprehensible scheme comes to his mind. Mostly a lamentation on the universal pains of old age.

“Bone Mother” by Torah Cottrill

The soothsayer lives a tedious existence in a carnivorous hut that does not allow her to leave, and she is weary of it all.

As she waited, Bone Mother saw the faces of all of the children who had come to her gate. She hoped, each time, that this child would return home with tales of the old witch in the woods. The ones who never left weighed in her ancient heart like stones.

Finally she decides to act.

Strong folklore influence here, such as the hut on legs that seems based on Baba Yaga’s [Baba means "grandmother", but "mother" is possible]. In several places, this shades into myth. Nicely done.

“Aleph” by Brandon Nolta

Sergei was a dancer until an accident ended his career and left him unemployable in a US suffering during the Depression. At last he’s offered a job in an ironworks as a golem driver, the device slaved to his own movements.

This world seems largely populated by immigrants from Eastern Europe, including the rabbi whose golems run the ironworks. It’s jarring to see characters in an employment office opening asking each other if they are willing to work with Jews; these aspects of the world make it seem quite distant and alien from the US in our own time. The theme of brotherhood through shared labor is rather moralistic, however. The other notable feature of the story is in the technical workings of the golems, which the author has developed thoroughly.

“Alien Treaties” by Randal Doering

Paul is schizophrenic, fallen through the social service cracks and living in a box in an alley, where he suffers increasingly prolonged blackout periods. During a relatively lucid interval, an eel-shaped alien appears to offer him a sort of uplift deal: sign the human race into slavery for five hundred years in exchange for the marvels of advanced civilization, including the cure for all illnesses. Paul says he’ll think about it and starts to read the contract.

During these long days Paul wondered if Sanjay was causing his attacks, to pressure him to sign the contract. If Sanjay could take away headaches, couldn’t he cause them to begin with? A race that could justify enslaving an entire species on the signature of one member of that species could justify damned near anything.

I suspect readers may think of this one in terms of a deal-with-the-devil story, with which it has a lot of similarity, although considerable contrary evidence. There is for one thing the continuing possibility that Paul, already subject to hearing voices, might now also be seeing alien eels where they don’t exist. Sanjay does, however, a lot to counter this supposition. We might also wonder if the whole thing is a psychological test or an entrance exam: Whether humans would sign away their whole world into slavery for personal gain.

Like the DWD scenario, this one involves a contract, where we might expect to find sneaky provisions hidden in the fine print. Typically, the human hero manages to discover these and turn them against the Adversary. Here, though, while the story raises all these issues, none of them are resolved in the end. The sole question is: Will he or won’t he? And that’s all we get.

Lois Tilton is reading original short SF and fantasy fiction. Editors can send electronic files of magazines and original anthologies to: loist a*t sff.net

For print materials, please query me by email for the address.

For an index of Magazine Issue reviews posted on Locus Online, including Lois Tilton’s, see Index to Magazine Reviews.

Russell Letson reviews Allen Steele

Allen Steele’s V-S Day fiddles with time in a more familiar manner. This is (if I’m counting correctly) Steele’s fifth take on his ‘‘Alternate-Space’’ story-family, in which the space race begins a couple decades early thanks to a German decision to abandon the V-1 in favor of the Silbervögel, a suborbital transcontinental bomber, which sets off a corresponding US project to build a Silbervögel killer. Steele has been working with this material for a quarter-century: the first bite of the apple was a 1988 short story, ‘‘Operation Blue Horizon’’, followed by the better-known ‘‘Goddard’s People’’ (1991), ‘‘John Harper Wilson’’ (1989), and the novel The Tranquility Alternative (1996). Twenty years ago I found ‘‘Goddard’s People’’ to read like minimally fictionalized journalism, but V-S Day is a fully formed historical-procedural WWII drama – if it were a movie, the book’s date-stamp chapter headers would be superimposed on establishing shots: ‘‘June 1, 1943, Somewhere over the Pacific,’’ ‘‘December 21, 1941, Peenemünde.’’

But there’s more. In a framing narrative set in 2013, a reporter attends the annual reunion of the survivors of the 390 Group to record for the first time the full story of how the American rocket plane was conceived, designed, and built. This 2013 feels remarkably like ours – Toyotas, iPads, digital recorders – which raises questions about why there are still secrets and what differences this 2013 might harbor beyond the obvious one of including suborbital spaceplanes in 1943.

The body of the novel alternates between the German and American projects, with occasional interludes in which the reporter and the old men add comments on the story so far. The viewpoint character for most of the German chapters is Wernher von Braun, with cutaways to events he could not have known about, such as the activities of the spies who uncover and continue to monitor the project. Von Braun gets about as sympathetic portrait as is possible: his dream of a technology that will eventually lead to space travel causes him to turn aside from the realities of what he is building and who he is building it for (Goering and Himmler have bit parts, and a distracted Hitler makes a cameo appearance) and from its direct costs in human suffering and death. The other crucial historical figure, Robert Goddard, remains a bit remote, seen through the eyes of other characters: shabbily dressed, persistent, focused, systematic, brilliant, and cannily able to wrangle the authorities and build his team, the ‘‘Goddard’s People’’ of the earlier short story.

But this is not a book about character or characters (however convincingly portrayed) but about the rival programs, and accordingly its focus is on the enormous challenges of conceiving, designing, building, and testing whole new technologies, nearly from the ground up: rocket engines (which tend to reveal their weaknesses by blowing up), airframes, launch systems, pressure suits, pilot training. There is a good bit of attention to the non-engineering parts of both projects: not only the extraordinary levels of secrecy and misdirection required (a significant challenge on the American side, given the culture from which the project team comes) but, for the German team, the constant danger of interference by members of Hitler’s inner circle. And since the framing 2013 chapters suggest how the contest must play out, there is no real suspense, and even the inevitable sub-orbital confrontation and a final-page revelation are not really surprises. As the Afterword’s acknowledgments and the extensive small-print list of research sources suggests, the real hero of the novel is the dream-driven process of getting into space. The title’s V-for-victory is not only for the war but for the triumph of that dream.

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