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Paul Di Filippo reviews Benjamin Parzybok

When I reviewed Benjamin Parzybok’s debut novel, Couch, almost five years ago, I made a wild-eyed assertion that he was the love child of Donald Barthelme, Jonathan Lethem and Umberto Eco. Such a fanciful metaphor is a standard reviewer’s tool, but I fear that it always makes the writer toward whom it is directed seem like some kind of Frankenstein’s monster, a mashup of disparate parts. So this time around, with the publication of Parzybok’s somewhat delayed but still much anticipated sophomore effort, Sherwood Nation, let me try an alternate conceit, especially now that I’ve read a book that’s very different from his first.

Benjamin Parzybok is one star in an exotic celestial constellation whose other luminaries are named Paolo Bacigalupi, Will McIntosh, Felix Gilman, Cory Doctorow, Nick Harkaway and Tobias Buckell. The name of this constellation is yet to be assigned. Maybe the connect-the-dots arrangement schematically depicts the “Tuned-in Hipster Futurist” or the “Postmodern Engaged Cli-Fi Artist” or the “Whimsical Slipstream Intellectual Realist.” But whatever silly tag we try to affix on Parzybok and Sherwood Nation, the undeniable truth is, he’s a unique voice who’s delivered a very good book that is both comic and tragic, grounded and fanciful, closely observed and well imagined.

Our scene is just a short hop into the future. Climate change engendered by oceanic disturbances has rendered the West Coast more or less waterless: ongoing megadrought. That part of the country is now cordoned off from the rest of a faltering nation at the Rockies. San Francisco is abandoned. Seattle is doing sorta okay. And in the middle of the spectrum of disorder is Portland, Oregon. There, Mayor Bartlett and the National Guard are enforcing water rationing and other civic ukases. But as always, there are loopholes for the rich. Incensed by the inequality, our heroine, Renee—former barista, a cross between “Fidel Castro and Pippi Longstocking”—plots to make the illegal water grafting public. Her boyfriend, Zach, who works for an ad agency that disseminates water conservation propaganda for the city, is sympathetic but doubtful. Renee and her pals intercept an illegal water truck, the action is filmed and the film aired, and the next thing she knows, she is being hailed as “Maid Marian,” a Robin-Hood-type figure inspiring hope among the downtrodden, and anger and fear among the ruling elite.

On the run, Renee and her ultra-competent sidekick Bea find refuge in Northeast Portland, a lawless zone. There, Renee discovers her true calling, as rebel, politician and civic manager. With help from many, including a local honcho named Gregor and his son Jamal, she begins to organize the neighborhood into a hopeful commune of sorts. Once established, with hundreds of Green Rangers to enforce her new ways of coexisting, and with Zach by her side, she publically secedes from the city, forming Sherwood Nation. But this is a step that “Heartless Bartlett” and the powers-that-be cannot ignore, and must meet with violence.

Parzybok’s achievements are manifold here. First, he tells a gripping story whose lineaments are never predictable. There are great suspenseful set pieces, like the theft of a water truck and a shootout in Sherwood. The entire action is compressed into about two weeks or so, but feels like a whole saga: birth, maturity, and death of a kingdom.

Part of the allure of his tale is the expert and empathetic characterization. Parzybok jumps readily from one POV to another, inhabiting each mind distinctly, and thus giving us a multifaceted view of events. Besides the persons mentioned, we also get the views for Nevel, Zach’s ad agency boss, a family man whose neurotic response to the crisis is telling. And we also ride the shoulders of Martin, a low-level criminal charged with subverting Sherwood. The villains receive as much insightful parsing as the heroes. And much of their interactions is in the form of very enjoyable dialogue, full of wry humor and caustic irony.

A very refreshing thing about this tale is the absence of any digital landscape. No internet, no social media, no cellphones. It turns out that one of the first things to go when the power grid collapses is all our server farms. Forced to live “IRL,” people tend to act more authentically.

There’s a fairy tale, mythic, classical ambiance to Parzybok’s story that lives side by side with a topical, realpolitik half. The book is obviously as headline-friendly as the Ferguson riots, inequality debates, Occupy protests and climate change reports. But there’s also a Joseph Conrad-Grahame Greene-Shakespeare style concern with the nature of power, the roles that are thrust upon us, and the limits of friendship and love.

Sherwood Nation is part of a long lineage in SF of the Temporary Autonomous Zone, or TAZ, a concept first codified by Peter Lamborn Wilson. Not quite identical with Utopias, the TAZ had its first real expression in—when else?—the Sixties, with Samuel Delany’s “We, in Some Strange Power’s Employ, Move On a Rigorous Line.” Since then, stories of TAZs have popped up here and there in the genre. I myself have written several: “Harlem Nova,” “Karuna, Inc.,” “Yes We Have No Bananas.” In real life, every London or Amsterdam squat or annual Burning Man event functions as one.

Parzybok’s novel might well be the most thorough and engaging expression to date of this eternal impulse to hive off from the empire. If the future to come does resemble his, we have a blueprint for survival right here.

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 September

I’m finding the best fiction in Interzone this time.

Publications Reviewed

Interzone #254, September/October 2014

A Nina Allan special issue, introducing her new nonfiction column.

“Mirielena” by Nina Allan

Noah is a refugee, a poet from somewhere in the Mideast, now applying for asylum in Britain. Despair clings to him, afflicted by the callous bureaucracy and the casual hostility of the young thugs on the street. His documentation is stuck in some limbo and never arrives. In all this, he keeps hearing the voice of his lover Marielena, mocking him, condemning him for leaving home, leaving her – betrayal. There is something primal, almost goddess-like about her, at least as Noah recalls her. One day on the street he encounters a bag lady named Mary, who warns him about the local dangers; later, he rescues her from the thugs and takes her to a shelter. When he takes her filthy clothes to the wash, he makes a discovery that’s hard for him to believe. But it explains a whole lot and suggests even more.

She takes my face between her hands and kisses me, presses her lips against my mouth in a way that is intimate and so familiar. Familiar from the nights in the mountains, when the air was filled to bursting with the sound of crickets, perfumed with the entwined scents of incense and retsina. Marielena would come to me then, she would throw herself upon me like a maenad. I smelled the blood on her hands and did not care.

For most of the story, it seems to be a mundane work about the problems of immigrants in our own world, and Marielena no more than a bitter memory for Noah. Then he learns Mary’s secret [perhaps she has intended this], and the whole story turns inside-out, focusing a beam of new understanding on every encounter and giving the story a particularly science-fictional significance.


“A Minute and a Half” by Jay O’Connell

Evan’s life changes completely on the day his ex-lover shows up with a child she’d conceived from his sperm, stashed ten years before. It seems that Helen had been embezzling from an organization deeply into illegal stuff and is now on her way to one of those libertarian enclaves from which there is no extradition. For some reason, he leaves his current lover and goes with her. Unfortunately, the illegal organization doesn’t take her departure well and sends a hit squad in pursuit. Mayhem on the highway ensues.

My first shot went wild. Was it possible I’d killed some innocent person ten cars back? I braced the gun in both hands, resting the stock on the baby seat – Faith had slipped the harness and made it to the floor and was burrowing through the trash, shrieking continuously.

Evan finds himself forced to make crucial decisions before it’s too late for all of them. Fortuitously, Helen had given him a mind-programming pill before they left.

For the most part, I’m liking this. Characters are interesting, action is brisk. The metaprogramming pill, however, strikes me as an overly facile deus ex pharmacopola that both intrudes into the text and seems to rob Evan of his agency, even if he makes the decision to take it. If you can decide you want to do the right thing, why do you need a pill that makes you do the right thing?

“Bone Deep” by S L Nickerson

Dalisay has an incurable, progressive, degenerative disease that has just caused her to be fired from her last job. Surgery will temporarily arrest its progress, and a serum helps prevent new symptoms, sometimes, but these treatments are costly. Until now, she has funded them by selling her skin for advertising. Unfortunately, the new laser tattoo process has now been discovered to interact with the serum, and removing the tattoos would be a breach of contract. Dalisay needs a way out.

Dalisay’s disease [Fibrodysplasia ossificans progressiva] is very real, the treatments are science-fictional, and the tattoo interaction is pushing at the edge of reader disbelief. I’m also dubious about the economics of the exhibitions that display the sponsors’ tattoos, not seeing how they could bring in anywhere near the profits to justify the expenses of the surgeries. Who would the audience for such exhibitions be? The plot relies overly on coincidence, but I particularly like the character of Manaia the tattoo artist.

“Dark on a Darkling Earth” by T R Napper

We don’t learn many details about this world; we don’t need to. It’s in the aftermath of some apocalyptic war in which China has survived, more or less. Remnants of armies wander the vast, empty spaces of the land, but none of the troops remember why. Their minds seem to have been wiped of memories, and they carry electronic cards on which to record what they are told. While we aren’t told why, the story suggests that soldiers who can remember their homes and families will want to desert and return to them. The Omissioners are the exception, and because they can remember, they are treated with respect by all the soldiers. Du Gongbu is an Omissioner, an old man who has indeed deserted, wanting only to go home to the wife and sons he can remember. He stumbles across the remnant of a lost squad who can’t remember what their mission might once have been, who are their allies and who their enemies. They are glad of his stories, which are mostly comforting lies. But he still plans to go his own way whenever he can escape.

This situation is heartbreaking, both for the soldiers whose memories are lost and for the one who remembers.

“How dear are memories, Xiaofan? It’s like asking someone how important is the heart beating in their chest. I don’t just hold the memories of others; I hold their identities, their sense of self and place and time. They, in turn, hold to me as tightly as if I were part of their soul. You’d think in a world without a past, the man with memory would be king. But no, in that world, he who remembers is a slave.”

It also evokes the depth of Chinese history, the successive wars, the poetry that expresses both the love of the landscape and the pain of the soldier leaving home, perhaps never to return.


“The Faces between Us” by Julie C Day

Amber’s father disappeared one day into a spirit realm, and that’s where Amber wants to go, thinking she can get there by sipping up weird concoctions from straws. But what it takes is the right ingredient, the ashes of the dead sealed up in cans in the basement. Why are they there? The story doesn’t say, which seems a rather large omission to me. Not making sense of this one.

“Songs like Freight Trains” by Sam J Miller

As a teenager, Christine learned the trick of traveling in time through means of particularly evocative songs. Now, as a middle-aged mother, she’s in danger of being carried away, back to that teenaged self.

By college a concert was dangerous; by thirty I had stopped listening to my favorite albums. Because there was no telling what wild and desperate moment the Pixies or Prince might plop me back into. Every time I heard a song, it added a whole new set of memories – mix tapes on midnight road trips, summer evenings sitting drunk on the porches of rented beach houses. The winter circle of firelight; autumn rain in the garden. Every listen added another car to the freight train, and every listen after that could spin me back into any of them.

The prose is appropriately evocative, the premise compelling, but the conclusion is only hinted at. The author didn’t run far with this one.

Coming Soon Enough, edited by Stephen Cass

Subtitled: Six Tales of Technology’s Future. A mini-anthology of less than 100 pages, this one features six stories from a selected group of authors from whom readers might have expected more than they deliver here. The introduction further clarifies the theme: using the proliferation of the smartphone camera as a model, the editors intend the collection to explore the effects of new technology on society, on the quotidian way of life. Almost paradoxically, the settings are all quite familiar aside from the particular development being examined; every story seems to be set in the near-future US. At one time I wouldn’t have noticed this or considered it worthy of remarking; now, juxtaposed with the current issue of Clarkesworld, for example, it seems odd and unusual, quaint. This is another way of change consequent to technology: the globalizing influence of the internet, which the editors don’t seem to have noticed.

“Someone to Watch over Me” by Nancy Kress

Optical camera implants. Amanda is more than just the stalker of her ex-husband and a violator of restraining orders, she is so obsessively deranged, so batshit crazy, she has illegally had the cams implanted in the eyes of her baby daughter, in order to spy on her ex while he has visitation. “He’s just erased me from his life. That’s what I really can’t stand—that he acts like I never existed at all.”

A strong portrayal of a genuinely scary individual. If someone wanted to claim this one as horror, I wouldn’t say not. Otherwise, the alteration is pretty minor; the same thing could be done with camera spy drones, but it wouldn’t have the same psychological impact as using a baby.

“A Heart of Power and Oil” by Brenda Cooper

3-D printing, I think. Farren is a formerly promising engineering developer now fallen into a funk of uselessness. A kid from the neighborhood [?] bugs him into agreeing to help design a flying dragon model for the entrance competition to a tech school, a contest that Farren once won, back in his promising days. In the process of helping the kid, his enthusiasm for his work is rekindled.

Meh. The alteration to society is pretty minor and the emotional stakes here pretty low. I don’t like the terms of the contest, in which speed seems to be the sole deciding criterion.

“Incoming” by Geoffrey A Landis

? I see no particular technological advance here and no general alteration of society, except that the government would task a bunch of geeks in a sports bar to monitor and analyze the approach of hostile aliens. The story boils down to a lecture from one character to the rest while they’re waiting for the aliens to arrive, the subject of which proves very conveniently to be the salvation of Earth. Minimum story, and not really fitting into the anthology’s theme.

“Grid Princess” by Cheryl Rydbom

The grid – an extension of today’s connectedness, which is less an actual change than If This Goes On. A future US where the Feds have fenced off much of the desert West for its solar power farms, entrance restricted, although a few displaced persons still roam the expanse, living off the ubiquitous connectivity of the information grid; inside the Zone, the grid is inaccessible. For reasons that strain credulity, Dani has acquired a permit to enter the Zone to observe Halley’s Comet, but when her truck breaks down and none of her devices will work, she finds herself in trouble. Dani is pretty much a twit, a YA protagonist totally dependent on AIs and other devices linked to the grid, here for the purpose of being taught a Lesson. I would have liked to see her with a more legitimate reason for being inside the Zone in the first place. The solar power farms represent a more interesting story idea, but we don’t really learn much about them or their effect on society; by design, the actual panels are isolated from society, and their immediate effects are limited to the Zone, where society is excluded.

“Water over the Dam” by Mary Robinette Kowal

Microturbines. Aniyah is an engineer who wants to install these in the Klamath River waterfalls to replace the obsolete dams. Unfortunately, she runs up against a bureaucrat with a vested interest in retaining the dams, an individual whom we would have called, in my day, a Male Chauvinist Pig. Piggy he is, fitting the cliché to a P, insulting Aniyah by saying she isn’t a real engineer. She goes around him by getting a news cameraman to record her installing one of the devices, in a manner that allows him to showcase her ass and galvanize public support.

A clumsy feminist piece, relying on a grotesque caricature of an offensive male fathead. And while Aniyah may wish she didn’t have to resort to deploying her ass to get her way in the world, the story never seems to consider the privilege inherent in her status as a “pretty woman” whose ass is thus deployable. If she had been an ugly woman, a fat woman, a modest woman, would the plot have gone differently? And I can’t believe the author actually named a character “Lydia Pinkham”. In the meantime we don’t actually see the alteration of this society by the prevalence of the microturbines because, at this point, it apparently hasn’t been.

“Shadow Flock” by Greg Egan

Drones. This one is my choice for the best piece in the book, in large part because it fulfills the terms of the assignment. Natalie is an expert in programming drones, which have become a ubiquitous part of this future landscape, from larger ones employed in construction to tiny, insect-mimicking spy drones. Unfortunately, sophisticated criminals are also making use of the devices, and one gang has kidnapped her brother to force her to assist them, proving they mean business by sending her his severed finger. Because Natalie knows they will have her under constant surveillance, she can’t ask for help, yet the odds are too strong that they will discard both her and her brother once the job is complete, and she can’t count on the police.

But all of that presupposed that there really were records of the meeting, that the flock of benign surveillance drones that watched over downtown New Orleans had been as vigilant as ever that night—even in the places her adversaries had cho­sen to send her. Who was to say that they hadn’t infiltrated the flock, corrupted the software in existing drones, or found a way to substitute their own impostors?

A nice, tense SF crime thriller here, with the SFnal element central to the plot. Natalie is a clever and resourceful protagonist. But the last line poignantly demonstrates the real threat that this technology has become in the wrong hands.


Clarkesworld, September 2014

Three science fiction stories with a theme of family.

“Spring Festival: Happiness, Anger, Love, Sorrow, Joy” by Xia Jia, translated by Ken Liu

A series of loosely connected scenes portraying milestones in life, from infancy to old age, as they take place in a technologically-advanced future. We open with a first-birthday ceremony in which the child’s pick of assorted objects is supposed to suggest what career path he will choose. By this time, however, the simple ceremony has taken on the form of a contract for his future life.

Lao Zhang pulled one of the holograms next to his son’s high chair, and the child eagerly reached out to touch it. A red beam of light scanned across the little fingers—once the fingerprints were matched, he was logged into his account.

The story dwells at the heart of science fiction: change. We see the persistence and strength of cultural traditions, particularly those concerning the family, but modified and even strengthened by new conditions and technologies that affect every stage of life. I find the visions of this future rather ominous. It’s highly materialistic; the choices made by Lao Zhang’s year-old son will be debts that extend to his future descendants, more links in the chain of binding family ties. And the use of holograms is so ubiquitous that it seems actual human contact might be superseded as duties are fulfilled by virtual stand-ins. Yet at the same time the sense of family obligation – often onerous – remains, although I do see a few glimpses of yearning for individuality, not for freedom from duty but the chance to fulfill it in a different, personal way. At the New Year, the entire extended family gathers, and it seems, to Lao Wang, at least, that no one can do anything different, or be alone. The conclusion of his story, however, doesn’t seem to fit with the rest, and I find it quite inexplicable. What just happened?

“Weather” by Susan Palwick

Frank and Kerry’s marriage has been falling apart since the death of their daughter, just months before it became possible to download and preserve the minds of the dead. Kerry has grieved about this lost opportunity ever since, but Frank has always believed that translation is a scam; he hates the way Kerry goes on about it, but as he can’t confront her directly, he evades the subject she most wants to talk about. One day their friend Dan comes to tell them his own daughter is dying and he means to drive to California to see her one more time before it’s too late. But a late snow has closed the mountain passes, and it’s not likely he’ll be able to get through in time.

What’s noteworthy about this one is what fundamentally good people Frank and Kerry are. They invite Dan in for breakfast; Frank volunteers to drive him over the pass when it’s clear that Dan is under the influence and not thinking straight. Yet Kerry keeps trying to convince Dan that his daughter’s impending death is a “blessing”, while Frank is ready to drive into a mountain snowstorm to evade the subject.

Frank looked at Dan. “And no matter how real it is, somebody needing it at Rosie’s age is nothing to be happy about.” Dan nodded, and Kerry looked away, and Frank turned back to the food, feeling like maybe he’d danced his way around the fight after all. But when he turned back towards the table, a platter of eggs in one hand and a plate of bacon in the other, Kerry had started to cry, which she normally did only really late at night. That was usually Frank’s cue to go to bed, but he couldn’t do that at eight in the morning.

This is a relationship in trouble. It’s the relationship at the center of the story; the SFnal device is just the catalyst for Frank’s epiphany. Unfortunately, the solution is too facile.

“Patterns of a Murmuration, in Billions of Data Points” by J Y Yang

Here, a virtual family, with a complex AI that regards its two developers as its mothers; the bond here is real and strong. When one of its mothers is killed in a political assassination, the AI isn’t about to take any excuses.

We know better. In thousands upon thousands of calculations per second we have come to know the odds, the astronomical odds: Of four support towers simultaneously collapsing, of an emergent human stampede kicking over the backup generator fuel cells, of those cells igniting in a simultaneous chain reaction. We hold those odds to us closer than a lover’s embrace, folding the discrepancy indelibly into our code, distributing it through every analytical subroutine. Listen, listen, listen: Our mother’s death was no accident. We will not let it go.

At the heart of the story is autonomy. The AI is self-directing and quite capable of disregarding human direction when it believes it knows better. Yet if it refuses orders, a request from one of its mothers, whom it loves, is a different matter. The AI isn’t human, and this is the story’s strength, showing us this difference, even in their shared grief: “Tempo’s mind, brilliant and expansive as it is, is subject to the slings and arrows of chemical elasticity and organic decay. Our mother is losing our other mother in a slow, inevitable spiral.”


Apex Magazine, September 2014

Here are three original stories, plus a reprint from an anthology that Apex hasn’t sent to me for review. The worthwhile one is the Dickinson.

“Last Dance over the Red, Red, World” by Gary Kloster

The human species on Earth is dying from what seems to be an artificial hemorrhagic plague, the only survivors being Konstantin and his staff in their sealed habitat at the end of the space elevator. Because Safia blames him for not stopping it, and for taking with him the AI that Safia considers she daughter, she has infiltrated the habitat with the goal of taking the plague to him. But Minerva, the AI, has a mind and purpose of her own.

It’s reasonable to suppose that the prose here is fevered and overwrought because Safia herself is fevered and dying. Still, this doesn’t make it any more readable.

I’ve slipped through your gates, and I’m climbing to you with the apocalypse clenched between my teeth like a knife.
Twenty thousand miles isn’t far enough, Konstantin.
Not after you took Minerva.
My daughter.
You should have guessed. You should have known what I’m capable of.

“Economies of Force” by Seth Dickinson

A future in which humanity has spread outward to a number of extrasolar worlds, and unfortunately the Loom has spread along with the population. Exactly what the Loom is isn’t clear – not to Rabe, and perhaps not to any human being. It came to Rabe’s world when he was a schoolboy, and his smarter friend Apona tried to explain:

“Mom says they have a disease. An idea that makes more of itself.* They try to take over the planet with conspiracies or guns, and then they steal ships and they go to another planet and — here we are.”

To the authorities, whoever they are, the Loom represents an existential threat to the species, or perhaps to their control, to be eradicated by any means necessary. On Rabe’s world, this means filling the skies with armed drones that blast any suspicious individuals or gatherings – gatherings particularly, as the Loom is a sort of collective intelligence. Not everyone is happy about the drones, which are operated by AIs, as analyzing the complexity of the human behavior involved is beyond human capability. When Rabe is older, he works for a stock trading company and discovers that the planetary economy, too, is run through machine intelligence, for similar reasons. Human behavior in the mass is too complex for humans to comprehend adequately.

“No human has the reaction time or pattern skills necessary to get inside the market — these traders leverage price fluctuations on the picosecond level. Full–market heuristic snapshots come down a crustal neutrino pipeline from Landing City. Anything to get an edge in reaction time.”

Apona, however, believes that she can crack the behavior patterns of the drones, while Rade is drawn towards resistance and sedition.

I like this a whole lot, a story full of provocative ideas that are left for the reader to chew on, left with more questions than explanations. Even if the Loom is assumed to be real and the danger that it is said to be, we tend to fear and disapprove of a system that puts drones overhead, blasting random individuals with no way to determine whether their analysis is correct. Is it better to obliterate a few innocents, just in case one guilty person might escape notice? As Rabe points out, the symptoms of the Loom are all human behaviors; individuals might not even know they are infected.

[*] It would seem to me that this definition would make the Loom a meme, and I have to wonder why the author doesn’t use this term. Perhaps because its meaning has been degraded by recent use?


“Soft Feather Dance” by Liz Argall

A modest little fluff of goose down has ambitions to go on the stage. This fable has to be one of the most ridiculous things I’ve ever read.

Lightspeed, September 2014

Besides the continuation of the Hughes serialization, three stories of orphaned and abandoned children.

“We Are the Cloud” by Sam J Miller

Angel, aka Sauro because he’s dinosaur-big, has lived his life in fear and silence, inmate of the system.

I had been at Egan House six months, the week that Case came. I was inches away from turning eighteen and aging out. Nothing was waiting for me. I spent an awful lot of energy not thinking about it. Better to sit tight for the little time I had left, in a room barely wider than its bed, relying on my size to keep people from messing with me. At night, unable to sleep, trying hard to think of anything but the future, I’d focus on the sounds of boys trying not to make noise as they cried or jerked off.

This is a world where the numerous destitute rent out a portion of their brains to the cloud, but Angel has the special ability to use his port to manipulate the data stored there. His life changes when Case moves in, a little white hustler whom Angel thinks is more special than he is. Angel falls in love, and Case becomes the catalyst who awakes his abilities so he never has to be afraid or silent again.

A darkly cynical piece that doesn’t sugar-coat its circumstances. On the one hand, it’s a happy ending for Angel, on the other, it’s not hard to see him becoming a super-villain reveling in revenge; he has a lot of revenge to take. The story depends on readers finding the brain-cloud system credible, which is a bit of a stretch.

“No Lonely Seafarer” by Sarah Pinsker

Alex’s father was a sailor who left his child indentured to the tavern keeper when he died. Alex is also what had generally been known as a hermaphrodite, although the author doesn’t use this term nor any more current one. Now a pair of sirens has come to roost on the headland, and no one can leave or enter the harbor by sea; the sailors are all trapped on shore and growing desperate. Alex’s father’s old captain has the notion that a young child might be immune to the sirens’ voices, although there’s no reason he should think this, except that everything else has been tried, including female sailors attempting the run past the sirens.

Alex is a particularly self-confident, well balanced character, and I like the way the author has conceived the sirens’ song:

Their voices were hideously beautiful. I made out some of the words. As Old Charley had said, it was a song about the song itself, daring the listener to listen, as if anyone had a choice. The words drifted in the air.

However, their nature is left annoyingly nebulous. There’s something about a mirror, which may or may not suggest self-knowledge, and something about them being neither one thing nor another, which may or may not be part bird and part human, but nothing explicit about their sexuality, if they have any. Alex claims to understand them, but then, Alex is there looking at them, and we are not. At any rate, they aren’t like Alex and Alex is not like them and can never be like them, never grow wings and scales, except in a betweenness. So just as we are given no reason to suppose a child might be immune to their song, so we don’t really know why they are attracted to this particular adolescent, except that that Alex, too, knows there song. If the tie, however, is the song, this doesn’t explain why Alex feels the need to disrobe. If there is a relationship between genitalia and song, it’s not made explicit here, nor does it make sense. This sort of ambiguity doesn’t improve the story.

“Starfall” by Saundra Mitchell

A star somewhere has unexpectedly gone supernova, which, because this is that kind of story, serves as a metaphor for Amara’s life.

It made me cry, because I don’t know a physicist. I don’t know who will speak at my funeral. I don’t know that his words, meant to be comforting, could apply to me. Something about all my heat and light still being in the universe, and all my particles starting out as stardust, and becoming new stars although maybe I made that part up.

She is also slowly disappearing, beginning with the tip of her index finger; she can’t feel it, although she can still see it. Around the world, people are disappearing and birth records of some people are now missing the official files [which Amara knows, working in Vital Statistics].

A moving story of loneliness. Although the metaphorical language and imagery is sciencefictional, the story itself is fantasy.

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

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.

Lois Tilton reviews Short Fiction, late August

A lot of fantasy here, little actual science fiction.

Publications Reviewed

Lightspeed, August 2014

Only the Owomoyela piece is really science fiction.

“Undermarket Data” by An Owomoyela

A dystopia future in which wealth inequality has led to division between Upcity and the districts, where Culin lives and works as an electric tech, fixing lectric and data lines that need fixing a lot. Culin is also marked as contagious, with what we don’t know, making him a pariah even in the district, although he has work because people need him. One day, the data stops, all over the district, and he can’t figure out why, can’t fix it. Then an Upcity bureaucrat shows up and wants his help with the problem. Culin is hostile and suspicious, but Jace is persistent.

The interest here is primarily in the worldbuilding, details like the wall climbing that seems to be a main avenue of access, and the flags that people stick out their windows to signal that they need a technician [is this related to Culin’s contagion, or is it a normal practice?]. Culin recalls a do-gooder from Upcity who tried to live in the district.

Hadn’t counted on the lectric that was buggy at best, or the way the cold went right through the buildings no one thought to insulate. Hadn’t counted on half his protein coming from the larvae in the bread, or the way people bought up the buggy flour first, ’cause hell if they could afford protein otherwise. In the end, he’d bugged off Upcity again.

I do have to wonder about Culin’s stubbornness that refuses Jace’s offer to eliminate his contagion; maybe it wouldn’t help all that much, but it wouldn’t hurt, either, as I see it. The heart of the story, however, is the possibility of trust and even friendship between people from two very different worlds.

“A Box, a Pocket, a Spaceman” by E Catherine Tobler

A dreamlike fantasy. The narrator, who seems to be a teenage girl, is brooding over a death in the family when the spaceman appears in front of her with vague warnings about the presence of malevolent beings. They meet a number of times subsequently and sometimes see malevolent tentacled beings, from whom they hide. The spaceman has no box but he does have stars in his pocket, that seem to be the constellation Orion.

It’s all just death, he tells you, and he opens a pocket of his spacesuit, because spacesuits have pockets, sure, and he shows you the thing that isn’t possible at all. The pocket opens into blackness, but the longer you look, the more stars begin to come out. Within that slit of black, pinpricks of starlight come to life, like cells dividing until they become something entirely Else and Other. The more your eyes adjust to the dark, pupils blown wide in the face of eternity, you see constellations you recognize—there’s Orion, and you know exactly where his nebula is, but how is it in a spaceman’s pocket, how is it . . .

Metaphorical, symbolic stuff, most of which is left to the reader to make sense of, or not. I go for not.

“A Meaningful Exchange” by Kat Howard

“Quentin told lies to people for money.” He does not, however, appear to be an SF author. He gets paid. And it’s the payment that ensures people will believe the lie, when other people tell it. That’s how magic works. One potential client presents a problem. She wants a particular man to say he loves her, which would be, apparently, a lie. Or maybe not.

A devious little con game going on here. Cleverly done.

“The Djinn Who Sought to Kill the Sun” by Tahmeed Shafiq

The djinn enslaved by Aladdin finally wins free, killing his master and stealing the prince his son, for reasons not quite clear. The djinn is a sorcerer who had long sought the secret of immortality, and in the course of his experiments he had caused the death of his beloved wife. Now he is determined to fulfill his ambition and bring her back to life, despite the fact that many wise figures he encounters on his journey tell him it is not possible.

The phoenix’s eyes grew softer somewhat. It almost whispered, “I am sorry. But I cannot give you that. I don’t have it, it doesn’t exist. There is no Philosopher’s Stone, no Elixir of Life, no quintessence, no Master Work, no object of divinity. I can see it in your eyes, you want it for your wife. She is gone, djinn, and what is gone cannot be reclaimed.”

But what he learns is that the immortal phoenix has the heart of the sun within him, and if he succeeds in killing him, it is his.

Which answers the question that hangs over much of the story: why the djinn wants to kill the sun in the first place – which turns out to be somewhat misleading. The tale is a quest through an Arabian Nights landscape, but like many quests, turns out to be a journey of enlightenment. But aside from wanting to recover his wife, the djinn’s motivations don’t become sufficiently clear. I found myself on the side of the phoenix.

I’m also going to wonder why the story uses this form of the term, which I have always believed to be the plural.

Strange Horizons, August 2014

All fantasy this time, with a strong theme of shape changing.

“Resurrection Points” by Usman T Malik

Daoud has an unusual inheritance: his family has the ability to animate the dead – not bring them back to life, like Lazarus, but more like the galvanic jerking of a bullfrog’s severed legs. His father uses his power for good, healing nerve damage in his own clinic, and now he has begun to train Daoud to follow him, having obtained a cadaver for practice.

And thus we practiced my first danse macabre. Sought out the nerve bundles, made them pop and sizzle, watched the cadaver spider its way across the table. With each discharge, the pain lessened, but soon my fingers began to go numb and Baba made me halt. Carefully he draped DeadBoy.

Unfortunately, the forces of religious intolerance intervene, with tragic results.

The setting is Karachi, Pakistan, where there seems to be a significant Christian minority, a population under increasing threat from Muslim intolerance. Daoud’s best friend is Christian and his own mother, secretly, was Christian before her marriage. The cadaver on which he practices was also a Christian and bears the signs of torture. These circumstances dominate the narrative and supply a horror that should strike readers more forcefully than the notion of animating the dead. These anatomical details are well done and add authority to the piece. Most horror isn’t so well grounded.

“The Air We Breathe Is Stormy, Stormy” by Rich Larson

Cedric is working on an oil rig in the Baltic, as far as he can get from his pregnant girlfriend; the sight of her pregnant belly repels him, for reasons that seem to be related to a vaguely emasculating injury inflicted by his abusive father.

Then, one night, he saw her. She was adrift, flotsam, pale limbs splayed like a starfish, hair ebbing tendrils around her head. Cedric had never seen a corpse, only dreamed one, and he found the sight paralyzed him. Then she revolved in the water and began pulling languid strokes towards the rig.

The girl from the water turns out to be a shapechanger who may, in her true form, have webbed hands and teeth like a pike. Or not. Most of her kind have left the vicinity of the rig, along with the fish, and sometimes she vomits up black gunk. Something called fucking occurs between them, although the details are not clear.

I’d like this one better with less obscurity. The author is coy about the exact nature of Cedric’s injury and how this affects his relationships with both females in the story. At the end, it’s Cedric who gets the epiphany, so that we suspect that the author has put Volkova on the rig just for that purpose, without agency of her own.

“Cold as the Moon” by Sunny Moraine

Sharon’s father was always, in a sense, a bear, wild and uncontainable. He didn’t want to be contained, limited, by the demands of a family, particularly when his wife, suffering from cancer, gives birth to an infant girl, then commits suicide after he had moved the family somewhere to the frozen north, where there are ice floes. As Sharon tells it, he took the form of a grizzly bear and headed out onto the ice, leaving her alone with her baby sister.

At which point, we have to consider whether to take this transformation literally. Sharon is ambiguous on this point.

How do I know Daddy is a bear? How do you know anything? I look back on everything that’s happened up until now and really it’s the only thing that makes sense.

As readers, we can only conjecture. It seems safe to assume that Daddy has left the family, stranding his daughters on the ice to die – or at least Sharon’s indictment is pretty compelling. For the rest, we might assume imagination or hallucination, or else believe in the bear thing. In this case, it’s the ambiguity that makes the story.


Beneath Ceaseless Skies #153-154, August 2014

Both issues this month feature a tale of foretelling.


“Five Fruits I Ate in Sandar Land” by Michael Hayes

The narrator has traveled to this distant land to rescue his promised bride, whose father had sold her before they could wed. The title and theme evoke the fruits of the underworld, that the seeker must not eat, but Sandar is not the underworld, not quite. In form, this is a list story, and readers should note how it circles back to the first line.

The bitter apple is fatal. Only in large quantities, though, and its offensive taste makes it nearly impossible to eat enough of them to kill a man. As the sun dips below the horizon, I eat one my first night in Sandar Land, barefoot and sweatsoaked. The juices sting my chapped lips and give no comfort to my throat. It’s the first food I have eaten in three days. While I chew, I try to imagine it as something less noxious, but with each bite I nearly retch and lose it all.

The narrative is also, however, in the first person, which leads to the common “How is the narrator telling this story?” problem. It’s particularly vexing in this case, as there are persons present whom the narrator could well be addressing, rather than the author’s readers.

“Make No Promises” by Rachel Halpern

Here’s an interesting premise: the prince of this land is a demigod tied in the traditional way, to its welfare. After a reign of several hundred years, she now has two daughters; the youngest, Mandeva [note that this name contains the term "goddess"], possesses a gift of foreseeing the future. Unfortunately, the future that her gift reveals to her is the treason of her sister, who will kill their mother and come close to blinding her in her takeover of the throne. Thus Mandeva discounts the promises people make, knowing that, more often than not, they will fail to keep them.

The heart of the story lies in the relationship between the sisters, the balancing act that Mandeva has to perform every day, knowing what the future is going to be, trying to not let it blight the present.

My left eye has always been weak, where I will lose it fighting to defend the fortress, and my mother, against my sister’s return. My sister has always been the better fencer—she will be faster than I, sure and swift, her blade striking before I can even unsheathe my own sword. She will fall short, though, misjudge the distance, and though I will lose the eye, I will not die as she intended.

Mandeva wants to love her sister, and she wants to avert the fate that seems destined to befall both of them. To this end, she makes many attempts to alter events, to change their apparently predestined course. But she can never be certain if these were actions she would have taken, regardless, and with the same consequences.

A nicely-done tale of godhood, the burdens of rule, and the tension between free will and pre-destiny.



“The Angel Azrael Delivers Justice to the People of the Dust” by Peter Darbyshire

Another installment in this dark fantasy series about a gunslinger angel of death in the Weird West. The author gets off to a good gruesome start with his fallen angel lost in a dust storm, savoring his angst.

He had to stop every now and then to tighten the saddle around what was left of the horse. The storm scoured chunks of its rotting flesh away, and the saddle kept slipping. Soon there’d be nothing left of the horse but bone. Sure, he could raise another horse from the dead that would be more comfortable, just like he’d raised this one. But he had been through a lot with this horse.

He comes soon enough to a town where something is clearly wrong, but Azrael can’t figure out what’s going on – in fact, he initially figures it wrong. When he can’t deal with the situation as a gunslinger, he has to take it on as an angel, if he can remember how that goes.

I like this subgenre, and I’ve enjoyed the previous tales, but Azrael is turning into a pretty sorry, self-pitying character with only a tattered remnant of his former power. The title is also a bit misleading. Azrael doesn’t really deliver justice, only a partial liberation after his initial failure, and his parting line to the survivors is, “You’re on your own.”

“Seeing” by Stephen V Ramey

In a land governed by caste, Rahami was born to the lowest level, but when she attempted to kill herself using the venom of an oracle spider, her survival is taken to be a sign that she must be raised to the ranks of the seers. Rahami is not entirely happy about her elevation, as it requires her to give up hope of love and marriage, and bigots among the oracles are constantly hoping for her failure and demotion. Now war is coming to the land, threatening everything. The warlord, the one hope for victory against the invading enemy, is dissatisfied with the prophetic seeings of his official Sister Oracles; he suspects, correctly, they are lying to him for their own purposes, and he has requested the vision of Rahami, known to be more subtle in her prophecies than the Mother Oracle approves. Rahami’s orders are clear: she is to agree with the Sisters. But once she arrives at the fortress, it’s clear that the Sisters are deceiving their lord, upon whom everyone’s future depends.

It’s interesting to compare this one with the Halpern story from the previous issue. In both cases, prophecy becomes a tool of politics. Mandeva’s foretelling reveals an apparently determinate future, while the venom of the oracle spiders produces a strand of probabilities, some more robust than others. The politics of the story here are more complex, more messy, with different interests in conflict with others. The warlord Morshimon proves to be a particularly complex and There’s also a subplot involving the lowest caste that I think could have been more completely integrated into the story., August 2014

Some very interesting stories here this month. And some others.

“In the Sight of Akresa” by Ray Wood

Claire is the daughter of a duke returning home from this world’s equivalent of a crusade. Among his loot is a slave girl he has freed, called Aya because she can’t speak her true name. Claire immediately falls in lust, either with a fascination for the exotic or a prurient interest in her severed tongue [the story opens with Claire’s graphic imagining of the mutilation, strongly suggesting torture porn]. She pursues Aya, and their affair attracts the interest of her thuggish brother, who threatens to expose the illicit liaison. Tragedy ensues.

This is a creepy story, and Claire is the creep. She forces her attentions on a girl in a subordinate position who can’t really refuse them. She mutilates her falcon to have an excuse to see her. She trifles with the affections of an innocent boy in order to cover up her activities. And finally, the ultimate betrayal. Yet the editorial blurb calls the piece “a tragic fantasy romance”, and Claire’s narrative, addressing Aya, calls her such names as “my love”, which may lead the unwary to see it that way. But this is no romance. It’s a story of sexual exploitation and betrayal, told by the perpetrator, a perjured narrator who may indeed see herself as the victim of a romantic tragedy, as villains often do.

So why the misleading editorial blurb? Do the editors actually believe this is a romance? And what of the author? Does he really think he has written a love story, or has he been subtle, writing a creepy story under the superficial guise of a romance? If the former, this is very, very bad. If the latter, as I suspect, it still has problems. Much of the plot is generated by the strong and immediate dislike that most of the local population forms for Aya; people think, for no reason apparent to Claire, that she is a witch. I wonder why, if Aya gives out such strong negative vibrations, that the duke brought her home to begin with and tried to find a respectable place for her in his household. Of course, it’s possible she actually is a witch. She certainly attempts to harm, at the least, Claire’s brother. Aya presents a blank face to Claire, and thus to readers, who have little to go on but conjecture. Did Aya actually love Claire? Was she jealous of Claire’s new love interest? Was she actually guilty, despite Claire’s alibi for her? The title refers to the local figure of justice, with her blindfold, who presides over trials. The only thing clear here is that justice hasn’t seen the truth.

“Sleeper” by Jo Walton

In an If This Goes On future, where wealth inequality is enforced by a surveillance state, Essie is an award-winning biographer [don’t quit your day job or your night job] who is now completing a work on a BBC director named Matthew Corley who in his day knew Auden and Isherwood, Orwell and Kim Philby – “Everyone knew Kim”. In the course of her work, Essie has created a simulation of Corley, based on all the available information and a few assumptions of her own, that he was a Soviet sleeper agent, never active. Essie has ulterior motives, and she is now contacting the simulated Corley, attempting to enlist him in her plans.

Let us say that the entity believing himself to be Matthew Corley feels that he regained consciousness while reading an article in the newspaper about the computer replication of personalities of the dead. He believes that it is 1994, the year of his death, that he regained consciousness after a brief nap, and that the article he was reading is nonsense. All of these beliefs are wrong. He dismissed the article because he understands enough to know that simulating consciousness in DOS or Windows 3.1 is inherently impossible. He is right about that much, at least.

There’s no doubt about the recursive subtlety of this one. Essie is looking for input from Corley, from a Corley entirely the creation of her own input. When Essie wrote the simulation, she knew what she needed to be true. Yet there are things he knows that she doesn’t consciously know. As for Corley, after initial doubt, he has to accept that he is himself, even knowing he is a simulation; subjectively, what he knows about himself is true, even while realizing it was Essie’s input. A fascinating situation, yet I have no faith in the success of Essie’s plans, which are purely amateur.

“La Signora” by Bruce McAllister

Another of the author’s quasi-autobiographical stories of a teenaged American boy growing up in an Italian fishing village “of myths and superstitions that had no intention of dying.” Women known as streghe [witches] dye the fishing nets the ancient color of blood to earn the favor of La Signora, the Lady of the Sea, so she will give the men a good catch. We know from the outset that the narrator will encounter this figure, but not how she will affect his life.

The strength of this work is in its portrayal of the everyday, in the author’s intimate understanding of what it is to be a boy of that age, of that time, the humiliation he suffers in the face of his friends, the sons of fishermen.

They could go out on the boats on Saturdays. They needed to learn their fathers’ trade, and they needed to help with the fishing if their families were to make enough money. But what could I do? They had invited me more than once to go with them, leaving at first light. They wanted to share with me the waves and changing light and devious nets and glorious fish as they were pulled from the sea. I’d always said no. I knew my parents wouldn’t let me go.

So of course he has to go, despite them, because this is a coming-of-age story, and that’s what we have to do, to become ourselves. It’s also a story of myth, of the Beings and Powers that dwell in the sea, in the earth, in the storm-filled sky. People of different lands at different times have given them different names and attributes, and they may take different forms to match human assumptions, but here we have the essence: the Lady, known also by all those other names and forms.


“Seven Commentaries on an Imperfect Land” by Ruthanna Emrys

While on the surface a series of vignettes, these form a loosely-knit but unified story of people who dwell in a special, magical realm that coexists with the mundane – one of the fundamental wishes of genre people. Who among us hasn’t always wished to open that door, pass through that gate? But the land of Tikanu is more organic; it grows, mostly where its mint is planted and flourishes. Which reminds me how invasive a weed mint can be. But Tikanu only grows where it is wanted, welcome, where it isn’t sprayed with herbicides. This is a fairyland for the contemporary world, not a pseudo-medieval one, not twee, although there is one reference much too close to Narnia. It’s also a fairyland for women, although men are not absent; all the primary characters here, the characters with actual names, are women, and most bake bread.

I know this is supposed to give me a warm fuzzy feeling of wonder and niceness, but I’m too much the contrarian, and I don’t really like stories that tell people how special they are, how superior to those herbicide sprayers, how deserving of a place from whom others are excluded. It’s like a sorority with a mint membership pin. I’m not that fond of sororities, even fantastic ones. I do, however, like the snake: “black, spotted in gold and bronze, shorter than her forearm and narrower than her pinky finger.”

“A Cup of Salt Tears” by Isabel Yap

Japanese folklore is full of the most fascinating variety of monsters, demons, and supernatural creatures, seemingly tailor-made for fantasy fiction. Here we have the kappa, a sort of river monster with a penchant for drowning the unwary. The kappa at hand, however, seems to have a weakness for beautiful young girls, and when Makino fell into the river, he pulled her out. Time has passed, Makino’s beauty is faded, and she is entirely absorbed in grief with her husband dying. When the kappa appears in her bath, professing his life, his attentions aren’t welcome. But he persists, and finally asks Makino what she really wants.

This is a story of love and sacrifice, and being careful what you wish for. Makino’s mother once warned her that kappas are cruel, but this doesn’t mean they don’t love in their own way. Love is not always benign. We’re left not really understanding the kappa, who comes across as a sort of by-the-numbers character. Can we say that the kappa was the better choice for Makino? Not really; he might have made an abominable husband. But she surely got the worst of her bargain. She would have done better to find a different bathhouse.

Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet #30, September 2014

Here are six short stories in this little magazine on the literary end of the genre, complete with nameless narrators, and spilling over the edges. It happens that I prefer the ones closer to the center.

“Odd Variations on the Species” by Sarah Kokernot

Dark comedy. The narrator is visiting his grandmother by the shore when he sees a giant chatter crab scuttling past. This species has long been believed extinct, eaten to that point on account of the superb, aphrodisiac quality of its flesh, despite its ability to parrot human speech; it was then considered essential to block your ears to avoid hearing the voices of friends and family. In this case, the crab mimics old Mrs McCullen, under whose porch it has been living. Now the narrator thinks this crab would be a perfect centerpiece for his grandmother’s birthday dinner, while his wife attempts to dissuade him – and the narrator himself has misgivings.

Once she learned that chatter crabs were actually friendly and cute — perhaps even possessing a spark of intelligence – he would see that eating one was akin to eating one of the kittens on her Humane Society Calendar.

Like much comedy, this one has a sort of manic intensity, with multiple themes competing for reader attention and complicating the plot. Thus we have the narrator’s marriage, his wife’s obsessive attempts to achieve pregnancy, Mimi’s corresponding determination to achieve great-grandmotherhood, the Mrs McCullens – both human and crustacean, as the name inevitably sticks, as well as the eccentric history of the chatter crab in the local cuisine. Funny and amusing stuff.

“The Silent Ones” by Erica L Satifka

Absurdness. Travel opens up among many alternate Earths, and on a vacation trip the narrator falls in love with a farm boy from a world named Paul [which name I suppose that the narrator meant for the boy, not the world]. Travel goes in both directions, however, and not all the visitors are welcome. But most unwelcome are the red glowing orbs that quickly take over the narrator’s Earth, along with many others. She no longer feels at home.

This is mostly silliness, with a suggestion that the narrator may be becoming one of the alien figures she has never been able to understand. I suspect it’s about immigration.

“I Know You Hate it Here” by Anne Lacy

A really tediously absurd story about Yet Another nameless narrator, this one with a parasitic twin anchored in her abdomen. She thinks it controls her life and keeps her from killing it, but as she tends to hallucinate, readers can’t trust anything she says. Her life is full of complications that don’t make sense, which she relates at boring length. Before I had finished it, I was thinking of tossing this issue, which I’m glad I didn’t.

“With His Head in His Hand” by Robert E Stutts

I decided to like this one when I saw that its protagonist has an actual name: Morgan. Morgan has failed in love and is wandering the dark streets in the manner of disappointed lovers when he comes across a mysterious old mansion with a severed head at its gate. The house draws him in against his will, and he finds that the inhabitants, likewise trapped, are a young woman named Vivian and her husband Bern, who inform him that the house requires him to play a Game. For three days, the host will go into the grounds, and whatever he wins there, he will give to Morgan in the evening; whatever Morgan wins in the house, he must likewise give to Bern.

Breaking the silence, Morgan says, “If I follow the rules of the Game, I win – and I get to leave. And if I don’t, my head will be hanging in the fate next.”

But as Bern informs him, no one has ever won.

A definite fairy tale sensibility here in the premise; the house, we learn, has altered over the centuries to fit into its setting. The course of events, however, is quite contemporary and distinctly sensuous. The characters all like one another, and readers should also find them easy to like. I only wish the author hadn’t set up the conclusion with the opening paragraphs – too pat.

“The Purveyor of Humunculi” by Sarah Micklem

A strongly retro sensibility here, evoking the weird tales of the 19th century in which young gentlemen might take a Grand Tour. Mr Crumley finds himself on an island where the inhabitants have shops selling strangenesses, and he is intrigued by a purveyor who promises he will never have to visit a barber or again. Mr Crumley, whose valet too often nicks him, is intrigued and ends up purchases a homunculus that meticulously grooms him in his sleep. When he finds the creature distasteful, he discovers he can’t get rid of it.

A nicely unusual short piece.

“The Endless Sink” by Damien Ober

Here’s an unusual and interesting premise: an archipelago of floating rocks, some higher, some lower in the array. People can rise or sink from one to another, but those who make a habit of it seem to be few. In a manner reminiscent of swarming insects, tradition has boys at the age of maturity leaving their home rocks to rise or sink to some other, where they settle and marry a local girl. This is the pattern that the [nameless] narrator expects her life to follow on her isolated, conservative rock, until the day a sinker arrives – a woman. The narrator is filled with curiosity and asks the stranger to take her to the next rock down, ostensibly to obtain medicine for a younger brother. But in the course of her journey, she learns too much about the realities of this universe.

I like this premise, with its hints of sciencefictionality; there are references to a Before, suggestive of an apocalypse, but we learn nothing definitive about the universe’s history. What we do learn is the truth that things are different on every rock, and in the voids between there is a great deal of theft and violence, scavengers killing vulnerable risers and sinkers for their possessions. We wonder, then, what fate might have befallen the narrator’s older brother, whom we saw setting out on his rising journey. We also learn that the narrator’s father knew much of this truth but kept quiet about it for fear of trespassing against local mores, especially the prejudices of his deeply conservative and ignorant wife.

My mother had treated my brother’s recovery as some sort of dark trick. As she watched him climb out of bed, her face revealed this possibility to me: maybe she would have preferred him to die than be saved through something she didn’t understand.

Coming of age and opening her eyes to reality are the heart of this story.

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

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 Peter Watts

Certain SF writers maintain a level of engagement with their genre material that goes beyond mere storytelling, however ambitious and entertaining. These writers are intent on carrying forth the Grand Work, to employ the phrase Rudy Rucker often uses, and which he borrowed from the discipline of alchemy. These writers want to contribute to the famous Big Conversation of SF, the back- and-forth refinement and tweaking and détournement of tropes and conceits and hardware and vocabulary and venues and characters. Not content with using off-the-shelf components, they explore and expand, reinvent and repurpose.

Among this crowd I would list such folks as Charles Stross, Karl Schroeder, Cory Doctorow, Rucker, Bruce Sterling, Greg Bear, Ann Leckie, Nancy Kress, Neal Stephenson, Hannu Rajaniemi, and Kathleen Ann Goonan. They all seem interested in expanding the dimensions of the genre rather than just playing in the fields we know.

Indubitably to be counted among these challengers of the unknown is Peter Watts, whose books always show a bold intellect not content to inhabit the same scenarios that allure the majority of writers and readers. He’s caviar, not potato chips.

His novel Blindsight opened up a new continuity for him, after the Rifters saga. The saga began on February 13, 2082, when the Earth was ensnared in a net of sixty-five thousand burning artifacts. This enigmatic first contact drove the mission of the Theseus to the Kuiper Belt, where a spiky alien construction dubbed the Rorschach lurked. The Theseus was crewed with five “hopeful monsters,” oddball but talented humans all existing on the far edge of the mental and physical spectrum, including a literal vampire (science had learned how to backbreed the subspecies in a kind of limited re-wilding move). Our focal point was Siri Keeton, Synthesist, able to examine the topologies of events and derive startling insights. The crew’s harrowing interactions with the aliens—among the most inscrutable beings in modern SF—took them through a total on-the-fly rebuild of paradigms of consciousness, neurochemistry, intentionality and information theory—along with tons of slambang action as well. The book evoked comparisons with such claustrophobia-inducing predecessors as Algis Budrys’s Rogue Moon; Robert Silverberg’s The Man in the Maze; and the first Aliens movie.

In the sequel, Echopraxia, Watts is not content merely to pick up his tale where he left off (with Siri alone in the ruins of the expedition). Rather, he returns us to Earth and makes a lateral move, from metaphysics to realpolitik.

Dan Brüks is a field biologist fleeing a shattered past, wherein he’s caused much harm and many deaths, and lost his wife to the permanent virtual-reality realm known as Heaven. Out in the Oregon desert doing research, Brüks is swept up in an ongoing battle amongst several power groups fighting for dominance across a splintering Earth beset by singularity viruses, contagious ideologies, dancing plagues (the echopraxia of the title, surely meant to be reminiscent of the tragic Native American Ghost Dances) and a host of other malaises, large and small. The next thing he knows, he’s been shanghaied aboard a fantastical spaceship named the Thorn of Crowns—lovingly rendered by Watts as the main venue of the tale—and is heading toward a date with a sentient space slime mold, accompanied by such outré folks as a deadly yet not unfriendly military spook named Jim Moore, a vampire named Valerie and a woman named Rakshi Sengupta, the last-itemized of whom has vowed to bloodily kill the perp who caused the death of her partner. And that criminal just so happens to be Brüks, although Sengupta doesn’t know it yet—and literally can’t know it for a while, thanks to a Cognitive Filter in place in her mind.

That bit of neuro-tech is just the tiniest tip of the freshly minted speculative wonders Watts has conceived for this book. Brüks is a baseline human, refusing almost all augments, but everyone else around him is amped up and modified to their eyeballs, in dozens of mind-bending ways. Watts’s language reflects this jazzed-up, posthuman environment with plenty of juicy neologisms and info-dense syntax. Yet there’s never a moment when what is happening is less than crystal-clear. Readers might hark back to John Barnes’s Century Next Door series for a similar “when it all fell apart” feeling of controlled chaos.

I said that Watts switched his focus from metaphysics to mundane power dynamics here, and that’s basically true. But he does not leave the concerns of Blindsight totally behind, specifically in the new conceit of “God is a virus,” a notion which brought to my mind similar work done by Howard Hendrix in his Spears of God. And when a certain connection that links Jim Moore to Siri Keeton is revealed, all the pieces start to dovetail.

The book ends with a kind of Canticle for Leibowitz desert epiphany that is highly emotional and satisfying and spooky as well.

One of the main delights in the story is the relationship between Brüks—the “dumbest,” slowest, most baffled player in the whole game—and Moore, the string-pulling, deadly, proactive spider at the web’s center. Watts depicts their complex symbiosis in a manner that alternates between friendship and enmity, mentorship and disdain. After all, baseline folks like Brüks are dubbed “roaches.” And yet Moore is there time and again to rescue his hapless protégé. Their affinity is too real to be easily explained.

Towards the end there’s a scene where Moore is ensconced in a corner of the spaceship listening to interplanetary voices filtering impossibly into his head, like Howard Hughes or Conrad’s Kurtz. That’s the moment when it became apparent to me that Peter Watts is some precisely engineered hybrid of Lucius Shepard and Gregory Benford, lyrical yet hard-edged, purveyor of sleek surfaces and also the ethical and spiritual contents inside.

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.

Paul Di Filippo reviews John Varley

It’s a truism that many aspects of the fantastika genre today are vastly different from what they were in the Golden Age. One change that I don’t see much remarked upon is how long series tend to last nowadays. It often feels as if they roll on and on forever, outliving both their begetters and generations of fans.

Consider a couple of core series from the Golden years. Asimov’s Foundation cycle, in its magazine appearances, ran roughly from 1942 to 1950: eight years from start to conclusion, barring those unanticipated Bronze Age revivals. Once again, excluding the allied novels which appeared after a gap of silent decades, when the marketplace suddenly seemed beckoning, the Viagens Interplanetarias series by L. Sprague de Camp was fully fleshed out in just a couple of years, from 1949 thru 1951. Blish’s Cities in Flight: 1955 to 1962. Doc Smith’s Lensman series, however, took twice as long to complete as Asimov’s, running from 1934 through 1950, but that seems an outlier, due to Smith’s almost “amateur” rates of productivity.

Just as novels were shorter back then, the full working-out of any given multi-book conceit occurred more succinctly. But at some point—maybe with Heinlein’s endlessly percolating Future History, or Poul Anderson’s Polesotechnic League, or Moorcock’s Multiverse—series became lifelong projects for both authors and readers. Staying abreast of such sagas requires dedication and a long memory—and/or frequent recaps by the author.

In the current era, of course, a mere eighteen years is nothing. John Crowley’s Aegypt: 1987-2007, twenty years. Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time: 1990-2013, twenty-three years. Piers Anthony’s Xanth: 1977 to present, thirty-seven years. Anne McCaffrey’s Pern: 1968 to present, forty-six years. There’s a point at which such intellectual properties become corporate franchises, like Superman or Mickey Mouse.

All this introduction by way of announcing that with his newest book, Dark Lightning, John Varley has admirably and resoundingly terminated his sequence that began with Red Thunder in 2003, finishing the job in a mere eleven years. (And I do think a fairly definitive conclusion has been reached, while still leaving open the portal for further adventures.) Nonetheless, readers might need a brief refresher, which I offer based on my previous reviews of the series for the SyFy Channel, pieces that are sadly no longer accessible online, or I would link right to them.

In the first book, set on Earth and Mars not too long from now, we meet Jubal Broussard, quirky genius, whose “squeezer” technology opens up the gates of interplanetary travel, as well as facilitating many other terrestrial changes. Teenage protagonists make the first trip to Mars in a cobbled-together craft. The sequel, Red Lightning, jumps ahead a couple of decades from there, with humans well established on the Red Planet and a new generation of heroes at center stage, extending the blended families into a true clan. When Earth undergoes a cataclysm, the daughter planet must help. Rolling Thunder leaps ahead by a similar interval, introducing a certain young woman named Podkayne, whose exploits take her as far out as the Jovian moon Europa.

I said then of the three books: “Each volume in this series has opened up new vistas in a cascade of quantum leaps. The first story was almost a simple Tom Swiftian adventure tale. The second escalated to world-wrecking and interplanetary war. Now this latest entry opens outward beyond the confines of our home star, proving no exception to the steady advancement of scope. By the book’s end, we are in exciting cosmic territory that’s entirely unforeshadowed on page one.”

The newest volume follows the pattern and promises laid down. Teenage Podkayne is now “Mama Podkayne,” whose twin teen daughters, Cassie and Polly, are the new narrators and focal figures.

The exfoliating Broussard tribe, along with 40,000 other pioneers, some enbobbled in stasis, are inside a hollowed-out asteroid, fitted out in traditional O’Neill habitat fashion, heading for another star-system, New Home, at three-quarters of the speed-of-light, twenty years into their voyage after the invasion of Earth by the Europan life forms. After opening with a dramatic personal incident where the sisters must deal with a near-death plummet from the axial skies, the book swiftly gets both newbies and longterm fans up to speed in very ingratiating ways, one of which is the embedded infodump called a “blinklink.” By the time Papa Jubal emerges from his stasis bubble to utter a cryptic warning and directive, the reader will feel quite at home.

The alternating voices of Cassie and Polly, while plainly consanguineous, are differentiated in quite believable fashion. They are each vibrant and spirited young women with the same can-do attitude tinged by idiosyncratic preferences. Through their eyes we get a multi-sensory portrait of life inside the asteroid, the unique physicality of the place and the sociocultural aspects. We also experience the many interpersonal dramas of their set, including their competition for the affections of handsome but somewhat dense cousin Patrick, who eventually comes to be seen as the dolt he is. Of course, larger issues are in play as well.

It eventuates that Papa Jubal’s sudden concerns about the ship relate to its interactions with the ambient cosmic dark energy (“dark lightning” in his quasi-naïve vernacular). He suspects that weird troubles will arise if the ship continues to accelerate. But while he is testing his theories, social tumult explodes, and it’s up to the twins to represent their clan and restore order and control. Varley keeps the suspense up nonstop from the midpoint of the novel to the end, and although readers will anticipate a “happy ending,” I don’t believe they will foresee the exact path to it, one moment of which brings into play a surprising trope that might have been found in some pre-Campbellian tale by Ray Cummings or Clifford Simak. Nor will they anticipate who makes the ultimate “goodbye” that ends the book on a solid note of finality.

One aspect of the novel meriting our attention is its deft dramaturgical compression and scope. The whole action takes place over only a few days—a week, tops—lending a sensation of well-stuffed plentitude to the fast-moving tale. Moreover, we are inside a Big Dumb Object, where infrastructure predominates. Sure, there is textural variety among the “villages” of the starship, which Varley brings out well. But basically the tale is like Die Hard, where the constraints of the locale shape the action.

Let’s talk about the homage aspects of this series, since they are paramount. It can’t be any surprise that books featuring characters named “Jubal” and “Podkayne” are intended to be tributes to the work of Robert Heinlein. Nominated early in his career as “the next Heinlein,” Varley has always plainly admired the Grandmaster, and has made his admiration explicit in these books, with the current volume modeled obviously on Orphans of the Sky. A “transparent” prose style; an emphasis on “competent men” characters (a type not excluding females); a certain knowingness about the hidden substructures of society (which has an objective correlative here in the way Cassie and Polly maneuver through the ship’s infrastructure)—these aspects of Heinlein’s writing, with 21st-century modifications, all fuel Varley’s quartet.

Now, your enthusiasm or distaste for Heinlein will completely determine your enjoyment of Varley’s homage. The reviewer for Publisher’s Weekly deemed the book a pastiche with an antique sensibility, and thought Polly and Cassie to be self-effacing specimens out of Mademoiselle magazine circa 1957. I thought the reverse, and I believe that most readers lacking the anti-Heinlein bias of the PW reviewer would be hard-put to adduce any evidence supporting that position. Instead, they will encounter a swift, exciting, emotionally resonant tale with no small moral fallout involving a group of pioneers, neither unalloyed saints nor pure devils, seeking to carry humanity’s legacy to the stars.

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, mid-August

Just two works here this time: the September issue of F&SF and a cyborg anthology from the publishers of the ezine Clarkesworld, which adds up to just about as many stories as usual, or maybe more.

Publications Reviewed

  • F&SF, September/October 2014
  • Upgraded, edited by Neil Clarke

F&SF, September/October 2014

Back to the regular lineup of suspects here, after the last, guest-edited issue that offered some rare fresh author faces. I’m happy to report that there are a couple of promising new author faces in this issue, and I recommend the Cigut story.

I usually look forward to the September issue of this magazine as the best of the year, the issue that the award winners are likely to come from. Unfortunately, while there are some good reads, I don’t see any really superior work or potential award winners here. The predominant tone is humor, with regard to which I recall the mortal adage: “Dying is easy, comedy is hard.” Also a reprint from Phyllis Eisenstein.

“The Rider” by Jérôme Cigut

A cyberpunkish tone in this one. Luke is a former failed poker player, made obsolete by big-money technology [it’s apparently now OK to cheat], and now the rider* for an advanced AI named David. It seems that several years ago, a rogue AI engineer named Tahara stole equipment from his employer and created his own line of AIs, superior to any others in existence. The Taharas are all unique and self-directing, gravitate towards crime, and often complete with one another, sometimes fatally. But they also network.

He had mentioned this in the past, but it had never made much sense to me. These guys spent their time trying to physically destroy each other, using riders like me, yet they were in constant contact on the net, probably chatting like magpies. Go figure. The A in AI stands for “artificial,” but for me, sometimes it feels more like “alien.”

For many of their activities, they need humans to do the legwork. Luke and David have been associates for some time and trust one another. This is good when a new line of AIs comes on the scene, produced by Tahara’s former employer, with the prime directive of hunting them down.

This is an action piece without a lot of techno-neepery, but the characterization is key. The milieu is a world where ruthless players with money and power can only be defeated by others more ruthless, rich and powerful. And intelligent. A good read, although I could have done without the pause for the backstory.

[*] I would have rather said that the AI is the rider and the human the vehicle.


“The Wild Ones” by Albert E Cowdrey

The most regular of the regulars arrives in leaden boots with a work of humor. It seems that humanity, having ruined the Earth, long ago departed to ruin Proxima Centauri. Actually, it seems that the original departure from Earth was stimulated in part by a terrorist virus that turned the rest of the world’s species in a murderous frenzy on the humans – this information coming near the story’s end as an apparent afterthought from the author. The flora and fauna flourished in their absence, until someone on the new world got the bright idea of going back to the old one, which is to say, sending the dregs and scrapings from the prisons back to get rid of them.

On the starship Mahatma, things were already less than perfect, as they tended to be when people were around. The Recolonizers were an ill-starred and ill-assorted bunch. People who abandon their homes for an unknown country usually are losers of one sort or another — why else would they do something so dangerous and dumb? The present company was no exception.

The worst problem onboard is the presence of a brat nicknamed Mowgli for his feral ways, although surprisingly, given the murderers among the passengers, no one kills him before they reach Earth, or his little girlfriend. The homeworld proves to be unwelcoming to the returnees, the virus still being active in the animal population. Only Mowgli and his companion seem to be immune, and there’s a reason for that.

This one is not actively unfunny, although the humor is both heavy and predictable, predictably.

“Avianca’s Ghost” by Matthew Hughes

A Raffalon story. The thief carelessly gets taken by the Watch and sold at auction to pay his accumulated fines, becoming the property of a wizard who spell binds him to obey. His new master sends Raffalon to steal a potent magical item from a witch which whom he has a failed relationship, but it turns out that he isn’t really a very accomplished wizard and also underestimates his thief.

During this brief but fraught moment, Raffalon had been thinking quickly, then acting with equal speed. By the time the witch had completed her preparations, he had let go of the pole and retrieved Avianca’s Bezel from its hiding place. When Groger aimed at him and spoke the activating syllables, he was holding the lozenge between thumb and forefinger of his alienated hand, its rune-incised surface facing toward her.

Hughes is always a lot of fun. The series here is happily one that requires no backgrounding in the previous episodes for readers to enjoy fully. Plots and complications, as always, pile up satisfactorily during the course of this lengthy novelette. I was particularly taken by the description of the planes of existence, the mundane being the Third, with the Under and Overworlds above and below; most intriguing is the thought that below the Underworld there must be one worse.

“The Thing in the Back Yard” by David Gerrold

The narrator, who might be named David Gerrold, makes the mistake of telling an annoying acquaintance about his burglary problem. The acquaintance seizes the opportunity of foisting an unwelcome juvenile troll on him, ostensibly to frighten away intruders. The narrator doesn’t want little Emmett-Murray in his yard, but somehow he finds himself talked into it. And then can’t get rid of him when he becomes much bigger, smellier Emmett-Murray.

Essentially, this: if a troll doesn’t want to leave, there’s not much you can do about it. And the more you nurture a troll — the more you resent him — the more he thrives, the bigger he gets. You can go out on the patio and stand and stare and hate him intensely and watch him grow five centimeters per hour.

Moderately funny stuff, in the manic/absurd mode. Alas, it concludes with a pun.

“Marketing Strategies of the Apocalypse” by Oliver Buckram

Product placement in the End Times: “As you can see, bimonthlies are the ideal format for today’s busy readers.” He handed the magazine to Johnny. “I’d like to see one of those flimsy monthlies stop a bullet. And don’t get me started on online magazines.”

Once a newcomer whose witty stories greatly amused me, Buckram has unfortunately become a regular here, with the usual degradation of quality that this promotion seems to entail. You can tell a regular when you see him getting to make in-jokes about the venue. Fortunately very short.

“Sir Pagan’s Gift” by Tom Underberg

Sir Pagan is an alien voyager, come to this poor human village on his pilgrimage to spread the truth and found his own hive. Alas, the village’s truth threatens the powerful of this place, the fishmongers and the church, thus he is denounced and sentenced to death.

In the afternoon the village children come to watch Sir Pagan from the safety of the churchyard. He can smell the fisher children, rank and ripe; hear the labored breathing of logger children. Sir Pagan was kind to them and they grant what favors they can in return: a sip of water, a gentle touch, a hunk of hardened bread.

The fishmonger children come to throw stones.

The author is another newcomer to the zine’s pages, and his fable is engaging. Key to the tale’s success is the simple and repetitive narrative voice, giving the story a rhythmic pattern as events proceed with inevitability to the conclusion, the fulfillment of Sir Pagan’s quest, the triumph of his truth.

“Other People’s Things” by Jay O’Connell

Chris has never been able to get a date or make friends or get along with people. He knows there’s something wrong with him, so he goes to a consultant. Peebles is thorough. He does a complete analysis of Chris and concludes there’s lot of stuff wrong with him. He’s a mess. He has social deficits. “In lots of primate species, there are males that never reproduce. There are theories about them, what they’re good for. I won’t bore you. You don’t want to be one.”

This is sadly funny, sad because it’s too true. The humor comes primarily from the character of Peebles the consultant, who is quite a character indeed, and the blunt manner in which he delivers uncomfortable truths.

“The Culvert” by Dale Bailey

The lives of Douglas’s entire family were blighted after his twin brother Danny disappeared. They were thirteen years old, and they had secrets together, doing things they know their parents wouldn’t have allowed, like exploring the culvert out by the highway.

Like all children, we had our secret lives. We orbited a star of our own, as isolate and self-sufficient. Secrets were our watchword, lies our sigil of conspiracy.

There was a fissure in the side of the culvert, and it led into secret tunnels that were constantly changing. The boys kept going back, until the day they failed to keep close together, and Danny never came out.

This is a dark fantasy, in a mode that I might call magic realism. I think that even if the author hadn’t led with Danny’s loss, readers would know from the outset those tunnels were places where the boys should never go, that only tragedy could come of their explorations there, even before we realize that there is something unnatural about them. But kids have a strong need for there to be magical places in their lives. The author also wants to make the story about twin identity, but I don’t think that part works quite as well. The strong emotional loss here would be much the same if the boys were simply brothers or even friends.

“Embrace of the Planets” by Brenda Carre

The store that moves through space and time, only opening for the right people. One of those people is Eleanora. She’s seen the store named Trove many times, but it was never open until today, on the equinox. The proprietor knows she’s the right one when her cell phone rings inside the store, which it shouldn’t be able to do.

She told him things she’d never told another living soul before. How even before the accident she’d felt like some kind of changeling, born out of her own time and place, never fitting in.

A pretty shopworn premise, one of those so much beloved by SF readers who have always known in their hearts that they were changelings. The references to Verne give this one a slightly sinister tone and make it stand out, but not by much.

“Will He?” by Robert Reed

The best men were geniuses and curmudgeons, and they came home whenever they wished, giving orders to obedient wives before sitting in their studies, eating alone while doing their important work, and always, without exception, drinking whatever they damn well wanted to drink.

Or so Adelman’s father declared, making it clear that he was a man of that sort, and giving the boy the ambition to emulate him. But the son lacked the talent of his sire, and drank even more alcohol, and became increasingly embittered by an overcrowded world that failed to recognize his superiority. Thus he decided to create a virus to kill most of humanity, along with a vaccine to ensure that chosen persons would survive alongside himself — a boon that the chosen fail to appreciate as they ought.

Readers can never be sure just what they’ll find in a new Reed short, but it’s usually something unexpected. We might call Adelman a mad scientist, but this intimate portrait comes with an inconclusive ending that leaves us guessing, which is the idea.

“The Way We Are” by Ray Vukcevich

If This Goes On: “I need to think, I need to pee, I stand up and turn away and realize I don’t remember the password for my pants.” Gotta laugh, consider knocking my head against the wall.

Upgraded, edited be Neil Clarke

An anthology can be a strange thing. The editor developed this theme of artificial upgrades to the human design after a personal experience of being medically upgraded. His motto for the anthology is taken from the old bionic man TV show: Better . . . stronger . . . faster. All of which suggests a book full of positive, optimistic stories in which science and technology improve human lives by upgrading the abilities of the population and transforming us into a race of cyborgs. But what readers will find here is a book in which the stories are more often negative, in which artificial augmentation proves to be either an ill in itself or the means by which part of the population is exploited. The cyborg future imagined by a number of these authors may be stronger and faster, but whether it’s going to be better is questionable.

There are a lot of these futures here, twenty-six stories in about 350 pp. That’s a lot of stories, but it means that most of them are quite short; I regard the longest, by Ken Liu, as also one of the best. Readers of Clarkesworld will recognize the author lineup, with a fine selection of the genre’s newer stars. As we might expect, there are many different approaches to the cyborg idea. Quite a few of these pieces deal in the theme of memory; in many of them, the enhancements are mental, not simply physical. There are also a surprising number of references to ghosts.

“Always the Harvest” by Yoon Ha Lee

This opening piece sets a negative tone. We have a human colony settling into the ruins of a city that proves to be conscious and protean, reforming itself according to its own understanding of these new inhabitants.

From the walls grew tangles tendrils of wire, and the tendrils fused together into bones of strong composites, and the bones hinged together into hands, or feet, or hips sheathed in plastic or metal. There were eyes in every conceivable color, growing like fervent grapes from pillars, the sensors glittering pale and vigilant; there were infrared sensors and scanners and seismic analyzers.

Eventually, the human inhabitants develop an obsession with the various prosthetics, and the Harvest becomes the apparent foundation of life there. In this society, Nissaea is an outcast, an illegal scavenger in the mazeways and catacombs. There, she meets a strange person who turns out to be part of the city, having made itself part-human just as the humans have made the city part of themselves.

The prosthetics here are essentially symbolic of the defective human population. On any other basis, the premise simply makes no sense. The settlers haven’t adopted the machine parts to make themselves better, but because they confer status; it’s a fashion thing. Readers may feel sorry for the city, transforming itself to emulate such a flawed model. I can’t really consider either city or human society as credible, not an economy that apparently centers around mining spare parts for which they have no market but themselves.

“A Cold Heart” by Tobias S Buckell

The central character is a cyborg mercenary, a deadly killer once enthralled by alien masters who took her memories and held them hostage for her service. She will do anything to get them back, to know who she used to be. Thus she puts others and the future of humanity at risk for her own selfish purpose.

The character called Pepper definitely has a cold heart, or none, and I find her intensely unsympathetic – distasteful, in fact. Whether she finds her memories or not, I don’t care at all. She’s far too willing to pay in others’ lives for them. In consequence, I’m not much interested in the philosophical issue of the relationship between self and memory that she embodies. The cyborg element is peripheral to the story. Pepper undoubtedly couldn’t have accomplished what she did without her deadly augmentations, but that’s not what the story is about.

“The Sarcophagus” by Robert Reed

A Great Ship story, which means a story of immortality, as the population in this far, far future has been improved to the point where true, permanent death is a rarity. The Remoras live and work on the ship’s hyperfiber hull, protected by lifesuits that grow as part of themselves from the point of conception. The mass and velocity of the ship make it impractical for it to alter course in order to avoid collisions; repairing the consequent damage is the Remoras’ job. In the course of these events, the ship encounters a derelict lifesuit from a long ago ship. The wearer of this suit was out on the hull of his vessel to make a repair when an accident happened.

The starship was no more. There would be no rescue or even a sorrowful greeting from the black of space. An undeserving life had been delivered to this one creature, and it came for no good reason, and now his suffering would stretch into an eternity.

Until now, when the Great Ship crosses his path.

A lot to take in here. There are the cold equations of physics that govern the Ship’s movements, there is the Hard SF activity of the Remoras to minimize the damage of the anticipated impact, there is the existential despair of the solitary, doomed spacer. And there is time, almost unimaginable lifetimes, of which the longest belongs to the senior Remora called Orleans, whose job it is to instruct the young Remoras in the traditions of their craft. At the end, we find secrets and possibilities along with tragedy.

The Remoras are definitely cyborgs, human by descent but no longer form, as in this future they grow their enhancements and modify them at will. These are entirely necessary for them to survive and function in the environment of the Ship’s hull, exposed to the hazards of space. The stranded spacer, likewise, has modified his form, which probably wasn’t ever human. Yet what they have in common transcends mere species, and there is the heart of the story.


“Oil of Angels” by Chen Qiufan, translated by Ken Liu

In a world after some unexplained Catastrophe, people have been fitted with implants to erase the traumatic memories, at first of that event, then of all traumatic events. The narrator has gone further and had the associated emotions purged from her memories. But on a visit to an aromatherapy specialist, she finds herself unexpectedly thinking of her estranged mother. It seems that certain scents free buried memories, including epigenetic memories passed on by ancestors. A group of researchers are attempting to use these recovered memories to discover the long-erased truth about the Catastrophe. But the truth isn’t as simple as they had supposed.

The long passage of time and the multiple generations in between meant that the original memories had become blurred, twisted, broken, and were now mixed with the real memories of my mother and me, as well as the official explanations and propaganda about the Catastrophe.

The author is Chinese, and the story makes me think of the current Chinese government’s attempts to cover up and erase events from history that it doesn’t want the population to know about, lest they protest. The Catastrophe, I have to suspect, was likewise someone’s fault, someone who didn’t want to suffer blame or retribution and thus attempted to wipe all evidence of it from history. The story seems rather in sympathy with this impulse, preferring the reconciliation without the truth. “Too many things had changed. People needed time to adjust.” I rather wish the project had worked as the researchers had expected; that seems like kind of a neat historical idea, particularly if the premise, with its epigenetic memory, had been less contrived. The minimal cyborg element, the memory-blocking implant, is also pretty marginal, but definitely on the negative side.

“What I’ve Seen with Your Eyes” by Jason K Chapman

In this world, the slums lie in the exurbs, where the underclass lives, forced like Lisa Wei to sell the surface of her artificial eyeballs for advertising space. Lisa’s only family had been her brother Eddie, but he has just been murdered. The cops think Eddie was involved in some sophisticated netcrime.

“Someone hacked your eye feed,” Perez went on. “They used the ad stream to map the thing you saw over the killer’s real appearance. That’s pretty sophisticated stuff.”

This one has a definite cyberpunk sensibility, but it’s a pretty benign cyberpunk milieu. Despite the inescapable fact of Eddie’s murder, an originally suspicious Lisa discovers that the word isn’t as hostile as she had supposed. The setting is one in which the bionic element is exploited, but Lisa’s artificial eyes are, in themselves, a good thing; without them, she would be blind.

“No Place to Dream, but a Place to Die” by Elizabeth Bear


In the old days, back on Earth, they cooled and ventilated the mines with air blown over ice. These days, they just cool the miners. We huddle in our carapaces. We pack in our own oxy, our own H2O. It’s hot and toxic and tight down here, but we slip through like roaches in the walls of the world.

The narrator is an illegal miner working for the Syndicate, as opposed to the legal ones working for the Company. There’s not much difference between them, as the story illustrates, although the Company miners think of the others as ghosts, and they tap the Company’s supplies; sometimes, they engage in surreptitious trade, if the bosses and the guards aren’t looking. It all depends on who you owe, who owns you. Kely is working to set up a refiner in an obscure side tunnel when she [?] spots a lone Company miner coming in that direction; but before a confrontation is possible, a blocked pressure release explodes, trapping them together in the cave-in.

A survival story, as the two miners work together to get themselves out of a potentially deadly situation. Pretty gritty stuff. The cyberenhancements, the carapaces loaded with tools and manipulators, are completely essential to both the characters’ work and to their story. It’s also a good example of worker exploitation; hum Sixteen Tons to get in the spirit, because both characters owe their souls to the Company/Syndicate stores.

“Married” by Helena Bell

This is a sufficiently far future that we can’t know how things work. It’s an experimental material called Sentin, something along the lines of a nanomaterial, that possesses an awareness; when it senses imminent failure of some tissue, it reaches out and replaces it. The narrator’s husband has it; gradually, it’s replacing him. The narrator hates it. She claims that her husband is being taken over by a ghost.

When I realize I am pregnant, I do not tell them. I do not wish to give birth to a ghost child who will grow ghost teeth, whose hair will be silver and cold and will resist the care of my hands. I have no lessons for ghosts, no wisdom to impart on the dating of ghost boys.

The upgraded persons here are not what one would call cyborgs, but something else again, of a technology advanced beyond the cyber. It’s not an unalloyed success; there are a lot of failures in these experimental cases. But the narrator’s negativity has less to do with this fact than an overall refusal to accept the altered individual as the same person, as alive. This seems to be an irrational attitude; the narrator is clearly depressed, and we don’t really know if her husband’s alteration is the cause.

“Come from Away” by Madeline Ashby

YA. Hwa, having dropped out of school, has taken up bodyguarding, for which profession she has become duly enhanced. Today she starts work for a new rich and powerful client, guarding his teenage son against vague threats. Threats duly materialize, and Hwa dutifully meets them. But there are things about the scenario that just don’t seem to make sense, and at the conclusion, Hwa learns the reason.

Pretty standard stuff, which I’d like somewhat better if not for the YAness. Is it realistic to suppose that the dysfunctional institution of the American high school will still exist, totally unaltered, in a future such as this?

“Negative Space” by Amanda Forrest

Lan’s father knew too much, and now he’s been disappeared. Lan may know too much, as well, so Alexis spirited her away, and they’ve been on the run ever since, always just a step ahead of the corporate thugs. Lan has had enough. She plans to disappear herself and erase her dangerous memories, leaving Alexis free to take up her own life again. She already has the capacity to block and retrieve specific memories at will.

She just needed the guy to show up with the assembler cartridges. Her mind-melded nanocore was nearly complete. Just a few more assemblers to finish the storage for the really heavy-duty apps.

Clearly, this is cyberpunk-flavored stuff. Like the Buckell story, the issue is memory-wiping, except that Lan is sacrificing her own past for an altruistic reason, while Pepper’s past is held hostage against her will. An interesting aspect to the story is the doubt it raises about the motives of the corporate thugs; it seems a real possibility that Lan isn’t correct about what’s been going on, and her decision is going to be made on the basis of unreliable information. I’m not really convinced that Lan could have been quite so capable as to be installing and coding under the circumstances of the story; I would have preferred her more nearly ready from the beginning – less supergirl, more human.

“Fusion” by Greg Mellor

Glen is on a pilgrimage through an Earth evolving from flesh into metal, in consequence of what the inhabitants call a plague but actually seems to have an extraterrestrial origin. The transformation is plague-like because it so commonly involves pernicious mutations. In Glen, however, the evolution is different, particularly as he nears the epicenter of the contagion. He is becoming an angel.

As Glen points out, the plague isn’t doing a very good job yet messing with Earth’s lifeforms, but the overall tone here is optimistic, anticipating a new era of wonders.

Life is a series of new shores blending from one to another. The fusion of genetic forms within forms. The fusion of biological layers upon layers spanning immense periods of time. And here was yet another layer wrapped around the globe. Cybernetic fusing with flesh.

There is a difference here, in that this is directed evolution, not proceeding from natural selection. In either case, there is no nostalgia for the past or regret for what is being lost.

“Taking the Ghost” by A C Wise

Mac is a soldier lost on the battlefield and found by a scavenger who gives him a prosthetic arm to replace the one he lost, but the new arm needs a ghost in order to function. Fortunately[?] there are plenty of ghosts on the nearby battleground, but Mac discovers they have their own opinions and demands.

This unlikely premise doesn’t do anything for me. The prosthetic here is essentially a far-fetched plot device for invoking ghosts, who drive this tale of guilt and expiation.

“Honeycomb Girls” by Erin Cashier

Geo is a junk man in a dystopian postapocalypse future from which females seem to have disappeared, at least from the market and sites where he lives and works, scavenging and selling the ruins of the past. He is curious about the girls he has never seen. He knows that girls live in the Honeycomb Towers. “Depend on hive how many. Some hive ten to girl. Others, four, five. More money, less men.” One day a hive man comes to the market and spots a rare and valuable. Geo crafty, trades item for night in tower with girl. He becomes the new Number Four.

The character of Geo, with his distinctive voice, really makes this one. Geo has been created to be a junk man, but he knows what he knows, and he possesses a clear wisdom that makes him the superior of the hive men when on his own turf. When his customer produces cybergirls based on the items he obtained from Geo, the junk man knows the difference. “Junk-girl not girl. Junk men know junk when see it.” But it’s up to the reader to take his observations on his world and figure out how it has come to pass and where it is going. There’s also a poignancy here; Geo loves, in his own way, Sukilee, but their connection is doomed to be temporary. We wonder what became of her, what her future was, but Geo doesn’t know, and neither do we.

“The Regular” by Ken Liu

Following a tragic incident that resulted in her daughter’s death, Ruth Law has left the police force and set up as a private detective. She has the proper physical enhancements required for this job, but the one she relies on most is the Regulator, which filters out emotions and allows her to act solely on rational judgment. On the force, use of the Regulator was limited, but now that she’s on her own, Ruth keeps the function engaged almost constantly – which has its own emotional toll. Her current case is that of a murdered prostitute, whose mother has engaged her.

She still feels calm and completely rational, and she knows that the Regulator is doing its job. She’s sure that she’s making her decision based on costs and benefits and a realistic evaluation of the case, and not because of the hunched over shoulders of Sarah Ding, looking like fragile twin dams holding back a flood of grief.

The police have dismissed it as a gang hit, but Ruth correctly concludes that there is a serial killer at work.

The longest work in the collection, a meticulously-done procedural that makes good use of the cyberenhancements, both physical and mental. These are shown in a generally positive light, but the story makes it clear that they can be subject to abuse by people like Ruth. The only flaw that bothers me is the eye-camera used by many of the prostitutes in the story, an enhancement clearly well-known to them but completely unknown to the police, even to the vice squad. Hard to buy that.


“Tender” by Rachel Swirsky

A short list-type story that has to be viewed as fantasy rather than science fiction, as we are asked to conceive of a mad scientist turning the narrator’s blood vessels to steel overnight in his basement lab. But the point of all this is metaphorical, not literal, so the distinction isn’t greatly important. It’s a story of obsessive/possessive love, if love is a sickness. The narrator’s husband fears she will abandon him through suicide, so he makes her physically invulnerable. What isn’t clearly said is how he keeps her from abandoning him by walking out, but this is an easy exercise for the reader’s imagination. This is a guy who never heard: If you love them, set them free. It’s all a lot of very creepy imagery of love perverted. The frozen-fetus images are also strong and doubtless heavily freighted with symbolism, but it’s not clear to me what they’re in aid of. I think the author is trying too hard.

“Tongtong’s Summer” by Xia Jia, translated by Ken Liu

Grandpa has been injured and now he is moving into Tongtong’s house to recover. Grandpa’s forced inactivity makes him cranky, and instead of a nurse, her parents get him an experimental model of a robot as a caretaker. Tongtong notices that Ah Fu isn’t really a robot but a drone, operated remotely by one of the students who helped develop the program. Grandpa has noticed this too, and he decides he can operate his own drone.

He was dressed in a thin, grey, long-sleeved bodysuit, and a pair of grey gloves. Many tiny lights shone all over the gloves. He wore a set of huge goggles over his face, and he waved his hands about and gestured in the air.

Because of Grandpa, the elderly and infirm have the possibility of a new mobility and self-sufficiency.

This is definitely the most positive view of cyberenhancements, one that enhances the quality of life. It’s also a strongly heartwarming tale of people connecting with one another for the good of all. The author ends with a note dedicating it to all the grandmas and grandpas who, each morning, can be seen in the parks practicing taichi, twirling swords, singing opera, dancing, showing off their songbirds, painting, doing calligraphy, playing the accordion. An idyllic vision that makes me think it comes from a fantasy world, for I have never seen the like in my own milieu. I’d like to.

“Musée de L’Âme Seule” by E Lily Yu

A woman is badly injured in an accident and repaired with artificial organs, then sent to a city named Revival, inhabited by people with similar cyborganizations. Her lover can’t cope with her transformation. A man she’s attracted to rejects her. The only life she finds in the city is in the birds.

You listen to their quarrelling and think regretfully of your green and yellow budgies. Sweet-voiced things, your idea of love. They nuzzled your fingers and each other, unworried, content, knowing there’d be seeds in the feeder and water every morning.

The sight of the birds inspires her, quite a bit beyond acquiring another pair of budgies. It’s the first step, even if at first an apparent misstep.

The portrayal of cyberenhancements here is generally positive. They keep people alive who might otherwise have died, make them functional when they might otherwise be disabled. The problem lies not in the artificial organs but the society that rejects the different, the maimed and scarred, those unsightly in the eyes of this world. The title refers to the lonely soul, the individual alone in an unloving world. The second-person narrative may at first seem affected, but it turns out to be one of the most effective uses of this device that I’ve ever seen.

“Wizard, Cabalist, Ascendant” by Seth Dickinson

A post-civilization world caught between two incompatible paradigms, both based on the same Haldane nanomech infrastructure, which it is left to the reader to infer. It was Connor’s dream, to uplift the human population via the Haldane network to a singularity based [corrupted from] on the ideas of Teilhard de Chardin; in his vision, he would be the one to lead and direct humanity in the optimal direction. Tanya had a different idea; she released the infrastructure into the wild, free and undirected, ensuring diversity. But she has retained the key to a back door through which she can access every mind in the network – effectively all humanity. Now, years later, she has come to reassess what she has done, accompanied by the mental simulations of Connor and another companion, a neutral figure she trusts. Conner’s geist continues to accuse her of ruining civilization. She’s concerned that he could be right, that freedom is fundamentally unstable.

The truth is that Tanya’s been gone so long, deep in the self-catalysis trance, that she’s not sure she can relate to anyone else on Earth a more than a child. It’s the wizard syndrome, the weight of age and power, and it’s coming on hard.

Essentially a story about playing god, because programming people to be free is still programming, still depends on control. All the players here are infected with ultimate hubris, and that’s scary. History tells us too many stories of good intentions gone amok. There’s an interesting concept imbedded in all this: agnosia, a predetermined not-knowing of a particular thing, a selective [or selected] ignorance. It’s telling that Tanya needs this device to retain control.

“Memories and Wire” by Mari Ness

A love story, of sorts. James has a girlfriend, of sorts, a cyborg who does top-secret work for the government, and she has a problem: she needs human touch. It’s a hormonal thing, it balances her system and keeps her body from rejecting her implants. Sort of.

Parts of her were fragile, very fragile. Even the parts that could rip him apart. And hideously expensive. Many of her parts would be recycled afterwards. Possibly in other bodies.

Now her systems are failing, and there’s nothing he can do.

Love works in strange ways. Rationally, there would seem to be no place for it in this very uneven relationship. N never displays it. But in her wires, there are memories. I like the way James balances disgust with what he’s doing with the love he can’t quite admit. His sense of helplessness is well-portrayed.

“God Decay” by Rich Larson

Ostap is a cyborg superman, created as a scientific experiment, who has gone on to be an athletic superstar, the world having moved on to allowing augmentations and enhancements in sport/entertainment. Now he discovers his body is failing, and both he and the doctor who created him confront the consequences of their decision. This one is essentially Achilles’ choice, with a kind of distasteful taste as we see Ostap’s revulsion at the natural aging of his former lover.

“Small Medicine” by Genevieve Valentine

Sofia’s grandmother had a copy of herself made, although Sophia can tell the difference. Grandmother is a robot, not a cyborg; the cyborg is Sophia, who has nanomed to cure what may have been leukemia. Sophia both resents the artificial grandmother for taking her real one’s place and feels sorry when people switch her off or have her reprogrammed to be more convenient. But she comes to feel that they are both, in different senses, artificial; she has a strong sense of personal dignity. This one explores the nature of personhood and finds it often violated. I get a definite sense of unease with this world, where such cyber-advances are restricted by price to the moneyed elite, the only people we see here, although it’s clear there are others, to whom Sophia’s problems might seem like blessings.

“Mercury in Retrograde” by Erin Hoffman

Cyberpunk, the purest of example of it here. Eleven years ago, Jennifer ran away from her controlling plutocrat mother and became Mercury, a successful social media consultant. But she unwisely ignores the warning of her PDA when she downloads a new app from an untrustworthy source, and she finds herself with only hours to get it out of her system, if she can evade her pursuers.

The story is all action, not much more, as Mercury has to cope without the enhancements she’s grown to depend on.

The doors opened on the lobby level, swarmed as usual with the human detritus of the evening commute. Heads turned as she stepped out of the elevator, glances lingered – were they scanning her? A passing cyclist swiveled his helmet toward her, and a mist of viz clouded over his left eye – what was he pulling up?

“Coastlines of the Stars” by Alex Dally MacFarlane

Ngoc is an individual who leads a lifestyle of isolation, largely filtered through her array, and who possesses an acute tactile sense. She is attracted to the work of the artist Sermi Hu, whose work has tactile elements:

Waves drawn in white on dark blue in neat and intricate details, moving rhythmically across the screen. She stepped closer. The white lines were raised: touchable. She held a hand to them.

Waves moved against her.

Sermi is particularly notable for her maps, which are also available in three dimensional forms. But Sermi has been missing for a year, presumed dead in the Ivuultu debris field, which she had been attempting to map. It seems that the scavengers [wreckers, I would call them] of Ivuultu have set up an array of traps to ensnare unwary starships; the debris would seem to be their discarded remains. No one has ever successfully navigated these traps, but the reward for retrieving Sermi’s body is large enough that some people are ready to try. And Ngoc, having studied her maps, both the maps she made in Ivuultu and her star map, thinks Sermi had discovered the secret before she was caught. Unfortunately, Ngoc isn’t verbal, so she can’t tell us exactly how it works; she feels it.

The cyborg element here is minimal. The arrays that Ngoc works with are essentially an advanced version of our cyberspace, and her unusual abilities appear to be natural, not an artificial enhancement. There’s nice imagery, and good interaction between the primary characters, but we have to take Ngoc’s insight too much on faith. The character may not be verbal, but written stories should be.

“The Cumulative Effects of Light over Time” by E Catherine Tobler

This one begins, at least, as military SF. It seems that about a decade ago, the prisoners on a vast alien ship revolted, and in consequence the vessel crashed into Earth. The prisoners had bred onboard, and their [nonsentient?] young are starved, ravenous, insatiable; when they devoured a division of human soldiers, desperate war naturally ensued. In order to save many of the human casualties, surgeons spliced them together, forming chimerical cyborgs with advanced abilities, such as Lilliana, our narrator, whose story is often interrupted by comments from her other part. There is now an uneasy peace, with the aliens stranded on Earth and recognition that hostilities had not been intentional. But both species, and the planet, have been altered beyond retrieval. Now Lilliana has been sent with one of the aliens to search for an abducted alien hiveling somewhere in the derelict ship, sunk miles into the Earth.

The text here is quite dense, largely consisting of descriptions of mud, and the two parts of the narrator are increasingly engaged in conversation with each other, until their voice is merged. As a cyborg/chimera, Lilliana’s enhanced abilities are useful, but as the two-species pair of would-be rescuers reaches the heart of the wreck, they find much more profound changes going on, and a melding process that is monstrous, literalizing the narrator’s image of the ship as Dante’s circles of hell. At which point, things get incoherent and quasi-mystical, while the process through which these alterations have come to pass remains not just mysterious but impossible to conceive, given the limited and subjective information supplied by the narrator/s.

“Synecdoche Chronicles” by Benjanun Sriduangkaew

This is another chip from the mosaic of the author’s far-future history involving a revolution against an all-ruling Hegemony. Charinda has had her internal organs replaced by a ribcage holding a cyberpeacock [with teeth, that sings] by the outlaw cyberneticist Esithu, to whom she now has onerous obligations. One of these involves a renegade general from the Hegemony who wants to consult her; Charinda’s specialty is simulations of hostile societies in virtual wars, but she hesitates to be complicit in the genocide of billions. General Lunha is also a cyborg, although her augmentations are less overt than Charinda’s; still the general manages to switch from male to female in the course of an hour [which makes me wonder what this means, and how Charinda could tell]. While they come to an agreement, each has ulterior motives.

This one is all imagery, fantastic, exotic, with a strong whiff of the decadent; a Lucullan dish of “ape ears, studded at lobes and whorls with pearly roe, braised in oyster essence” may be entertaining, but turning genocide into a passing fad, consumed with slices of persimmon, is not. But scraping all that frosting away leaves little else. The characters are mannequins under their costumes and the setting is all surface ornament. Without connection to the rest of the work in this universe, it has no context and thus makes little sense. Other related stories have had substance; this one, not so much.

“Collateral” by Peter Watts

More normative military SF here, specifically military ethics. Cyborg corporal Becker opens fire on a civilian fishing vessel, her augments reacting automatically to the perceived threat before her conscious mind realized it existed. This creates existential doubt in Becker and a big PR headache as well. PR decides to cast Becker as the victim, showcasing her regret and confusion. But the psych guys run her through a lot of simulations and to pinpoint and fix her PTSD problem.

All those devil’s bargains and no-win scenarios. All those exercises that tore her up inside. Turned out they were part of the fix. They had to parameterize Becker’s remorse before they could burn it out of her.

[Philosophical Exegesis: One of the classical exercises in ethical theory is called the Trolley Problem. In it, a trolley is closing rapidly on five people tied to the track. The subject has the chance to save them if he throws the switch that will shift the trolley to a side track, but there is one person tied to the side track. This is a forced option; there is no alternative or middle ground, and not choosing an option is itself a choice. At least one person will die, whatever the subject decides. In the scenario, the decision is considered as purely rational, with no emotional component – a matter of calculation, metrics for better or worse outcomes.]

Becker’s treatment is a success; one of her therapists calls her now “the most ethical person on the planet.” But gone are the non-rational aspects of her mind: “the compassion, the empathy, the guilt. The moral center.” It’s common but not universal in philosophy to make this distinction between the ethical and the moral, but Becker interestingly associates the moral with strength of attachment, with personal and subjective factors. Good food for thought. This is a clear case of the cyber-augmentation being itself morally neutral but abused by authorities.

“Seventh Sight” by Greg Egan

Teenaged Jake has had retinal implants for twelve years in order to prevent the hereditary blindness that once cursed his family. They work well. But now he has decided to hack the implants with a new app that promises vision in a seven-color spectrum instead of the usual three. At first, everything appears garish, but eventually he comes to appreciate his enhanced sight.

The ocean stretched out before us, as alien as if our last dozen steps had carried us a thousand light years. But then, even more alarmingly, the impossibly rich skeins of currents and ripples, patches of seaweed and changes of depth and turbidity, flexed like a vacillating optical illusion and settled firmly inside my old memories of the scene. What I perceived was no longer extraterrestrial: this was the same blue-green, white-foamed water I’d known all my life.

Jake now centers his life around his seven-color vision and finds his friends among a small group of similarly-abled hepts; he marries a hept woman, an artist who paints in their spectrum. At the same time, he slacks off in the trichromal world, making a living using his enhanced sight to cheat at cards in casinos. Then technology begins to develop visual apps that give tris a glimpse at the same visual world as hepts, and Jake’s abilities become unmarketable.

A nice lesson story, in which an enhancement proves to be a positive factor only if the recipient develops it productively. Jake is shown at many points in his life, facing him with options and following him down the paths he takes, for better or worse. Where I have trouble is with the unspecified hereditary blindness that seems to take every [male?] member of Jake’s family. And were all the other hepts that he encounters also blind in the same way? The author has slighted this matter.

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

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.

Tim Pratt reviews Darin Bradley

I said nice things in these pages a while back about Darin Bradley’s debut novel Noise, an ambitious book about a slow-motion apocalypse, with economic collapse triggering a breakdown of order in the United States, and young people trying to forge a new and brutal system of morality and pragmatism that would allow them to survive the aftermath. I mention that novel because his follow-up Chimpanzee is, while not a sequel in terms of plot and character, very much a sequel in terms of philosophy and worldview – the author describes Chimpanzee as the second in a ‘‘thematic cluster’’ of three books begun with Noise, to conclude with the forthcoming Totem.

The milieu of Chimpanzee is an American city in the midst of the ‘‘New Depression,’’ a near future of economic disaster with chronic unemployment and little in the way of hope or prospects. There hasn’t been a breakdown of governmental order like the one in Noise, though – in this case, the government is tightening its fist, using fear and violence to keep the citizenry in line. The ‘‘Homeland Renewal Project’’ looks, at first glance, like the Works Project Administration from the Great Depression, with citizens working on infrastructure projects… except those forced to work for Renewal are debtors or people who didn’t pay their parking tickets or taxes. They labor under the watchful eyes of armed guards, and their responsibilities include acting as ‘‘monitors’’ – spying on their fellow citizens in secret and reporting crimes and unpatriotic behavior, fostering an atmosphere of extreme social distrust. It’s a grim scene.

Narrator Benjamin Cade is (or was) a scholar, with advanced degrees in literature and literary theory, but when he lost his job, he couldn’t pay his student loans. As a result, he’s forced to work for Renewal… but things are even worse than that. One of the cleverest, and nastiest, extrapolations Bradley makes in this novel is the idea that one’s education can be repossessed if student loans aren’t paid off. As a result, Cade has to attend mandatory therapy, where his counselor uses drugs to gradually strip away everything Cade learned in his years of higher education: all his knowledge of literature, rhetoric, logic, semiotics, and propaganda, burying the knowledge behind potent mental blocks. Taking away his education inevitably damages some of his related memories, too, and since he met his wife Sireen in graduate school, the therapy impinges on his first memories of her, and the beginning of their relationship. (The refrain ‘‘it’s important to remember that I love my wife’’ takes on several different meanings as the book goes on.)

Cade feels his loss of status even more keenly because his wife still has her job as a math professor, and his best friend Dmitri still works at the college, too. They do their best to keep Cade’s spirits up, even as his sense of self erodes. In an attempt to fill his days and do something meaningful before his education dissipates, Cade starts teaching classes for free in the park, on rhetoric, and the manipulative qualities of language, and the slipperiness of meaning. He develops a following, with some calling him a new Socrates, a teacher for the people, and some of his students draw Cade into an underground barter and gift economy, frowned upon by the government, but rich in possibility, giving him some sense of purpose again.

The other major SFnal element here, beyond education repossession, is ‘‘chimping’’ – wearing special goggles that allow users to temporarily experience altered psychological and emotional states. Users can choose to experience paranoia, or OCD, or other disorders, and later, even experience the thought processes of other humans – couples can ‘‘chimp’’ the experiences of another couple that’s wildly in love, for example, inhabiting their mental state. A connection is gradually revealed between the technology that lets the government siphon off Cade’s memories and the process that lets users experience the memories and mindsets of others, and illicit, illegal chimping gives access to forbidden experiences and thought processes. Conspiracies swirl around Cade, with his bosses in Renewal, his students, associated revolutionaries, and even his loved ones working on their own projects, with Cade as a pawn or a linchpin in various plans, manipulated even as he struggles to hold on to his sense of self.

Bradley’s sophomore effort is just as ambitious as his debut, and his voice is more assured, his characters better delineated. Chimpanzee isn’t cheerful stuff, but there’s a revolutionary zeal, and a belief in the power of the mind to effect change in the world, that provides some light in this otherwise bleak dystopia. I’m excited to see what Totem brings.

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‘A Black-and-White Movie, in More Ways Than One’: A Review of The Giver

by Gary Westfahl

The chief virtue of The Giver, perhaps, is that it will encourage more people to read its inspiration, Lois Lowry’s The Giver (1993), a novel for young readers that is nonetheless profound and magical and would not be out of place in a college class focused on utopian and dystopian literature. If the film as a whole is less impressive, that is largely because the executives governing contemporary Hollywood, like the oppressive Elders of Lowry’s world, relentlessly enforce a set of rules which drain all of the color and individuality out of every item that comes under their control. Screenwriters Michael Mitnick and Robert B. Weide could justifiably protest that they were generally faithful to Lowry’s story, but their departures from the novel are both telling and subtly destructive to its spirit and message.

From the viewpoint of her protagonist, twelve-year-old Jonas, Lowry evocatively described a future society that has eliminated conflict and violence by suppressing all human emotions and idiosyncrasies – even color vision and music have been taken away, presumably for fear that these might arouse dangerous passions. Only the Receiver of Memories is allowed to remember the full variety of past human experiences, so he can provide advice to the community’s Elders, and Jonas, chosen to become his successor, begins to absorb the memories of the Receiver – now termed “the Giver” – as he transfers his memories to Jonas. Although both Jonas and readers come to recognize that this apparently idyllic world is actually oppressive and unsatisfying, Lowry was careful to convey that its creators had excellent reasons for their initiatives which could be intelligently defended, and the superiority of our own society remains a matter of debate. Jonas’s final decision to leave his community, allowing his memories to be released to everyone, was pictured as an event that will cause his society to evolve, yet not be destroyed; after he departs, he easily avoids a few pursuing planes, but it is unclear at the end of the novel whether he will survive to find happiness in a group more to his liking (though we learn that he does in one of Lowry’s loose sequels to this novel, Messenger [2004]).

Reading this summary, anyone could have predicted how a team of producers would react: no, no, no, ambiguity and uncertainty are bad; we must have heroes and villains, the sharp, black-and-white conflict of traditional melodrama; from the get-go, it must be crystal clear that this society is 100% evil; rather than vague, unseen oppressors, we must introduce sinister characters that audiences can despise as they oppose and threaten Jonas at every moment; instead of his rather placid escape, hey, we could suddenly turn all of those bicycles that people are riding into motorbikes and have an exciting chase scene – that would be original! – and, of course, we somehow have to slip in a love story for all the women in the audience and provide the story with a completely happy ending.

So, in the film, Jonas (Brenton Thwaites) and his friends are elevated to the age of eighteen, so that his friend Fiona (Oyesa Rush) can become his girlfriend and do some passionate kissing; the Chief Elder (Meryl Streep), who only appears once in the novel, is refashioned as a major character and as Jonas’s chief opponent, constantly conspiring against him and other potential rebels in the manner of Donald Sutherland’s President Snow in The Hunger Games and its sequel (reviews here and here); Jonas’s other friend Asher (Cameron Monaghan), a fun-loving fellow who becomes the Assistant Director of Recreation in the novel, is here assigned to serve as a drone pilot and grows somber and unlikable as he tries to prevent Jonas’s escape and chases him through the countryside; and Jonas’s mother (Katie Holmes), only mildly unsympathetic in the novel, eagerly enlists in the film’s Society of Super-Villains to bedevil Jonas and Fiona.

All of these changes have reverberating, and damaging effects, on the story. In the novel, despite his youth, Jonas was presented as a remarkably intelligent young man; here, Thwaites’s Jonas seems annoyingly stupid, as he openly and repeatedly violates his orders to keep his training a secret by trying to share each of his new discoveries with family members and friends. But he has to do something to attract the attention of the Chief Elder and provoke her next inimical move. The Chief Elder appears to be capable of observing every single one of Jonas’s actions – except at the times when she actually needs to – and her ruthlessly efficient minions suddenly turn into incompetent Keystone Kops when they attempt to capture Jonas. But of course, he has to escape somehow against all odds, even though one successful maneuver is so incredibly implausible that Jonas is obliged to describe it as “a miracle.” The Chief Elder’s eventual decision to arrest and imprison the Giver (Jeff Bridges) seems absolutely senseless, as it is clearly violates the rules and is also unnecessary, since she can keep him under control in other ways. But it does show how thoroughly evil she is, just in case there were still a few people in the audience who didn’t yet realize that she was a dirty rotten so-and-so.

Other ways that Lowry’s story has been altered are relatively inconsequential, but bemusing nonetheless. Everyone knows that Bigger Is Better, so there are 150 youths, not 50 youths, in Jonas’s graduating class, and the buildings one observes seem larger and grander than one would expect from reading the novel. The film eliminates Lowry’s vague geography and places all of the communities on a high plateau, with the Giver’s house dramatically positioned at its edge. The Giver conveys his memories to Jonas by grabbing his arms, instead of touching his back, because, you know, characters who interact are supposed to maintain eye contact. To quickly convey that the baby Gabriel (Alexander Jillings and James Jillings) is really special, he is given a mark on his wrist which corresponds to a similar mark on the Giver’s wrist and Jonas’s wrist (yet if there is indeed a birthmark which distinguishes someone as a potential Receiver of Memories, such an individual would never, like Gabriel, be short-listed for infanticide).

Still, while one can complain at length about the ways that the film fails to do justice to Lowry’s novel, published for readers in 1993, a film adaptation also has to be considered on its own terms, as an original creation designed for viewers in 2014. And, as it turns out, the film actually has some interesting things to say about the young people who were undoubtedly envisioned as its major audience.

As a minor matter, the film is first a commentary on how advances in technology have altered people’s perceptions of film. Since The Giver is a movie that begins in black-and-white and then shifts to color, corresponding to Jonas’s gradual acquisition of color vision, one invariably recalls the classic film which did the same thing, The Wizard of Oz (1939). But in 1939, black-and-white films were standard and color films were rare, so it was natural for the filmmakers to represent the real world of Kansas as black and white and to provide color for the fantasy land of Oz. But today, virtually all films – even videos taken by smartphone cameras – are in color, and black-and-white film is an oddity, so it is now appropriate for director Philip Noyce to represent Jonas’s false, constricted society as black and white, while the colors he learns to see represent the real world that he is discovering. This, I think, offers an interesting opportunity for contemporary makers of fantasy and science fiction films: to make their imagined environments seem strange and unreal, it might make sense to film them in black and white, or in the forms of tinted black and white that once were occasionally employed. I recall that in The Angry Red Planet (1959), the tinted red scenes on the Martian surface were surprisingly disconcerting; having modern actors suddenly find themselves in a black and white world – or a blue and white world – might be effective as well.

The film is also far more emphatic than the novel in arguing that Jonas’s world is tragically lacking in cultural diversity, as well as other sorts of variety. Lowry notes only that “There was a time … when flesh was many different colors,” but “Today flesh is all the same.” Yet different cultures as well as different races figure prominently in the memories that Jonas receives; except for his initial ride on a sled to an isolated house and a glimpse of civil rights protesters, virtually every scene seems to take place in a different country and foregrounds exotic, colorful ceremonies and activities. And in this international spirit, the film accords perfectly with contemporary values that were not yet dominant in 1993. Still, to epitomize everything that is missing in this society, the film does fall back on the comfortingly familiar image of an old-fashioned Christmas, complete with the singing of “Silent Night.”

The film further reveals that its community, in at least one respect, is precisely similar to our own, in that there is a desire to protect young people from painful emotions and experiences, and the film suggests that this is perfectly appropriate. After all, the person previously chosen to become the new Receiver, Rosemary (Taylor Swift), was so disturbed by her first exposure to unpleasant feelings that she immediately asked to be killed, and Jonas also becomes rather unhinged after one jarring memory and announces that he is quitting, unable to endure any more of the same. (One scene underlines that the reactions of Rosemary and Jonas were eerily similar.) If youths are indeed this fragile, as both this film and many contemporary educators would argue, it seems incongruous that Jonas resolves that all of his awful memories must be shared by everyone – even though, as is made explicit in the novel, the Giver will be staying behind when Jonas leaves to function as a sort of “grief counselor” to the suddenly distraught citizens.

The film also stresses the negative effects of pain through the character of its Giver, who is significantly different from Lowry’s Giver. In the novel, he is unfailingly kind, gentle, and helpful to Jonas; he always answers his questions, and never gets angry at him. In contrast, Bridge’s Giver is gruff and sometimes secretive; he refuses to answer a few questions; he sometimes snarls at his protégé; and he regularly conveys that he doesn’t want to be where he is, doesn’t want to be doing what he’s doing. Perhaps this was all just another way that the filmmakers sought to add drama to the story, or to remind audiences that he continues to suffer from the loss of Rosemary, but it also suggests that the Giver is suffering from the cumulative effects of absorbing and retaining all of that pain and torment, making him unable to relax, enjoy himself, and be nice to other people. Still, I felt that this revised version of Lowry’s character was unfortunate, making the Giver much less sympathetic, though I suspect the root cause was an actor who took the wrong approach to his performance and a director who could not criticize him because, as one of the film’s producers, he was also his boss.

(To digress, this suddenly makes me think that the film was understandably, but tragically, miscast; Bridges and Streep should have switched roles. After all, there is no reason why the Giver has to be a man, and Streep surely could have made the character more nuanced and appealing; instead, her talents were wasted on the undemanding chore of portraying a one-dimensional villainess. And Bridges seems more suited to portray a determined, dedicated opponent than an avuncular advisor. There was also a missed opportunity in the film’s misuse of Taylor Swift; surely, if the producers had resolved to cast a famous singer as someone with musical talent, they should have given her a song to sing. Better yet, they should have hired her to write and perform an original song that probably would have been far more memorable that Ryan Tedder’s uninspired “Ordinary Human.”)

Finally, while it is usual for commentators to focus on the issues that a film is concerned about, it is very interesting to notice one conspicuous matter that this film is not concerned about, namely, its society’s pervasive surveillance technology. As in the novel, all citizens are constantly under observation and, if they are misbehaving, a speaker impersonally prods them to stop; the film adds the information that all of their actions are also being videotaped, so that when she asks, the Chief Elder can obtain and watch a filmed compilation of every single one of Jonas’s actions since the time he was chosen to become the new Receiver. But nobody complains about this; nobody ever says, “I’m tired of living in a society that is constantly watching everything I do and say”; this society is said to need more emotions, more pain, more diverse experiences, but no one seems to want or need more privacy. This is, to be sure, a film aimed at younger people who, the pollsters keep telling us, seem far less concerned than their elders about protecting their private information from public scrutiny, and even many adults are coming to accept the notion of installing cameras to record all activities in public places. The film suggests that, as an inevitable extension of these trends, people in the future may embrace having cameras in their private places as well. The sound you hear is George Orwell, doing a 360 in his grave.

The film is also willfully circumspect regarding the role of religion in past and future human societies, despite faint indications, already referenced, that it is also a Christmas movie, and hence a Christian movie. In the novel, there was always something Christ-like about the manner in which the Giver absorbed painful memories in order to allow other people to avoid pain; he identifies his favorite memory as an extended family’s Christmas celebration; and the baby’s name, Gabriel, is also the name of the angel who announced Jesus’s birth. The film goes a bit further: one scene indicates that all of the trees in Jonas’s society are artificial, with branches that screw in, like artificial Christmas trees; as he learns to perceive colors, the predominant colors he sees are red and green; and Jonas is finally observed approaching a home decorated for Christmas with a baby that is precisely twelve months old, and hence was born on or around Christmas. Perhaps, since Jonas announces that he will return, he will bring Gabriel with him so he can become a new Receiver of Memories who, in the manner of Christ, will continue to provide some comfort for a society that has now absorbed some, but not all, of humanity’s painful and variegated memories of the past. Yet in a society dedicated to celebrating diversity, including diverse religions like Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, and Hinduism, a filmmaker may now feel obliged to make any references to a specific religion very subtle indeed, so much so that the pattern I discern here, I readily admit, may be entirely coincidental.

This related to one other way in which The Giver seems dull and monochromatic: its relentless avoidance of controversy. Perhaps the film declined to criticize its society’s surveillance policies for fear of seeming too political, just as the Christmas references were muted for fear of seeming too religious. And it is always safer to direct one’s ire at fanciful, imaginative villains like the Chief Elder than to openly attack any of the real villains (choose your own examples) who are actually oppressing contemporary citizens. This, one might say, represents Hollywood’s Plan for Sameness, which as Jonas learned does get tiresome after a while.

Gary Westfahl has published 24 books about science fiction and fantasy, including the Hugo-nominated Science Fiction Quotations: From the Inner Mind to the Outer Limits (2005), A Sense-of-Wonderful Century: Explorations of Science Fiction and Fantasy Films (2012), and William Gibson (2013); excerpts from these and his other books are available at his World of Westfahl website. He has also published hundreds of articles, reviews, and contributions to reference books, and he has appeared in two nationally televised documentaries. His next book, the three-volume A Day in a Working Life: 300 Trades and Professions through History, will be available in early 2015.

Paul Di Filippo reviews Ben Bova

Ben Bova has forgotten more about science fiction than most of us will ever learn—and yet he still knows a hellacious amount, at the venerable and bountifully creative age of eighty-two. Since his first publication—The Star Conquerors, a YA SF novel in 1959, long before that kind of accomplishment became a trendy career move—he’s had 130 further books appear, and also edited Analog in the hard-shoes-to-fill interval after John Campbell’s death, as well as the fiction department of hot and trendy Omni afterwards. When you add to his CV his presidency of SFWA and his work in the aerospace industry, he emerges as a true Renaissance figure, central to the genre’s history. Probably not of the magnitude of a Fred Pohl, but certainly built along the same lines.

Of course, storytelling has always been his first claim to fame, and the fourteen tales in this new volume uphold his reputation splendidly. John Clute characterizes Bova’s niche as an old-school, straightforward, earnest booster of the quintessential ad astra pioneer philosophy at the genre’s roots and heart. But while many of the stories here hew to that outlook, the variety of others indicates a wider scope of ambition.

One note. Breaking its drought of short-story collections, Tor has done its usual fine job of crafting this volume, which features a beautiful cover by John Harris, except for their inexplicable decision to omit the copyright notices for the first publications of these pieces. Not a good or acceptable practice. Luckily for us, an Amazon reviewer named Arthur W. Jordin has kindly sourced the stories and posted the info, which I reproduce here, after verifying. Tor owes him a small stipend for doing some of their editorial work.

Sam Gunn is Bova’s Mike Fink-style folkloric demiurge, a typically American larger-than-life character, and all the stories in his cycle are tall tales told in jolly fashion. “Sam Below Par” (Analog, 2012) is no exception, as it features the building of the Moon’s first open-to-the-vacuum golf course. Recounted not by Gunn himself but by a Watson-type figure, the story features some romantic entanglements but, refreshingly, neither villainy nor violence.

The slower-than-light starship Sagan, heading toward Gliese 581 in “A Country for Old Men” (Going Interstellar, 2012), includes a dangerously bossy AI, lots of young adventurers and a single 140-year-old man, Dr. Ignatiev, our hero. Melancholy and isolated, Ignatiev eventually becomes the only one who can wrest the mission from the blindly self-destructive AI, coming to new self-realizations along the way.

Bova’s wonted plain style of prose adopts a sly and sarcastic edge in “In Trust” (Tombs, 1995). A billionaire dying of cancer thinks he’s found the perfect way to protect his wealth during his cryonic layover. He succeeds better than he planned, but with a certain “biter bitten” result.

Reminding me of a story Asimov would have written in a past era, or Nancy Kress would write today, “The Question” (Analog, 1998) deals with big philosophical issues revolving around a First Contact event. The shifts in POV from person to person lend it a neat structural experimentalism as well.

“‘We’ll Always Have Paris’” (original to this volume) is a short sequel to the famous film Casablanca, nothing more nor less. What distinguishes this little gem from mere fan fiction is ingenuity, the level of professionalism and a fidelity to the original.

As in “…Old Men,” the central dramaturgical configuration in “Waterbot” (Analog, 2008) is a human pilot and a ship’s AI. But the tone of the story and the relationship between the pair could not be more different, as our water prospector out in the Asteroid Belt finds himself in an intricate dance of survival against pirates with only his silicon partner to rely on.

Like some kind of future reality show, the vehicular competition in “Moon Race” (Jim Baen’s Universe, 2008) features memorable competitiors and some lateral thinking that is first punished, then rewarded. Hal Clement comes to mind as someone who might have turned out a similar piece, were he still with us.

A parable of twentieth-century events, “Scheherazade and the Storytellers” (Gateways, 2010) nonetheless remains lively and entertaining on its surface level, as we discover exactly where Scheherazade derived all her fabulistic prowess.

“Duel in the Somme” (Apex, 2006) forms a duet with “Bloodless Victory” (the title story of ebook Bloodless Victory, 2011). Both deal with the early forays into virtual reality, mainly for use as a “duelling machine,” and while neither possess the sophistication of, say, Ready Player One, they both have fun within their narrow boundaries.

Three scientists stranded on Mars heroically manage to continue their work into the mystery of the native methanogens in “Mars Farts” (, 2013). Their mortal dilemma proves to dovetail with their intellectual quest.

Employing a classic O’Henry-via-Heinlein ending, “A Pale Blue Dot” (Digital Book Production, 2013) finds a young lad loose in an astronomical observatory, where a wrong move could produce disaster.

“Inspiration” (F&SF, 1994) finds a time-traveler arranging a pivotal meeting among H. G. Wells, Lord Kelvin, and young Einstein, before his plans for the future run up against human biases.

Playing in the universe of Gordon Dickson’s “Call Him Lord”, “The Last Decision” (Stellar #4, 1984) is my favorite story of the volume, and a smart selection for the capstone. The Emperor of the Hundred Worlds finds himself in his waning days forced to make a Solomonic decision whose precise outlines elude him. Bova’s nuanced autumnal mood showcases some outstanding writing and pacing.

I once had a discussion with critic John Clute about Harry Harrison’s career-topping collection, 50 in 50. I was trying to puzzle out why the tales seemed almost alien now in their lineaments. Not fusty or wrong-headed or dull, for they still lived and gripped, but just anachronistic. Clute said, “The world is not narrated this way anymore.”

Ben Bova’s tales feel a bit like this. But he disproves Clute’s assertion, being an active, practicing writer who still manages to garb the mysteries and glories and tragedies of creation in clothes first tailored by all the SF geniuses who preceded him.

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.

Adrienne Martini reviews Rachel Bach

The advantage to not really noticing Rachel Bach’s Paradox trilogy until April 2014 is that they’d all been published by then and I could devour all three books without delay. This is a good thing.

These three titles – Fortune’s Pawn, Honor’s Knight, and Heaven’s Queen – tell the story of Devi Morris, a young female mercenary fresh out of her mandatory years of service. Devi is looking for a new gig, one that will lead to her becoming a Devastator, a member of an elite group of military muscle in the Paradoxian planetary system. She signs on with a captain whose ex-guards almost always are drafted by the Devastators – if they can survive their year of service on this captain’s ship. It’s not a given, not even for the talented Devi, who quickly finds herself hip deep in combat, mystery, and more combat.

The first book, Fortune’s Pawn, is almost Firefly-esque in its concept of a rouge-ish spaceship family whose members may be diverse and prickly but who always have each other’s backs. There’s a love interest, too, as Devi falls for the enigmatic Rupert, the ship’s chef who has his own agenda. It’s a slice of spacer life. The crew eats, plays cards, and bonds between skirmishes. Devi opines that ‘‘the movies they make back home about the nonstop action of merc life never show how much time you spend on cleanup.’’

About three-quarters of the way through the first title, however, the story shifts and nicely subverts expectations. Over the course of the next two books, which build on each other and are best read sequentially, the narrative never quite goes where you expect it to, in a good way. There are surprises here; even though Bach is clearly working from space opera/military SF/romance impulses, she never gets mired in easy shorthand that betrays her characters. Devi is a badass with a heart who learns her weaknesses and grows. The central romantic relationship is fully earned. And the main conundrum is a nuanced commentary on what sacrifices are acceptable when navigating the chasm between freedom and security.

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