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Russell Letson reviews Alastair Reynolds

Slow Bullets, Alastair Reynolds (Tachyon Publications 978-1-61696-193-0, $14.95, 192pp, tp) June 2015. Cover by Thomas Canty. [Order from Tachyon Publications, 1459 18th St. #139, San Francisco CA 94107]

Alastair Reynolds’ Slow Bullets might be considered ‘‘military’’ SF, since its narrator and most of its characters are soldiers in a now-ended interstellar war, and much of their behavior is conditioned by their experiences in that conflict, but those conditioning experiences are background to a different kind of story. The narrator, Scur, awakens from hibernation aboard a starship that has emerged from an interstellar jump, apparently lost, with crucial systems damaged and decaying and crew and passengers in chaos. This situation unfolds after a prologue in which Scur recounts her wartime capture and torture during a ceasefire but before everyone actually stopped fighting. Scur’s psychopathic tormenter, Orvin, was prevented from killing her outright, and she promised him, ‘‘I’ll find you and make you remember this.’’

The lost ship is the Caprice, and the surviving crew and passengers are faced with multiple challenges: stabilize the ship’s infrastructure and their own messy and violent interactions; figure out where and when they are; make their way back to civilization. Sorting out the social part comes first, and it’s as tricky as repairing the hardware, since the human cargo of the Caprice is largely made up not of ordinary returning soldiers but ‘‘dregs’’ of various kinds: ‘‘[t]raitors, mercenaries… civilian criminals. Rapists, murderers, black marketeers. A shipful of headaches.’’ Scur does not believe that she is any of those things, and she, along with a meek but resourceful crew member named Prad, become central to the efforts to establish order and get the ship operational. When Scur realizes that Orvin is aboard, she has another, personal goal: to find him and take revenge. But first she and the rest of the marooned have to get themselves and the ship in order. The survivors’ problems are made worse by the gradual, irreversible decay of the ship’s data systems, which are losing both operational information and cultural libraries, so that eventually the Caprice will be lost in more than space and time.

The whole situation is microcosmic and metaphorical nearly to the point of allegory: to recreate a polity after a destructive war, while navigating class distrust, old hatreds, religious rivalries, and individual feuds, and to preserve multiple cultural heritages in danger of vanishing. The ‘‘slow bullets’’ of the title are particularly symbol-laden – literally. Each soldier’s body contains one of these devices, and while they can be programmed to be weapons (Orvin intended to use one to kill Scur), their primary job is to hold a soldier’s official military records and personal data – her heritage, her family history, her identity.

The immediate problems of maintenance and social order are manageable, but determining where the Caprice has wound up drops the survivors through a series of increasingly deep trapdoors and deposits them in a situation that transforms and reframes their efforts. This, along with the solution to the data-decay problem and the outcome of Scur’s eventual showdown with Orvin, point the story in an entirely new direction and towards a set of resolutions that one would not have expected from the first chapters. We wind up in a place far removed from ‘‘military SF,’’ even though some of that subgenre’s themes and concerns generated the initial situation. Slow Bullets finally addresses a set of questions about what it takes to rebuild a damaged society: what is worth saving, what can or should be jettisoned, how to choose a new direction, and how one’s humanity might be reshaped in order to make that all happen. It’s an unexpected and satisfying destination for what seemed at first to be a straightforward melodrama of survival and revenge.

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

Gary K. Wolfe reviews Kim Stanley Robinson

Aurora, Kim Stanley Robinson (Orbit 978-0-316-09810-6, $26.00, 474pp, hc) July 2015.

Kim Stanley Robinson novels are never about only one thing, so when he addresses a familiar SF trope or subgenre, you can expect matters to get slippery. He interrogates and unpacks assumptions, asks previously unasked questions, and often rethinks the mode of storytelling itself. Everyone knows that the prehistoric romance is a fine template for wilderness adventure with a bit of evolution tossed in, but when Robinson revisited it in Shaman, he asked how such a culture would learn how to make art and develop governance systems, and what might look like high tech to them (it partly involved snowshoes). Were he to revisit 2001, he might well ask if maybe HAL had a good point (after all, he was just trying to keep the mission on track). That last thought occurred to me because of a scene involving an intelligent computer that figures late in his new novel Aurora, in which Robinson takes on, with his characteristic critical eye, the indefatigable theme of the generation starship.

Generation starships have been an SF staple since early in the pulp era, but the template most often adopted is that established by Heinlein’s classic 1941 ‘‘Universe’’, in which the practical problems of mounting such a mission were more or less ignored in favor of a kind of allegory of scientific discovery; central to this conceit is the notion that the generations would devolve into a more primitive society, forgetting the original mission or even that they’re on a spaceship at all (and there’s a hint of this early in Aurora, as the newer generations seem to be getting lower test scores). Of course, a writer like Gene Wolfe can do wonders examining the culture of a generation ship in his Book of the Long Sun, but few writers have taken on issues of sustainability, management, and astrophysics with the thoroughness that Robinson brings to the theme here, just as relatively few writers had taken on the practicalities of Martian colonization with the obsessive detail of his Red Mars series.

Aurora begins 159 years into a 170-year-long voyage that began in 2545, which might lead some readers to suspect it’s a sequel to 2312. That’s not quite the case – Aurora is completely standalone – but there are a few allusions to that novel’s inventions, such as that moving city on Mercury. And the Ship itself, which now has a population just over two thousand, is designed after the hollowed-out asteroid habitats called ‘‘terraria’’ in that earlier novel – two large toruses linked to a 10-kilometer long spine, with most of the mass devoted to fuel for acceleration and deceleration. The complex, 20-year-long process of deceleration has begun as the ship approaches its destination of Tau Ceti, where it hopes to confirm that the moon of the title is habitable. There have been plenty of problems along the way, though, and one of those unasked questions I mentioned has to do with Robinson’s insight that, while 159 years is negligible in terms of human evolution, it’s plenty of time for bacteria, viruses, and molds to mutate. So much for the gleaming white hospital corridors of conventional SF spacecraft.

One of the reasons we learn this mass of detail early on is not because of a conventional infodump – a technique that Robinson has spiritedly defended – but rather because of Robinson’s most ingenious narrative conceit. We quickly learn that the narrator is in fact the ship’s AI (Called ‘‘Ship’’), given instructions by the chief engineer, Devi – the closest the novel comes to a competent Heinlein hero, although she’s equally an exasperated mother to her daughter Freya – to ‘‘make a narrative account of the trip that includes all the important particulars.’’ This is clearly a problem for Ship, which has a hard time learning the difference between a human narrative and a systems report (a problem shared with more than a few SF writers), and some of the early exchanges between Devi and Ship are hilarious. After a litany of ship statistics, Devi insists it should be a narrative, not ‘‘all about you,’’ but about the people – so Ship begins listing all 2,122 names, only to be interrupted again with the suggestion to pick a point of view and maybe read a few novels to get the hang. Ship’s most common response to all this is a meek, ‘‘Trying.’’

This is more than a joke, though, and it’s important in a couple of ways. For one thing, the narrative voice shifts noticeably during the novel, suggesting that learning to tell stories is a crucial part of becoming a person (a theme not entirely absent from Shaman) and in the process turning Ship into a major, and ingratiating, character. For another, the point of view which Ship settles on is that of Devi’s daughter Freya, who begins the novel as a confused but rebellious girl off on a kind of Wanderjahr among the Ship’s 12 biomes (each representing a different ecosystem from Earth), but who grows up and moves to center stage as the ship closes in on its destination, eventually facing a crisis that will lead to a significant political schism and drastically alter the fate of the entire mission. There are plenty of other characters as well, such as Freya’s boyfriend Euan, who shares the bitter view of many Ship-born that they were unthinkingly sentenced by their ancestors to life terms in a kind of prison, her even-tempered but somewhat bland father Badim, and a tragic figure named Jochi, who takes on an almost priestlike role when, for various reasons, he finds himself isolated in a separate pod from the rest of the community for much of the journey. While the succession of hard-SF problems and solutions never flags (how could it, with Ship determined to share all those gravitation-and-delta-v calculations?), the novel ends on a decidedly humanistic, and rather beautiful, moment of character epiphany – I shouldn’t say where or when – that will remind some readers more of Virginia Woolf than of Heinlein, and should remind all of us again that Robinson is among the premier literary figures in modern SF.

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

Paul Di Filippo reviews Three Novellas

Mama & the Hungry Hole, by Johanna DeBiase (Wordcraft of Oregon 978-1877655852, $12.00, 156pp, trade paperback June 1, 2015

Teaching the Dog to Read, by Jonathan Carroll (Subterranean 978-1596067257, $40, 96pp, hardcover) July 31, 2015

Nobody’s Home, by Tim Powers (Subterranean 978-1596066700, $35, 80pp, hardcover) Dec. 31, 2014

As the SF community witnessed recently, when the folks who govern the Hugo Awards proposed killing the novelette category and thereby generated much controversy, readers and writers have a big emotional investment in medium-length fiction. Novelettes and novellas often seem to fall between the two more distinctive and attention-grabbing polar extremes—short stories and novels—neither one thing nor the other. But as many critics have observed, these types of stories (SFWA places novelettes in the range of 7500-17500 words, and novellas from 17500 to 40000 words) offer many advantages: long enough to build worlds in detail; to explore SF novums thoroughly; and to engage deeply with characters, yet short enough to offer immediate bang for the buck in terms of reader investment and authorial labor. On a practical level, the rise of ebooks has allowed writers to sell their standalone novelettes and novellas instantly, at fair prices, instead of waiting until enough items accumulate for a full collection, as in days of yore.

Still, the Big Five publishers generally shy away from publishing standalone novellas, leaving the field to specialists such as PS Publishing, Pete Crowther’s fine firm that has probably done more books at this length than anyone. We don’t have handy any PSP novellas for this column, but will consider three from other publishers who also invest regularly in this format: Wordcraft, and Subterranean.

Although Johanna DeBiase appears, from her own online bibliography, to have been selling stories for over a decade, her byline has flown under my radar until now. Surely this fine tale will bring her fresh attention.

Mama & the Hungry Hole is the kind of New Gothic psychodrama that Shirley Jackson or young Ian McEwan or Patrick McGrath might have written. Its naturalism shades by degrees unpredictably into weirdness, and then back again, making you feel that the narrative territory under your feet is always unstable. A fitting enough feeling considering that a giant inexplicable sinkhole is the major “monster,” real and symbolic, in the book.

We open with a short introduction to the strained dynamic between a young girl named Elise and her mother Barbara. There are hints of a past tragedy. (I always think of this fictional maneuver as the “Ada Doom” tactic. In Stella Gibbons’s Cold Comfort Farm, that character constantly reminds everyone that when she was a little girl she “saw something nasty in the woodshed.”)

The next chapter is narrated by Tree, an actual ancient apple tree residing at the edge of a shabby farm. If a tree could indeed tell us what it was thinking, this voice might very well apply. We soon learn that the inhabitants of the farm are Woman and Little Girl. Of course, we savvy readers instantly say, this must be little Elise and Barbara. But no, it proves to be adult Elise and her own four-year-old daughter, Julia. Grandma Barbara will show up later. This neat quick-cut trick provides an immediate sense of dislocation and disorientation that the rest of the tale further stokes. For Elise is continuing to suffer from her childhood trauma, which is impacting Julia’s own development.

The rest of the book unfolds in an unhurried fashion as events slowly tumble down a rabbit hole—or sinkhole, in this case. The end result is a well-etched portrait of one of life’s shattered souls nearly taking down others with her, until love and faith intervene.

Jonathan Carroll’s Teaching the Dog to Read is unlike ninety-nine percent of fantasy tales out there. But of course, this statement is true of Carroll’s entire oeuvre. So let me say this instead: given the stipulation that I have not read every last book by Carroll, I still don’t recall ever seeing a story exactly like this one from his pen before. Always trying something different is a great strategy by which any writer can challenge himself or herself.

Our hero is one Tony Areal (a-real equals not real, natch), and this is his love story, worthy of any romance ever known. Tony is something of a schlub, who lusts after his sexy coworker Lena. He doesn’t stand a chance—until magical things start happening to him, including the arrival of a woman named Alice, who has literally stepped out of a dream Tony had—one in which she claimed to be teaching a dog to read.

As Tony’s life spirals upward into zones of increased bizarreness, he splits himself in two—Tony Day and Tony Night—encounters several avatars of his past incarnations, including a caveman version, and gradually passes into an afterlife fantasy. Oh, yes, some kind of arguably happy ending obtains, illustrating that, indeed “love is strong as death.”

Carroll’s pacing is perfect, as he introduces new elements of oddness one by one. And his insight into matters of the heart is deep. “There are moments in any relationship which can come at the beginning, middle or end, where everything balances on a single word or sentence.” In elegant yet utterly unpretentious prose, Carroll provides one of those pivotal instances right here.

New steampunk from Tim Powers, one of the men who invented the mode? With knockout illustrations by J. K. Potter? (Potter’s career, by the way, celebrates its fortieth anniversary this year. “My first published work was in a 1975 issue of Nils Hardin’s pulpzine Xenophile. It was an intricate ink drawing on the cover of the First World Fantasy Convention commemorative issue.”) What’s not to like!?!

Powers returns with undiminished élan to the universe of The Anubis Gates with a powerful, rapid and compact tale concerning one Jacky Snapp. Miss Snapp, disguised as a lad, is on the trail of the infamous Dog-Face Joe, a serial body-jumper who killed her boyfriend, Colin. Jacky happens to be carrying around Colin’s ghost, which is tied to a relic: ashes from Colin’s pipe. Staking out a likely haunted spot in benighted London, Jacky encounters Harriet, another ghost-ridden maiden. Together, sidekick and warrior, the two must face a number of perils in this exceptional evening, ending up on the barge of the infamous ghost-chaser Nobody, who proves to be both more and less than human.

As always, Powers is the master of presenting backstory in incremental bits that not only serve to gradually illuminate all his mysteries, but to add emotional resonance to events already described. You almost always have to turn back a few pages to re-savor passages in a new light, when reading a Powers tale. It’s a special kind of narrative magic.

Powers has written about ghosts perhaps more than any other contemporary fantasist, and at this point he has accumulated what amounts to a textbook of ghostly science, mostly of his own invention. You would think he had run out of novel ideas by now, but you would be far from the truth. Not only do we get introduced to “ceneromancy,” magic through an ash-based substance, but we also learn about this phenomenon, among many other spectral events: “Ghosts from upriver get snagged here, God knows why, like leaves caught in a drain, and when a whole lot of ‘em clump up, they make something like a man…”

This pendant to a larger history showcases both Powers’s immense talents, and the valuable role that novellas can play in a field devoted otherwise to Big Sagas and Short Sharp Shocks.

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

Lois Tilton reviews Short Fiction, late July 2015

An overwhelming influx of fantasy this time, making me long in vain for the cold reaches of space.

Publications Reviewed



Uncanny, July/August 2015

As has become the norm in this zine, all five full-sized pieces of original fiction are fantasy stories by women, almost all about women confronting problems in their lives. I would say this doesn’t matter if the stories are good, and over half of them are. And it’s good that the zine has established a distinct identity. But readers sometimes like a little variety on their plates, not six courses of hamburger, one with ketchup, one with fried onions . . . The Monette piece looks like it might have been something different, but alas, it’s only a fragment.

“Midnight Hour” by Mary Robinette Kowal

Subversive fairy tale mashup. The situation is classic: a kingdom was suffering from plague, so the king made a great sacrifice to save it, willingly taking on a curse in exchange. For seven years, he will be mad, except for one hour a day between twelve and one o’clock. His queen, likewise, has been cursed to lose her name and never set foot outside her castle. The kingdom has now recovered and King Lennart manages to rule effectively during his one lucid hour, but the cost of keeping his secret has placed a great strain on everyone who knows it; his children barely recognize him. Now a new complication has arisen in the form of a neighboring prince, come as an ambassador. He is being quite importunate about demanding to meet with the king, and protocol means he can’t be put off forever.

The theme of the king sacrificing himself for the kingdom is a very old one. There’s no indication here that the plague was the consequence of some sin committed by the king, but the sacrifice is on him, nonetheless. I note that Lennart is the noble sort of king—indeed, the flawless sort. Can we suppose that he may have been too perfect and been punished for it?

The curse that saved the kingdom was laid by a witch, extremely common in fairy tales. Often their curses come as the penalty for offending the witch, sometimes they curse out of malevolence or jealousy. Here, however, the king and queen deliberately sought out the witch, and their curses are payment for services rendered. Yet it’s not clear how the witch could benefit from seeing these rulers suffer, nor does it seem that the curse supplied necessary energy to power the beneficial spell; indeed, I suppose that it probably took an additional effort. It seems that the curse was a kind of game for the witch, to see if the king and queen could sustain the effort to uphold the onerous conditions of the deal for all of seven years.

Then there is the prince. Princes pay a very different role in fairy tales than kings usually do. They usually lead a hazardous life, and a kind of Darwinian selection is often involved, with the fittest winning a kingdom; the unfit may end up devoured by dragons, strangled by roses, or transformed by a witch’s curse; witches and princes often tangle in these tales. They can also serve as wandering heroes, bringing salvation in the course of some quest, as for example, breaking curses set by witches. But what happens when the object of a curse doesn’t want it to be broken? Here, the story is ambiguous. Are we to assume that Prince Volis is clueless and knows not what he does? Or are his actions malicious? By the end, readers may draw their own conclusion.

“Woman at Exhibition” by E Lily Yu

A ghost story. Also a near-nonfictional piece about the life of an artist. Estelle is a musician about to marry a fellow-musician who is revealed in a few auctorial brushstrokes to be a paragon of selfishness. Readers will be saying: You have to dump this guy. And others seem to have this opinion as well. In a near-coincidence that seems a bit too set-up, Estelle wanders into the Whitney, where they are having an exhibition of Edward Hopper’s work; Estelle appreciates it knowledgeably until she comes to a certain painting, when she is suddenly possessed by a very strange compulsion. We later learn that she was possessed by the ghost of the painter’s wife, who had a message for her.

In very large part, the story is based on the life of Jo Hopper, most of whose own paintings were discarded by the Whitney Museum while it showcased her husband’s. There is a clear and overt cautionary message here for artists like Estelle, not to step into the same trap–indeed to the point of being didactic. The strength of the work is the vivid way in which the author shows us the art through Estelle’s eyes.

Everywhere were harsh blondes and redheads who seemed somehow a single woman, and everywhere, too, were gaunt, beaky men who seemed in all their disguises the same man. The two figures migrated from canvas to canvas, occupying dozens of incongruous lives, always enigmatic, always monumental, always cold.

Some years ago, there was great excitement about the possibilities of hyperfiction, most of which have largely failed to materialize in popular fiction. I can’t help thinking how perfect this piece would have been as a hyperfiction, with the works of art coming into view on the screen as readers encounter them in the written text. But Uncanny is, after all, an electronic publication that most readers will likely be reading on some device than can display images from the internet. It would be a shame not to take advantage of this capacity in the case of this story.

“The Rainbow Flame” by Sveta Thakrar

The story opens with Rupali standing over a boiling cauldron like a witch out of MacBeth, but in fact she comes from a fantasy India, and what she’s boiling in the cauldron is wax for spell candles for the Singers, who “heal the holes in the star field, the rents in the fabric of our traditions and stories. If even a single thread were to unravel …” This ritual has been passed down from her ancestors, but she resents that the process erodes her own imagination and dreams. “Rupali didn’t see why the siphoned imagination should allow someone else to dream, to travel, to hold the moon in her palm for as long as the wick burned with rainbow flame.” Then she meets a young girl who comes from a family of Singers and knows the secret they are trying to conceal.

I’m not taken by the notion of a story star field in this YA, nor the lesson it preaches.

“Ghost Champagne” by Charlie Jane Anders

For quite some time, Gloria has been haunted by her own ghost. At first it was mostly just an annoyance, and with help from her shrink, she could cope with the apparition. But lately it’s been seriously interfering—both with her stand-up comedy act and her day job in product development. Eventually, she discovers that she has to dig down to the root of the problem that brought the ghost on.

Gloria being a comedian, her description of the ghost is witty and amusing.

Over by the window, my ghost is staring out at the Shake Shack across the street, as if she could really go for an extra–large chocolate shake and fries right now. She’s wearing sweatpants in a professional office setting. Her expression plainly says that being a ghost has certain perks and giving zero fucks about stupid product meetings is one of them.

Even in extremis, she’s making ghost wedding jokes.

“Catcall” by Delilah S Dawson

A rant with revenge fantasy. Ever since puberty, every male that Maria encounters has tried to grope or molest her, including her own father. Abra-ca-wishfulthinkia, she gets the power to strike back.

It’s old men at the hotel bar, and the nice dads you babysit for, and college guys with guitars, too. It doesn’t matter what age they are, what race they are, how much money they have. It’s a free country when it comes to saying things about a girl’s body, looking at it with proprietary eyes, or sometimes taking what they can from us, with or without our consent and consciousness.

No subtlety here, nor originality.



Beneath Ceaseless Skies #177-178, July 2015

This magazine has had a longstanding practice of pairing the two stories in its issues on the basis of theme. This time in #177, both stories show the efforts of women to end prolonged and destructive wars; I prefer the Marshall. In #178 we find different tones of cruelty.

#177

“Seasons Set in Skin” by Caroline M Yoachim

A contrived premise based on an idea interesting in itself: that a race of winged kami have been waging a longstanding war against the human population of this fantasy Japan, to which they have returned after a long retreat. The humans now have no recollection of their origin, so they are regarded as an invasion of gaijin faeries from the West. The Yosei [which seems to be their name for themselves, although the text doesn’t use it as such] fight by taking possession of human bodies. In an attempt to prevent this, the humans completely cover their skin with tattoos in ink made from the blood of the faeries’ red wings. But now the faeries have manipulated time to breed a race with gold wings, immune to the effects of the red-wing-ink tattoos. So despite the human efforts, most of the human male population has either been killed or driven mad, leaving the women to take up the sword against the enemy.

So . . . we have an aging tattoo artist obsessed with guilt because her ink didn’t keep her favorite daughter from dying in battle. Her younger daughter insists on getting inked to take her sister’s place. And while this prolonged process goes on, a gold-wing fae possesses the corpse of the older sister in an attempt to communicate with the humans and make peace.

The body that had once held her sister was clearly a puppet, standing several yards away with an odd posture, as though she might fall over at any moment. Movements that should have been smooth—the bowing of her head, a glance at Suki’s face—were done in uncoordinated jerks and fits.

I like the very pessimistic ending, and the descriptions of the tattoo designs are nice enough, although contributing less to the story than they should. But the characters are one-dimensional: the mother all “I failed my daughter”, the sister all stubborn, the older daughter all dead. And Yosei the gold-wing essentially a vehicle for infodump. Then there are logistics. These are full-body tattoos, and they take months to complete, the artist working for hours in a day on a single subject. How many artists working how many hours would it take to produce an entire army, apparently comprised of the entire male population of this era’s Japan? And how much faery blood would it take to make that much ink? And if they’ve managed to kill enough faeries to make that much ink, why are the humans losing, especially as it seems that the faeries can only possess one human body at a time. And if the humans are losing, why are the faeries so desperate? It all strikes me as highly improbable.

The ending hints at what this story could have been, the despair on both sides over a never-ending war of attrition that threatens to destroy two populations incapable of understanding each other, each regarding the other as an invader in its own homeland. But to create this despair, we need characters who can feel it; instead, we get to admire tattoo designs.

“Stone Prayers” by Kate Marshall

A conquering emperor won’t stop until he’s subjugated the entire world. It turns out that this is the inadvertent fault of his mother, a practitioner of linguistic magic.

When she was young, and newly with child, she knelt in this place. She carved a prayer, as was her right as first wife to the king, at the feet of Imrin-ka. Make my son strong, she wrote, in the tongue of her mother, the Kilin-kasa, a language she spoke but did not truly understand. She did not know there were as many words for strength as bones in the hand, and the word she chose was drenched in blood.

Mattar has finally come to the decision that her son must be stopped, but the problem is finding the right prayer, the right words for it, to overcome the effects of her own original prayer.

“Peace,” Mattar says. Ithanay to the Hasha, le-sha here, words she has carved again and again into her temple’s walls, and watched them vanish. Peace is imprecise, and the poetry of divinity demands precision. The prayers of the faithful rise unheard, discarded for their formlessness; the gods refuse to intercede, because they do not understand.

I like this secondary world where there are myriads of languages, all with multiple words designating subtle distinctions that speakers ignore at their peril when they address the gods. And there are as many gods as languages, some so minor that humans hunt them down to use their body parts for magics. Here, as in the work above, there is a richness of detail, but instead of standing in isolation from the story, these details work to enrich the world and the character, who comes alive in all her individual complexity.

–RECOMMENDED

#178

“The Scale-Tree” by Raphael Ordoñez

The traditional fairy tale has a flat narrative and characters who tend to be types rather than fully-realized individuals: there is the King, the Witch, the Stepmother. One advantage of retelling these tales is the opportunity to add dimension. So that instead of a generic city, we find ourselves in “Enoch, the world-city that surrounds the sea on three sides like a giant omega”—not only a neat image but an example of the way the text mixes words from the Hellenic and Hebrew. Here live Zeuxis, an artist who takes aerial photographs from a sort of ultralight flier, and his wife Helen, who, like many aging couples in the tales, want to fulfill their lives with children. They perform a rite that brings them a son and a daughter. All is more or less well with them until a brute happens to see a picture of the daughter, Philomena, and immediately covets her. Before long, Zeuxis is dead, the brute has become Mena’s stepfather, and we know his intentions.

I like the twist of giving the usual stepmother a male guise. The story mingles several classic fairytale tropes, including some that go very far back indeed, but I have to say that the conclusion, which follows one well-known story almost word for word, is rather a disappointment after the creativity of the earlier elements. What I like best here, though, is the well-imagined cosmology behind this world, and the views of Zeuxis on the artist’s life:

“We’re conduits. When we stop the outflow, no more can flow in, and we stagnate. We die daily to live. It’s the flow that matters, not the possession of what’s not really ours anyway.”

“The Insurrectionist and the Empress Who Reigns Over Time” by Benjanun Sriduangkaew

I usually prefer to read the text of a story in isolation, as a thing-in-itself, but too often external matters compel my attention, when stories refer in one way or another to the author’s previous work. This is the case here. While the events may be independent, this one can be said to represent the perfection of themes and tones present in other pieces from its author, distilled down to their essence: two women in a coercive relationship that must be called a bondage fantasy. The façade of political intrigue here is thin to nakedness.

Yin Sanhi is an insurrectionist who has spent her career bringing down regimes. At the story’s opening, she is captured by the Empress Narasorn, whose power includes control over time. Her intention is not to punish or eliminate Sanhi, but to use her skills for her own purpose. Thus begins an imprisonment that is clearly a slow seduction as much as a subduing but must also be seen as a courtship; Sanhi deliberately seduces her captor with displays of weakness; this dance of cruelty is a pas de deux. The tone is quite clearly erotic, but this effect comes not from the cursory mention of sexual contact but the sensualized application of pain and control.

They put chains on her throat and ears, and thread on her lips. A special needle was used, of a pearlescent alloy hammered to the thinness of a hair. It entered the fat of her lips and exited through the skin around her mouth. When her eyes showed only whites they pricked until she woke again, so she would be conscious through the sealing of her mouth.

This is the artistry of sadism, done in mannered, lightly ornamented prose. In the first sentence, we see Sanhi taken during the Feast of Twelve Luminous Cranes–graceful terminology. Unlike previous works on such themes from this author, here the prose is under control, contributing effectively to the story rather than crushing it under its weight like verbal kudzu overgrowing a shed. But it’s the artistry itself that raises the moral issue of romanticizing torture, cleaning it up and garlanding it with pretty words to enhance the erotic effect of what many will regard as porn.

For some, this stuff is a lifestyle choice. For others, in our easily-triggered age, it can be profoundly disturbing. For me, this one crosses the line when the empress assumes the form and face of Sanhi’s own dead lover, who was slowly executed in consequence of the empress’s plot. What I can’t see is how the author can return to this theme and these tropes without immediately evoking the current work and readers saying: But she’s already done that. and Do I want to see that again?



Strange Horizons, July 2015

Not really much fond of any of these stories, but all three are unmistakably science fiction.

“The Lone Star Sin Eaters” by Evan Berkow

Here’s a dumb politicized premise, so dumb it’s farce where it wants to be satire, the sort that comes of trying to turn today’s headlines into stories of a poorly-imagined future. In this case, it’s a future Texas [of course] where the state Leg has come up with a bill that allows some convicted criminals, if they’re rich enough and white enough, to hire a surrogate to do their time for them, it being not just a matter of time; the “clients” are required to show up and watch their subs get beaten up by the guards. The subs, also of course, are the kind who need the money for their families and can’t get jobs in the Texas political/economic climate. I suspect the author wrote this when he read the story about the rich white kid getting off because of “affluenza”, since he used that term in the text.

I contrast this false situation with that in today’s corrupt China, where the rich and spoiled actually have hired poor surrogates to serve their prison terms. The difference being that this is nominally against the law and everyone pretends they’re taken in by the identity switch, having been paid off. But it’s a normal prison term, not some artificial soap opera behind bars. “Whipping boy” would probably have been a more apt title.

“It Brought Us All Together” by Marissa Lingen

This must be considered YA, as it takes place in the obligatory setting of an American high school. The narrator, Andrea, is pretty level-headed, albeit with a slight case of denial, insisting to herself that she really is quite all right and not devastated by the deaths of her parents from one of the many mycological plagues. This is mainly to avoid the obsessive and stifling over concern that plagues the high school. She is aware that she will actually become quite all right once she escapes that place, but in the meantime she’s adopted a set of emotional survival protocols:

Minimize contact. Keep everything friendly, but arm’s length. Never do a group project with the same person twice unless the teacher assigns it. Always accept social media connections at the shallowest level, but never let it go deeper. At lunch, sit with the same people each week but different people each day, so you’re not the weird loner, but you’re still not someone who gets asked personal questions.

Not bad advice. Of course she learns the lesson that she can help others, which usually happens in a YA. But essentially she remains the same person.

“The Visitor” by Karen Myers

First contact. A large sentient rooted to the sea floor perceives the arrival of something new, which turns out to be an exploratory ship from human territory. They establish communication with the aid of something rather like a smartphone, that can display images. A plausibly science-fictional scenario, albeit perhaps too facile.



Tor.com, July 2015

A mixed lot of fiction, as usual on this site, but David Herter’s remake of a Gene Wolfe classic makes up for a lot of sins.

“At the End of Babel” by Michael Livingston

Here’s another attempt to make a polemical point about a political issue by creating a highly improbable near-future scenario. In this case, we have the ancient Pueblo of Acoma, where the population is minding its own business and carrying on its traditional ways, when the evil agents of a totalitarian government descend, flechettes blazing, to enforce linguistic conformity by wiping out the tribe. Only Tabitha Hoarse Raven managed to survive, and is now the “last of her tongue” to speak her own language. She is returning to Acoma to complete the interrupted cycle and perform the old rites. I’m unconvinced of the likelihood of these events.

At one point, Tabitha berates a fellow Native American for not using English terms instead of the correct words in her language, which makes me wonder why she calls herself “Tabitha”, in a language that isn’t her own. Was she not given a true name in her native tongue? And I have no use at all for gods who are clearly shown to be capable of deploying their power to save their worshippers, but decline to do so on some technicality. Nor for the wishfulthinkium of the conclusion.

“Islands off the Coast of Capitola, 1978″ by David Herter

A fine homage to Gene Wolfe’s Island stories, a retelling of “The Island of Doctor Death . . .” in altered terms. Here the young protagonist is named Ballou, living alone with his increasingly dysfunctional mother in a ramshackle house on the beach, where he roams for solitary miles, collecting shells and sand dollars and other neat stuff that a boy can keep in a jar. With his unmatched toy soldiers, with the heroes of his comic books, he slips in and out of his own worlds of dream and imagination.

When you first saw the island outside of a comic book it was faint with fog that dampened the air and made the hard, glassy waves look like horses charging toward shore. In comic books the island is always jagged, and the Doctor’s laboratory rises from its center like a lighthouse made of steel. But this island is pale like the fog and the laboratory thin as glass. In the fog it comes and goes.

The house has secret places that only Ballou can enter, and its yard is haunted by a ghost that was supposed to be exorcized after Ballou kept getting nose bleeds in its presence; this proves to be a useful indicator when a suspicious character named Wilson shows up one day and rouses the ghost again. Ballou’s mother Lila vaguely recalls Wilson as an old acquaintance who was supposed to be killed at Dien Bien Phu* and may well have been. He drugs Lila, not unwillingly, and starts ransacking the house, searching for something. Ballou fears for his worlds of secrets, if Wilson discovers them. His usual imaginary allies are powerless to evict this intruder.

Given that this is, after all, a derivative work, it works surprisingly well independently. But readers would be shortchanging themselves not to read it in company with Wolfe’s story, which will expose a richness of allusions, beginning with the title of Herter’s.

[*]This is misspelled throughout the first two-thirds of the text as “Dem Bien Phu”, which I thought at first to be a matter of Ballou’s naiveté, failing to recognize the name of the place, but now believe to be a plain error that a copyeditor should have caught.

–RECOMMENDED

“In the Cave of the Delicate Singers” by Lucy Taylor

An Evil haunts the cave, voices driving explorers to madness. Rumors to this effect have for some time been dismissed, but now one caver has gone missing after battering his brother with a rock and going off in search of mysterious music. In response, a team of four experienced rescue cavers went in after the missing man, but now they, also, have failed to return after a final transmission of “choking and wails”. Enter the idiot narrator Karyn, determined to go alone into the cave, motivated in part by unrequited lust for one of the missing cavers and imagining that her unique form of synesthesia can protect her against demonic noises. Even if it could, she’s still vulnerable to being trapped in a narrow crawlway by the wedged-in corpse of one of the men she’s come to find.

. . . half a mile under the earth, worming my way through a twist in the moist, black, and aptly named Intestinal Bypass, a wretched, rib-crushing, claustrophobia-inducing belly crawl. Nearing the end, just a minute ago, I came to a plug in the tunnel about ten feet ahead. I can see the bottoms of dirt-packed, lug-soled boots, a damp, filthy oversuit, and, if I crane my neck almost out of joint, I can make out the white dome of a mud-splattered helmet.

The strength of this one lies down in the cave, in the vivid descriptions that evoke the unyielding mass of rock overhead and the wonder of underground palaces. For some readers, the claustrophobic darkness will be the greater horror, but otherwise this is the classic scary stuff, an almost Lovecraftian ancient call that drives humans mad. I have no sympathy for Karyn, who brought her fate down on her own head by refusing to heed all the rules of common sense in such an environment, but the conclusion convinces me that, like so many other first-person narratives, it wasn’t the best choice.

“The Totally Secret Origin of Foxman: Excerpts from an EPIC Autobiography” by Kelly McCullough

Title holds out promise of clever, fails to deliver. The premise mixes two elements that are unfavorites of mine: YA and superheroes. Unfortunately, the YA predominates. The Foxman of the title was a teenager named Rand before the Hero Bomb went off. He has a Freudian hate thing going on with his father. The narrative at hand is supposed to be a therapy exercise, but most of the first half is wasted on false starts. Otherwise dull, unless a reader’s spirits are stirred by rocket-powered skateboards.



Shimmer, July 2015

Grandmothers and granddaughters in these stories.

I must say that I find the author interviews here to be particularly useless, repeating the same lame questions and taking up space that might have gone instead to another story, most of which are pretty good this time around.

“The Star Maiden” by Roshani Chokshi

Tala’s grandmother always told her stories about being a star maiden who fell from the heavens and married a human man who bound her to him by taking her white dress. But the heavens seem to have a lot of the traditions of Filipino culture. Lola always promised her they would one day dance together among the stars, and Tala as a child embraced these stories. Lola cherished a drawing Tala once made in kindergarten.

In the drawing, Lola and I both had wings and the night sky was a scrawl of indigo. I had run out of colors and left her dress a blank and pristine paper-white, outlined only in thick black marker.

But then came adolescence and the self-centeredness of that age, and Tala began to see her grandmother as a ridiculous figure; near the end, she did a very hurtful thing.

A very familiar storyline, based on a motif that has been used universally, across many cultures. The forgiveness plot, as well, is one we’ve often seen.

“The Last Dinosaur” by Lavie Tidhar

Future London reverts to the wild as the human population abandons mechanization. Mina owns the last working car in the city, with the last partial tank of gas, enough to take her, on a particularly beautiful day, for a drive out to Thamesmead, where Gran used to take her as a child.

One could spot grey herons circling in the sky, and flocks of black piratical gulls, great colonies of coots and starlings, swallows and wagtails. She remembered the white of swans against the greenness of the wide Thames, and the beavers busy in their dams.

A charming science-fictional vignette. As such, I should admire Mina’s imaginative image of “stegosaurus herds gathering all around the Shard, baying plaintively at the rising moon” without adding pedantic notes about petroleum paleontology. But I do hope this future civilization has some method of removing derelict rusting cars from the restored landscape.

“Serein” by Cat Hellisen

The title refers to a misty rain falling from a cloudless sky, and Claire has dissolved into mist, into water. Ever since she was born, she had wanted to return.

I could lie under the warmth, listening to the boom and rattle of the pipes, the slow drip from the faulty tap and I could remember how to breathe water instead of air, and fill my lungs with a familiar warm salt. I could let go my bladder, and float in that familiar world of Amnio. It wasn’t running away. It was running back.

Her sister Alison knows where she is, discerns her in the water stains that have replaced her image in family photos, in the condensation on the bathroom mirror where she writes Claire’s name, in the stagnant water filling her mother’s flower vases. Claire, having left them in one sense, remains close to her family.

I like the prose, the imagery here, as well as the family dynamics that center on Alison’s ambiguous emotions, love and anger mixed in the sister left behind.

–RECOMMENDED

“States of Emergency” by Erica L Satifka

The travels of Paranoid Jack through states of weirdness—Montana, Delaware . . . He thinks it’s the alien invaders driving everyone crazy. He may be right.

So much of his life spent to chronicling the manifestations. So many of his warnings gone unheeded. Perhaps up there, people will understand. Out there. What was the name of that country again?

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

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

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

Gary K. Wolfe reviews Nnedi Okorafor

The Book of Phoenix, Nnedi Okorafor (DAW 978-0-7564-1019-3, $24.95, 240pp, hc) May 2015.

Several times in Nnedi Okorafor’s World Fantasy Award winning Who Fears Death, characters allude to ‘‘The Great Book’’, a legendary text that serves largely as a mythological origin story for her far-future Sudan, but which the reader recognizes might also be a corrupted version of an actual science fiction backstory explaining the devastated nature of her world, not unlike the ‘‘memorabilia’’ preserved by the monks in A Canticle for Leibowitz. The Book of Phoenix isn’t quite The Great Book – we learn how that comes about late in the novel – but its narrative is presented as the primary source for that book, an audio file preserved in a remote cave full of ancient computers (a cave we briefly visited in Who Fears Death) and discovered centuries later by an aging villager who can make little sense of it. And no wonder: what he’s stumbled across is a (for us, at least) near-future thriller involving radical genetic engineering, a vast and vile corporate-government conspiracy, and a cast of superpowered characters that have more in common with the X-Men than with the wan survivors of the future Sudan. As this might suggest, the novel is also quite a bit different in tone, structure, and pacing from Who Fears Death – but it’s no less angry, and a bit more given to spectacle.

Nearly all of the story is narrated by Phoenix (sometimes called Phoenix Akore), a ‘‘speciMen’’ created through an experimental gen­etics program being carried out in Tower Seven, a sealed environment in a partly flooded Manhattan which is one of several such towers around the world. Tower Seven is distinguished by a giant tree called the Backbone, which began as a lobby planting but has grown to form the core of the entire building. All of the towers house projects by that black-ops organization called the Big Eye, and while some were established for worthy purposes such as mitigating climate change or curing AIDS, the overall project falls victim to corruption and greed, focusing on developing superweapons, a serum for immortality, regenerating organs, and even the groundwork for a posthuman race of supermen. Since many of the experimental subjects are Africans, there are inevitable echoes of the Tuskegee syphilis experiments or the genetic heritage of Henrietta Lacks (who is referred to in the novel). In Phoenix’s case, accelerated growth and super-intelligence have given her the composure, education (she can read a 500 page book in minutes, and has a 700,000-volume e-library at her disposal), and appearance of a 40-year-old woman, though she was born only three years earlier. But even she is unaware of some of the most crucial secrets about herself as the novel opens.

The precipitating crisis is the apparent suicide of Phoenix’s boyfriend Saeed, himself engineered to survive by consuming glass, dirt, sand, and metal, like a distant ancestor of Bacigalupi’s people of sand and slag. Distraught over Saeed’s death, and assisted by another experimental subject named Mmuo (who can walk through walls), Phoenix begins to plot her escape. This is when her hidden powers begin to emerge: she glows, and can raise her body temperature until it sears anyone who touches her – and, true to her name, she can incinerate herself and rise from the ashes. Her titanium-alloy bones give her Terminator-like strength and endurance. She can briefly ‘‘slip’’ back and forth in time. She can cause vegetation to grow rapidly and uncontrollably, and eventually – after destroying Tower Seven with the aid of the tree called the Backbone – she even sprouts wings and flies off to Ghana. On the way, she sets free a mysterious winged man, trapped in a crucifixion pose in the Tower, who later serves as a kind of adviser when he’s not being a Superman-style savior in Manhattan.

The bad guys track her down and blackmail her to return to the US, but this turns out not to be their best idea – since, as we’re rapidly learning, the central narrative movement in The Book of Phoenix is the radicalization of a superhero. Nearly at the exact center of the book, Mmuo takes over as narrator for a few pages and tells Phoenix his life story, including his involvement with a radical student group called WaZoBia, which set out to overthrow the Nigerian government over its willingness to amass oil wealth while its people remained in poverty. A symbol of this corruption was the spider-like killer robots devised to protect the pipelines (inspired, in a coy bit of self-reference, by a science fiction story which is clearly Okorafor’s own ‘‘Spider the Artist’’). Their plot was brutally suppressed (of course Big Eye is involved), but the story helps clarify what Phoenix comes increasingly to view as her mission against Big Eye, starting with what she believes to be its headquarters in the US Virgin Islands. The result turns out more apocalyptic than even Okorafor’s readers might expect (and almost incidentally serves as a critique of the wimpiness of the X-Men movies in confronting their own political implications), but it does help establish the background of the world which, centuries later, would provide the setting for Who Fears Death.

Apart from that historical link, The Book of Phoenix is not at all like Who Fears Death, and no one who reads either novel need be familiar with the other. For all the anger and passion that continues to fuel Okorafor’s work, there remains a certain joyful lightness of invention that dates all the way back to Zahrah the Windseeker (whose Great Greeny Jungle has never entirely faded from view in her work). She likes those intelligent spider robots, for example (which have their own role to play in this apocalypse), and she clearly enjoys inventing magical technologies like bulletproof shea butter. There is also a willingness to draw on a wider variety of sources evident here – The Book of Phoenix alludes not only to her own earlier work, but to Star Wars, Ngugi Thiong’o, Henrietta Lacks, and the whole comic-book world of single-use superheroes. In that passage narrated by Mmuo, he says of his own education, ‘‘I loved and understood the spiritual, yes, but I also loved the sciences. I loved nature’s structure, rules, logic, its playfulness, and the sheer scope of its creativity. Science has always been aligned with Ani.’’ He could be speaking for Okorafor, which would go a good way toward explaining her own exuberance in recombining various storytelling modes in her fiction. For all its grim corporate dystopianism and moments of tragedy and startling violence, The Book of Phoenix is actually a more playful and experimental novel than Who Fears Death, and in a weird and unsettling way, it’s a lot of fun.

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

Paul Di Filippo reviews George Zebrowski

The Omega Point Trilogy, by George Zebrowski (Armchair Fiction 978-1612872575, $12.95, 280pp, trade paperback) May 31, 2015

It’s almost a platitude to state that the passage of time is necessary to determine canonicity. Many books which are initially hailed as remarkable works of genius, fated for immortality, vanish from the consensual literary radar after a few years, while other books, delivered to vast silence, slowly emerge over the course of decades as essential. Time, if not the actual arbiter—that role falls to human readers and critics and academics—is at least the essential ingredient for such decisions.

George Zebrowski published three books from 1977 through 1983 which were collected in that latter year as The Omega Point Trilogy. All that publishing history happened from forty to thirty years ago, far enough back for us to finally perhaps say something really solid about them. The three books of the trilogy were Ashes and Stars; The Omega Point; and Mirror of Minds.

Together, I think, they constitute one of the highpoints of that era in our genre, a late-period exfoliation of recomplicated Golden Age space opera, and should be properly invested as such. And now, thanks to a couple of new editions—an ebook from Open Road Media and a hardcopy volume from Armchair Fiction—current readers will get a chance to assess the worth of the trilogy, adding their explicit—by reviews or word-of-mouth—or implicit—by sales figures—support to the status of the work.

Before looking at the texts themselves, let me say that Gregory Luce at Armchair is to be commended for branching out from his usual reprints of older, public domain works by authors no longer with us to repackaging stuff by living writers who can immediately benefit from his support. Although the older stuff is a lot of fun—and essential for historical purposes; see my Robert Moore Williams piece, for instance—newer, overlooked work needs a patron too.

Ashes and Stars opens with one of the most in media res beginnings I can recall. Not only is there 4000 years of galactic backstory lurking just behind the first page, there is also a relatively small-scale situation already in dire progress. The Herculean empire has been wiped out in recent memory by the federation surrounding Earth, a true genocide. A bitter aged general named Gorgias, in charge of the last super-powered Herculean Whisper Ship, contemplates how he shall spend his final days. Unfortunately, his sober, noble plans will be upended by his son, also named Gorgias. This lad is hot for revenge, and with the invincible Whisper Ship he knows he can wreak vast havoc. After an idyll with a woman named Myraa, lover to young Gorgias, the son gets control of the ship and embarks on his course of destruction. With the introduction of two Earth officials, Raf Kurbi and Julian Poincaré, our cast is more or less complete.

The second book chronicles the huge tide of chaos that Gorgias raises, and the battles by the Earthers to stop him. Gorgias goes down to seemingly permanent defeat. But in the third volume, by arcane methods involving Myraa’s essential aid he literally returns from the dead and Kurbi must use all his skills to save the galaxy.

Let’s look at the many different colorful plates which Zebrowski sets spinning in harmonious array.

First comes the super-science space opera aspect of the book. With a blurb from Charles Harness, the trilogy’s lineage is apparent. Not only does it pay homage to Harness’s work, but backwards through him to Cordwainer Smith, van Vogt, Doc Smith and John W. Campbell (the Arcot, Morey and Wade series). It also stands shoulder to shoulder with contemporary peers, such as Samuel Delany and Gordon Dickson. But Zebrowski was not writing mere pastiche. Using the new genre sophistications of the 1970s and 1980s, he created a kind of postmodern space opera that would in turn lead directly to work by such folks as David Zindell, John C. Wright and even, arguably, Hannu Rajaniemi.

After being dazzled by the gosh-wow stuff—and dazzling it is—the next facet to draw our attention is the tone and voice of the book. I can only describe it as Eddisonian or even Shakespearean, with an admixture of the mysticism of John Cowper Powys. Zebrowski employs a rhetoric that achieves a kind of bardic gravitas without being pompous. At times, Zebrowski even evokes Walt Whitman. “Look for him in the strength of suns, in the sigh of magnetic storms, or in the swirl of galaxies. Search for him in your own wills. He is there, freed from the prison of self-awareness, riding the mindless music.”

In line with this high-flown language, the characterizations are intense and larger than-life, while still anchored in familiar emotions. Gorgias is titanic, and yet the less magnificent Kurbi shines forth in the end even more brightly. Bold themes of eternal topicality and antithetical nature appear. The male principle versus the female principle. The savior versus the conqueror. Individuals versus a race. Duty versus egotism.

Certainly the final and perhaps most powerful legacy of the book is its pantheistic, quantum New Age philosophy of the cosmic structure, a feature echoed much later in several novels by Rudy Rucker.

“The interlocking matrix of minds is coextensive with all of nature, which is our outward face, in every stone, in every blade of grass and grain of sand… The material cosmos is the outward manifestation of an infinitely complex inwardness…”

This kind of deep existential substratum, so often lacking in books which are all bright surface, goes a long way toward insuring that The Omega Trilogy will keep on being read for a long time yet.

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 Naomi Novik

Uprooted, Naomi Novik (Del Rey 978-0-8041-7903-4, $17.00, 440pp, hc) May 2015.

Most readers will recognize the furniture in Naomi Novik’s Uprooted. The book is decorated with all of the fantasy paraphernalia we’ve developed during the last several hundred years. There’s a grumpy, caustic wizard in a tower. There are two young girls, one of whom seems to be the chosen one (but isn’t) and one who seems to be the easily forgotten one (but, again, isn’t). There are lessons about being yourself in spite of peer pressure. There’s a deep, dark Wood where bad things happen and a privileged prince, a missing queen, magic, vaguely Eastern European villages, and hearty soups. You’ve read this book a billion times if you’ve read it once.

Except, of course, you haven’t. While the individual trees look familiar, Novik’s is a whole new forest. Part of this due to Novik’s mad writing skill. There’s a reason she’s picked up a boatload of award hardware and nominations for her Temeraire series, which started with His Majesty’s Dragon.

Uprooted’s prose is clear and smart without ever calling attention to itself as being both of those things (which is a lot harder than it looks), the plot is propulsive, and it’s hard to stop reading at just one chapter, simply because you want to know if Agnieszka, our hero, will rescue her friend, or fight the Wood, or even manage to keep her dress marginally clean. And like, say, A Game of Thrones, in Uprooted there’s no guarantee that any given character will make it to the last page, even if they are on the hero’s side. There are real stakes here and it’s hard to predict how it will play out.

What really sucked me in, however, are the themes roiling under the surface. While the protagonist fights tree-based evil, Novik talks about gender politics and male privilege in subtle ways. Agnieszka isn’t some super-feminist creation who rides into battle under her Grrrl Power flag as she stabs misogynists in the groin. Instead, there is a subtlety to the negotiations between the powers – both male and female – who see Agnieszka’s quiet magic as less because it a) seems to flow innately from the body of a young girl and b) grows out of the book of an old, never respected crone and of Agnieszka herself. While the plot points are loud, Novik’s subtext is almost gentle, but no less powerful.

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

Paul Di Filippo reviews The Year’s Best Military SF & Space Opera

The Year’s Best Military SF & Space Opera, edited by David Afsharirad (Baen 978-1-4767-8058-0, $16, 384pp, trade paperback) June 2015

Of the making of “Best of the Year” volumes, there is no end. At least since 1949, the year which saw the appearance of The Best Science Fiction Stories: 1949, edited by E. F. Bleiler and T. E Dikty, our field has reveled in any number of such compilations of the season’s successes (as determined by idiosyncratic editorial tastes and perceptions, as well as by measured popular acclaim). Through the decades, these laurels-bestowing anthologies have sought to capture the zeitgeist and define the legacy of the field. Editors such as Judith Merril, Donald Wollheim, Ellen Datlow, Terry Carr, Brian Aldiss, David Hartwell, Harry Harrison and Gardner Dozois have distilled and decanted the superlative stories of each year like canonical bottles of vintage wine.

These anthologies have always served a twofold purpose. Beside the goal mentioned above—to capture and define the historical legacy of excellence in the genre—such collections serve as wonderful introductions for readers to new authors writing at the top of their games, authors whom the audience might not have otherwise encountered in the chaotic landscape of so many venues, prominent and obscure, where stories nowadays appear, and which the discerning editor must heroically trawl for our benefit.

Once upon a time, when the field was smaller in output, more unified and compact, a single yearly volume—in rival iterations, sometimes, to be sure—served to collect substantially everything of worth. Then came the great sundering of fantasy from science fiction, and so multiple books became necessary. Finally, in this age of boutique publications and niche markets, every subgenre seems to demand its own tribute, feeling underserved by the more heterogeneous volumes.

And so we come to the book under discussion, edited by a relatively new figure, David Afsharirad, for whom this is his debut production. Afsharirad’s sparse track record allows us to approach the volume with no preconceptions, and just judge his acumen by the contents. So let’s have a look.

My first instinct on opening such a collection is to immediately check the copyright page for story sources, and here we find a nice eclectic mix of magazines—hardcopy and digital—and original anthologies. Afsharirad seems to have cast his nets admirably wide. Next, the bylines reflect a mix of familiar, top-drawer names and less-well-known authors, for a total of fifteen entries. A good marker of open-mindedness and fairness. Then comes the editor’s introduction, deploying a light touch and lots of enthusiasm, followed by David Drake’s succinct encapsulation of the two subgenres contained herein. So far, so good!

Linda Nagata’s “Codename: Delphi” opens the assortment and sets the tone well. It covers one shift in the life of a troop handler, a figure akin to today’s drone pilots, who sits physically safe and sound five thousand miles away from the front lines, and yet who suffers many of the horrors of combat nonetheless. The story is swift and suspenseful and empathetic.

Next up is “Persephone Descending” by Derek Künsken, which has a great hook: the French-Canadian colonization of Venus. Künsken puts his heroine in great peril from that toxic planet and mines the scenario for maximum impact. But although the story is fine, it strikes me as more of a Hal Clement-style physic problem. Yes, there is some geopolitical trickery behind the events, but it’s not really military. Nor is planetary exploration necessarily equivalent to full-blown space opera.

The next story, David Levine’s “The End of the Silk Road,” is likewise an enjoyably retro private-eye-on-Old-School-Venus romp, but seems to me not quite to fit the stated remit of the volume.

The next two stories bring our vessel back on the proper heading. Brad Torgersen’s dramatic and satisfying “Picket Ship” finds a handful of human soldiers crashed onto a swampy world and fighting dreaded Mantis warriors for sheer survival and to complete their mission. Robert Chase’s “Decaying Orbit” offers the most complexified space opera future, with mankind splintered into three factions. A strange and dangerous derelict spaceship claims the attention of some representatives of the only fully human polity.

“Morrigan in the Sunglare” by Seth Dickinson exhibits the most stylistic brio of these generally straight-ahead-prose tales. On a crippled spaceship, the Indus, two women struggle both for self-knowledge and continued existence.

Linda Nagata returns with a tale of future grunts whose psyches are modulated by smart skullcaps, not always effectively. This story features the most on-screen combat of them all, I’d say. Eric Leif Davin’s “Icarus at Noon” recounts a kind of dangerous, “John Henry vs the Piledriver” contest as a rogue human tries to best machines at solar exploration. Michael Williamson’s “Soft Casualty” offers the most implicit topicality as an occupying force of troops meets the grim resistance tactics of the natives.

“Palm Strike’s Last Case” by Charlie Jane Anders is pure cyberpunk with a dash of superhero tropes, and concerns a vigilante antihero on a reluctant crusade. Stephen Gaskell’s “Brood” summons up some creepy biopunk scenarios concerning mining by genetically engineered insects. “Stealing Arturo” by William Ledbetter conjures up some claustrophobic thrills as our hero seeks to escape from a space station full of indentured, drug-addicted workers.

Matthew Johnson’s “Rules of Engagement” spends as much time off the battlefield as on, as the narrative follows in Hemingwayesque fashion the travails of three soldiers suffering from the “buzz” of their military implants. As you might guess from the title of the Holly Black story, “Ten Rules for Being an Intergalactic Smuggler (the Successful Kind),” there is a fair quota of humor in the story, which is the most formalistically innovative of the batch, and which manages to couch a satisfying tale within a rulebook structure. And finally, “War Dog” by Michael Baretta caps the book with a bravura performance that might be my favorite, as an old soldier and a refugee chimera become best friends amidst societal hostility.

The variety of styles and topics and themes, and the high level of craft in this assemblage, prove that this subgenre is flourishing and has much to contribute to the field at large, despite any preconceptions from those who know it only by hearsay. This book would provide an excellent antidote to such prejudices, and should be welcome by raw recruits and veterans alike.

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-July

Publications Reviewed



Interzone, July/August 2015

A strong SFnal issue. I’m especially enthusiastic about the Leonard story. But I want to remark on one thing after reading the Jonathan McCalmont editorial, in which he urges British SF to take back its own scene: how very overtly American the Tobler and Leonard pieces are.

“Silencer—Head Like a Hole Remix” by E Catherine Tobler

School shootings: a hellish vision. The narrator and partner, apparently once victims of such a shooting, are now serial perpetrators in the afterworld, hoping to find a way out. Which there isn’t. That’s the precise point of hell.

We are trapped, as are they all, in an endless and bloody loop, and there are no what ifs, not until Glasser starts spewing them from his cracked lips like he’s discovered the cat can be both dead and alive and also always always always bleeding to death in the same goddamn instant.

This is one of those “what the hell is going on here” stories that eventually resolve into a coherent image but still leave unanswered questions that we consider essential, such as, “Why me?” “Why these two?” But then, that’s what all the victims ask.

“The Deep of Winter” by Chris Butler

A prequel to this author’s series in which people emit spores that signal their emotions to others. Because some persons’ spores are more powerful, a coercive aristocracy has been built on them. Here, our protagonist is Sebastián, trusted servant of the Winter Duke, a member of his Guard. People have been reported missing, and the Duke has ordered the Guard to search the buried old city, where trespass has long been forbidden. Sebastián’s narrative alternates with that of Aluna, a mad scientist from an alternate world, ambitious to experiment with other realities, regardless of the consequences to the inhabitants of those worlds. When they meet in the buried city, questions are answered at last.

Aluna makes a fine villain, with the psychopathic self-absorption that makes her entirely indifferent to the fate of others.

She reached down and took his hand in hers. The life went out of him then, and he stopped breathing.

“He had nothing more to tell me,” she said. I thought at the time that she sounded sad about it. But now I think it was a kind of disappointment she felt, if she could be said to feel anything at all.

And it’s quite interesting to see the origin of the spores and how this society has evolved because of them. Particularly noteworthy is the comparison between Aluna and the Winter Duke. But it’s much more interesting, I’m sure, to those readers already familiar with the setting and how it works, and unfortunately less so to others.

“Rush Down, Roar Gently” by Sara Saab

Pity Beirut. After decades of civil war, assassinations, and oppressive government, the place is now drowning in endless rain. Punishment from heaven? Most people have long since moved away—away from Lebanon if they could manage it. Aya remains, largely out of guilt. Once, she and her friend Zeina were high on confidence, fully engaged in action. Because who else could save Beirut if not its own people?

She had declared a people’s takeover, a peaceful coup. They had come in droves, her supporters, to stage rallies and sit-ins millions strong. They called her Lady Spartacus, waved flags printed with her profile. At the height of it, she had been flanked by hundreds of protesters as she walked up the steps to the Presidential Palace and knocked on the door, demanding the President’s resignation.

They failed. Zeina gave up. She’d made plans to move to Paris, and when Aya came to persuade her to remain, she committed a terrible sin, stealing Zeina’s passport and travel documents. It was the last time she’d seen her. Now there’s a clear sense that she feels the perpetual rain is her doing, her punishment. She decides she has to give the documents back, even if she’s washed away in the flooded streets while attempting to reach her.

A depressing piece, a tale of hopelessness, when nothing can save a people from themselves. I take particular note of the story’s cross-genre character. The flooding of Beirut could well be considered either SF or fantasy, depending on the reader’s interpretation, while Aya’s personal history is apparently part of an AH, in which events took place similar but not identical to those in our timeline. It gives us pause for thought—if things had been different. If they could have been.

“After His Kind” by Richard W Strachan

A crashed-spaceship story. One man survived the wreck, though suffering the loss of an arm, that began to heal with unusual rapidity in the atmosphere of this new, fecund world. Years later, his progeny have begun to populate it, while he stands apart, a Father-god. The author sows the ground with symbolism before the crash, as the character experiments on other creatures in his shipboard lab–a bit obvious, there. But what we don’t see is whatever inspired the man to take unto himself the attributes of a god and set himself apart. Was this tendency already in him, or did the world incubate it? An unusual, weird imagery that’s slightly distasteful, on that account.

“Edited” by Rich Larson

Future teenagers. The nameless narrator met Wyatt on the basketball team, making for an unlikely friendship, because Wyatt’s family is rich and privileged, getting him Edited for his sixteenth birthday. Now, after Wyatt’s recovery, he has the narrator and their friend Dray out for the weekend at his parents’ beach house. And what the narrator wants to know but doesn’t want to ask is: what was done in the Edit, how Wyatt is different now? Then everything changes when the narrator is finally able to get Wyatt alone without Dray between them.

This is a short piece, and the first half is pretty much occupied with being disgusted at Dray, who is all kinds of an ass. But it turns in the end to a painfully heartbreaking scene.

“Sorry,” Wyatt says again. “Didn’t think you’d care so much.” He grabs my hand and weaves the fingers tight. I look at his bony white knuckles on my brown ones and wonder how different you have to be before you’re a different person.

The hurtful betrayal is effectively done, from the leadup to the final cut. I do wish the author hadn’t gone quite so far overboard with the revolting portrayal of the token heterosexual shithead creep.

“Midnight Funk Association” by Mack Leonard

Winner of the magazine’s James White Award for non-professional authors. I was especially impressed with the quality of last year’s winner. This one, while quite different, measures up.

Our central character is Bunchess Taylor, impresario of the near-future Detroit techno sound, dropping sets at the Midnight Funk Association. But Bunchess is getting older and starting to burn out, which he won’t admit to himself, so he’s outsourced the creation of new sounds to a white boy and his impressive collection of high-tech audio gear. The white boy can be overenthusiastic, and now he’s on about some background noise he’s discovered that he claims is distorting the real sound. Bunchess denies it at first, but after a bong hit while trying to listen to an old favorite piece, he comes around to the truth.

That kid is fucking right, thought Bunchess as he smoked. There used to be something else about the music in this town. It used to have a different attitude. It used to have funk. And now everything was going to the dogs.

The white kid tracks down the signal to one of those sinister corporate sites with uniformed guards and razor wire surrounding “a vertical fixture, technical steel, five stories high, with an elaborate crown of electronic apparatus.” Bunchess doesn’t like that kind of place; he won’t go inside. His instincts are right, though at first he doesn’t know how right.

This is a character story, and Bunchess is a well-drawn character with a strong voice, a consummate master of denial. Among the things he doesn’t at first admit to himself is the tight bond between himself and the white kid, based on their mutual devotion to the true Detroit sound.

As he drove away, he played a song that he had listened to when he was young, ‘Hot Box’ by The Preps. Hearing it made him feel powerful again. When he got home, he decided, he would take his Bordeaux Jordans out the closet. The time had come to wear them.

–RECOMMENDED



Clarkesworld, July 2015

Five original science fiction stories here, all of which miss a bit in one way or another.

“When Your Child Strays from God” by Sam J Miller

Right out of the gate, the text signals to readers with the name Carolina Bugtuttle that this is a story not to take seriously—absurdity or farce. Besides which, our narrator Beth, mother of Timmy, evokes all too strongly those demented Old Spice commercials. Beth is also the properly submissive wife of Pastor Jerome, who has become ever more the tyrant since the boy’s adolescence.

Let me tell you something about the bedrooms of teenage boys. They are sovereign nations, islands of liberty hedged in on all sides by brutal tyranny. To cross the threshold uninvited is an act of war. To intrude and search is a crime meriting full-scale thermonuclear response: neutron-bomb silence, mutually-assured temper tantrums.

So when Timmy fails to come home one night, Beth dares to drop an empathetic drug he’s been using, in hopes that it will link her to him. What it links to are mainly shared hallucinations, which only amplify the atmosphere of craziness as filtered through Beth’s stream of altered consciousness. Alas, the tone of dark gonzo humor fades once we finally locate Timmy, in circumstances that readers will have long predicted. By the end, Beth has started to channel Pastor Jerome and deliver sermons.

Which brings me back to Carolina Bugtuttle. This person plays no actual role in the story, never appears, even when Beth is at her house, where she’s conveniently absent. And the Bugtuttle husband isn’t a Bugtuttle but a Goldfarb. Now there are several plausible explanations for this [such as the name being made up by Beth in mockery], but what I see is the author using the Bugtuttlizing, dinosaur hallucinations and other gonzoid tricks as teasers to pull readers into the story, making it entertaining and fun until the time comes to deliver the message at which he had been aiming all along, when the crazy is now counterproductive and gets put away. Too bad, I was enjoying the crazy.

Aside from the spidery drug, there’s not much of a SFnal nature here.

“Further North” by Kay Chronister

Here’s a strange setting and stranger premise, more than just an alternate history in which Russia owns Alaska and is apparently on friendly terms with Turkey. No Crimean war? It also seems they have a new strain of giant hookworm [really giant, ie, boulder size] deadly to all ruminants. When Aliye, eldest daughter of a Turkish family who used to be goat herders before the advent of the hook, came down with a paralytic disease, they panicked, ostensibly out of fear for her, but in fact for the reputation of the family.

No doctor has tended Aliye since Baba first suspected that the hook had passed from our goats to his oldest daughter. The first human host to a parasite like the helminths wouldn’t be treated and released; they’d be quarantined, isolated, possibly put down. Before Aliye, the hook only happened to sheep and goats and cattle. Everyone thought humans were immune.

So Hafsa took her sister to Alaska, where no one from Turkey knows them, and goes into business bleeding the giant hookworms that lie frozen and dormant on the permafrost; the blood is valuable for medical research. They both hate this life for different reasons, but it all changes when Aliye decides to attempt a cure that will allow her to walk normally.

There’s a lot of imagination in this setting, but also a lot that gives off the tone of wrong. I have to keep reminding myself—this isn’t our world, things can work differently. Yet I’m not wholly convinced, and there’s no definitive answer to a lot of my questions; the author isn’t into explaining how this history/world came to be. Which is OK, because essentially, this is a story of family. Hafsa has sacrificed a lot for her sister’s sake, and besides, she’s ended up supporting the rest of her entire family from her blood farming. Aliye hates it that Hafsa has ruined her life for her sake. When they eventually return home to Turkey, their reception from the family isn’t what either of them had hoped. The contrast is between selfishness and selflessness, with a depressing look at the place of women in this society. It’s clear that matters would have been different if either Hafsa or Aliye had been a son.

“Android Whores Can’t Cry” by Natalia Theodoridou

Near the end of this piece, we get this excerpt from Aliki’s notes:

I know I’ll never finish this article—I still haven’t even decided on the title, or what this story is really about. What do you think? I might have called it:
Massacre Market
or
The Mechanical Reproduction of Violence: Truth, Massacre, History
or even
Android Whores Can’t Cry: Under the Surface of Death Meditation

Which suggests that even the narrator doesn’t really know what this story is all about, but it’s one of those jigsaw-puzzle pieces, thrown up in the air for readers to assemble where they randomly land, and it’s pretty certain that no one will end up with exactly the same image; there may be pieces left over that seem to fit in no particular place. I see it as a story about violence, abuse and oppression, as well as passive resistance. There are two primary threads, violence writ on a large and a small scale: first, the ruling tyranny that conducts the massacres and leaves the remains for the people to memorialize, which is all they can do; second, the android Brigitte who serves as Aliki’s local guide and the sexual punching bag for Aliki’s local host. In the assembly of these threads, each should cast its light on the other/s. The image found here is a fairly static one, particularly the larger scale of violence; the events we see have already taken place. Actions taken on the smaller scale have to suffice. Because of the lack of immediacy, I find the story less moving than it might have been.

“Hunger Tower” by Pan Haitian, translated by Nick Stember

A spaceship crashes on a barren world, leaving the passengers facing death from heat, starvation, and a predatory beast that follows them a manner highly symbolic—of something. They have hope of reaching a distant tower, but when the male survivors [the women and children having all succumbed suspiciously to hardship] arrive, they find the tower and its surroundings quite deserted. The tower had been the site of a monastery, and one survivor, a priest of a different tradition, finds it conducive to meditation. Outside, however, the rest of the men descend further into barbarism. The conclusion is ironic, but by that time, readers will have lost sympathy for them.

The plot is pretty conventional, and only the meditation scenes have real interest. But there’s something off about the prose, and I’m not sure whether to ascribe this to the original, the translation, or lapses in copyediting. All of the above is a possibility:

“Please search the wreckage for things that may be of use to us and share them with the group. If we are to be rescued, then we must band together in this time calamity,” the captain said. It comforted them all a little to look up at his ruggedly unyielding gray eyes, his muscular neck, his sturdy and well-defined chest.

Overall, I’ve been enjoying this series of translations, but this one is a disappointment.

“Snakes” by Yoon Ha Lee

A vast and disastrous war has killed Rhiis-2, the ship’s pilot. Rhiis-1, once the gunner, has now become the ship itself, taking her soldier-sister’s preserved corpse to a place where she hopes she can be revived. On the journey, memories and dreams.

Snakes everywhere: the crenellations of her brain, silent of electric flickers. Flaccid blood vessels. Winding ropes of intestine. Snakes.

As usual, the prose is the thing in one of the author’s pieces of literary military SF. This time, however, there isn’t a lot original underneath, a tale of undying love, but we’ve seen those.



Apex, July 2015

In this issue, we have one SF, one fantasy, and one neither. The featured story is by Rich Larson, who also appears in the current Interzone, above.

“Going Endo” by Rich Larson

Nominally military SF, but focusing on sex. Space battles are fought by organic battle “ships” that serve as exo-organisms, each with an “endos” who partners/pilots them, enclosed within their body cavities; organic communication and control links join the two. Our nameless narrator is a tech who maintains the exos, and he has a strong affinity for them, particularly for the veteran Puck. But his connection with exos goes way beyond the professional. One night while having desultory virtual sex, he overlays his partner with the cyber skin of an exo.

It wasn’t perfect, but it was a solid effort. The vanes curled and flexed the right way, and the hide was smooth and dark as pitch, none of this glitter stuff. Feris’ base skelly was still human-size, of course, but that worked out better, almost, since I was halfway enveloped in slip-slidey flesh every time I pushed into the space the program estimated her quinny to be at.

And after that, things go further.

This is some kinky erotic stuff in a setting where casual sex is a given but some activities may still be considered perverted. With regard to which, it’s important to note that Puck has full agency in the relationship, even initiates contact. Nameless [this is a case where I consider his lack of a name to be a definite narrative flaw] has genuine admiration and affection for Puck and seriously resents the way her endo sometimes neglects or even abuses her. Some uptight persons may object to this or that about the relationship, but everyone involved seems content from this side of the screen. There’s a clear contrast between the normative sex which Nameless usually performs, in which the partners are so disengaged from each other they mask over their real appearance. His relationship with Puck is based on real caring and true, unmasked intimacy. Readers may be wondering where things might move on from that point, whether the narrator will indeed go endo in a professional way, but the story leaves it there, which is fine. Stories need to end somewhere.

“All Who Tremble” by A A Balaskovits

This one opens with a vexing grammar problem, where it’s not clear if “they” refers to the strange family or to the rest of the town’s denizens. Unfortunate editorial inattention there. The townspeople fear the strange family because of a whirring, clanking vibration that emanates from the basement of their house. The daughter of the strange family fears it, too, but she and her brother are forbidden to go down there.

The plaster and wood of the house trembled beneath her, but nothing quaked as greatly as her body. Her skin pulled away, stretched thin and taut. She was beaten upon by the whir and her skin beat back. There was so much wonderful whizzing and whirring inside of her, how had she never noticed?

There’s fascinating weird stuff here in a sort of Eastern European setting from which the premise seems to be derived. It’s a vivid image of individuals who embrace dependency and flee responsibility for their own lives, but the piece is fragmentary.

“Never Chose This Way” by Shira Lipkin

Set in a past or alternate world where insurance pays for prolonged institutionalization of disturbed adolescents, along the well-worn lines of the story Girl Interrupted. The narrator employs transformative metaphors that are meant to be ambiguously fantastic but are clearly just metaphors. The narrator also engages in prolonged and repetitive self-pity.

When we went around the circle at group, the litany of why-are-you-here was generally “drugs”, “depression”, “family problems”. Time and again, “family problems”. And we would nod, we would accept that as code for “they wanted a good girl, but they got me instead, and now I am here.”

It’s all quite stale, and made no less so by the hints that the narrator’s “family problem” might be some form of non-normative sexuality. Women have been institutionalized for inconvenient manifestations of their sexuality since before the previous century. I find that because I don’t care about the narrator, her namelessness doesn’t bother me.



Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet, July 2015

A guest-edited issue from Michael J DeLuca, on a theme of “humanity’s relationship with the earth”. Such a theme gives me depressing thoughts, but this is by no means true of all these stories, many of which are positive. In which light, we have scenes featuring bodily decomposition and shit, processes that give back to the soil. As is often the case in this publication, a number of the pieces are very short, vignettes of several sorts. While there is fantasy and some slipstream stuff, the majority are set in more-or-less apocalyptic SFnal futures.

“I Bury Myself” by Carmen Maria Machado

The sequelae, done in a lyrical manner. The decomposing body hopes to one day nurture a tree. I quite like this, but I have to think the author minimizes the dying process, which tends not to be such an easy one.

“Starling Road” by Alena McNamara

A tale of hostile frontiers. The forces of the Empire are attempting inroads into the independent mountains—inroads literally, as they’ve constructed a road to facilitate the movement of troops and supplies. Nisima lives in a border village through which the road now passes. One winter day a fugitive comes to their door, an escaped captive stone-singer of the mountain people. As the snow drifts prevent travel, Starling remains in the village and she and Nisima become lovers, knowing that, come spring, soldiers will return.

One of the issue’s conventionally plotted stories. It opens as if it were a sequel to previous events but otherwise is self-contained, even while acknowledging that the military conflict isn’t over. The story doesn’t make clear why Starling doesn’t want to return to her own people. It doesn’t seem to be simply for love of Nisima, which appears to be more of a while-this-lasts kind of affair, and it’s just as likely as Nisimia would go away with her.

What I like best here is the look at the uses of roads and of borders.

For the first time, I saw that the Emperor’s city and the mountain people both thought of us as a boundary to be rested or braced, an edge to hone like a knife-blade on a stone. I had always before felt myself, my village, to be the center.

Nisima will never feel that way again, no matter what else happens, but I suspect this is in part because of the nastiness and hostility of her neighbors.

This is one of the more human-centered, not earth-centered stories in the issue.

“Ape Songs” by Giselle Leeb

Not one of the issue’s conventionally plotted stories. It seems that humanity has laid waste to the natural Earth. Although people in the past made plans for its eventual restoration, these have been forgotten and distorted. They now revere a remaining natural “scraggy acre”, a “Peace of Earth”, without recalling why. There is an Ape of the Earth, which seems to be a robot, and a girl buried as a seed; these two figures alternate narratives as we see things, once again, go wrong.

A depressing piece, in the sense that there is and will a lot to be depressed about, concerning the Earth.

“For Me, Seek the Sun” by Michelle Vider

A dialogue on constipation. “i dream of the day you are free to shit again”. Out under the sun, that is, like the bear in the woods. Of course in today’s humanity-packed world, outdoor defecation is a serious health problem, as it likely was in the days of cabbage-gnawing peasants.

“Medea” by Deborah Walker

Irony. A prophet comes into a bar where the barman is trying to watch the footie on TV, while the players have to keep stopping for oxygen. The prophet declines to buy a hit and tells the barman that Earth is like Medea, not Gaia, killing its children. Me, I’d say it was the other way around.

“Jellyfish Dreaming” by D K McCutchen

Biology-based SF set in a future world in which many nations have been inundated by rising sea levels and so ruined by pollution that endocrine and hormone disruption have impaired the ability of most species to breed, including humans. So there seem to be no non-human species remaining more complex than jellyfish, which are thriving and form the basis of the diet for those who can afford it. Some street kids near the marketplace of one city appear to be true hermaphrodites, which has attracted the attention of researchers from a nearby university who hope to restore the human ability to breed—although it would seem that humans breeding is the source of the world’s problems. Jack is ostensibly one of them, but Jack is different in not-entirely-specified ways. For one, he is very, very old, although in form still a child. He hangs near the university hoping he can get some answers about himself from the researchers. While the text doesn’t directly reveal much about Jack in particular, we learn a great deal about a certain jellyfish: Turritopsis dohrnii, which is capable of reverting to its pre-sexual form under stress, thus being effectively immortal as well as being able to switch sexes. Jack currently [?] has a feminine side, named Jae.

While the idea here has intriguing potential, I can’t say it’s integrated too well into the story-of-Jack/Jae, much of the direct information coming in the way of infodump. But Jack isn’t a jellyfish, he’s a human who is apparently modeled on a particular jellyfish. He can’t have evolved that way, if indeed his DNA has jellyfish genes; he must have been engineered, and as the only specimen, thus his perpetual loneliness. Therein lies a potential story, but all we get of it are hints and jellyfish neep. There’s also a lot of unclearness about sexuality, which needs a lot more exploration than we get here. But endocrine disruption is something that’s already happening now, with a consequent increase in the ratio of female births over male. Yet in this setting, we apparently have an absence or shortage of females, except as female characteristics in intersex individuals—exactly the opposite of what would be expected.

“Request for an Extension on the Clarity” by Sofia Samatar

The narrator, along with a pair of cats, is stationed on a one-person communications space station, where she wants to stay, effectively, for life, having always been a person who not only tolerates solitude, but needs it. From orbit, while she recalls her unsatisfactory past life, she can look down on Earth. “At this distance, everything’s clear. I know where I’m from.” Which is, in part, the lands of the Dogon tribe in Mali, who have claimed they were once visited by aliens that might [who knows?] one day return. Readers may well wonder if she gets her extension, but I suspect she will, because what’s twenty more years when they’ve already gone for ten?

“Putting Down Roots” by M E Garber

It seems that researchers are experimenting with human photosynthesis, in consequence of which, Anni is turning into a tree, or more accurately entering a vegetative stage of life. This is a short epistolary piece addressed to Anni’s best friend, in which she goes through stages of acceptance. Readers really should compare this one with the Machado, above. In both, contentment lies in the growth of a tree.

“The March Wind” by Eric Gregory

An apocalypse may not come in an instant but gradually, as structures erode. In this near future, Caroline and Shannon find themselves in dead-end jobs teaching at a third-rate college where they become lovers. Caroline would like to leave, if she can find something better. Shannon can’t, in large part because of her disabled mother, who refuses to leave her home in a town that no outsider can reach without a guide and where no machinery will work. These isolated, occluded towns have been subsumed into the expanding wilderness, with shifting boundaries that can’t be mapped. Now Shannon is taking Caroline there in a last attempt to break the three-way impasse.

The occluded towns, where Earth is reasserting its dominion, are a powerful symbol of the erosion of human hope and possibilities. Shannon sees them as a consequence of humanity’s failure to control its technology. But Annie, her mother, has a different, more optimistic, opinion.

“I think nature is inexhaustible, and there are long cycles in the order of things, long tides that come in and go out. Maybe every hundred thousand years, the system of the world changes, and we’ve only just now had occasion to notice. I love being in a place like that. I want to dwell in the inexhaustibility.”

Thus we see how the conflict between these three characters is rooted in fundamentally different individual views of the world, different needs, as well as love, which pulls them together while other factors push them apart. While the point of view belongs more to Caroline, Shannon is the story’s center, the person tied to both of the others. She’s angry with Caroline for wanting to move on, with her mother for anchoring her there. Someone is going to have to give up something she values, something she loves, even if they all end up understanding each other more fully.

–RECOMMENDED

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

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

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

Old Whiners in New Bodies: A Review of Self/less

by Gary Westfahl

As a film, Self/less has several significant virtues: it is fast-paced and involving; it is unpredictable; it features excellent performances by an actor expected to provide them (Ben Kingsley) and an actor not expected to provide them (Ryan Reynolds); and its science-fictional premise, while not without questionable aspects, is developed with unusual care and consistency. However, while praising director Tarsem Singh and screenwriters David Pastor and Alex Pastor for their fine work, one must also acknowledge that, as a necessary precondition to getting the film into production, they were obliged to weaken their story, to fulfill the contemporary producer’s formula for sure-fire success, by reducing a complex scenario to a simplistic morality tale and adding a modicum of gratuitous violence.

Ostensibly, this is a film about immortality: wealthy New York builder Damian Hale (Kingsley) is dying, and the head of a firm called Phoenix Biogenic, Dr. Albright (Matthew Goode), offers him the chance to continue living by means of secret new technology. Yet in two respects, Self/less diverges from the tradition of stories about lonely immortals I described while reviewing The Age of Adaline (review here). First, individuals who become immortal accidentally (like Adaline, Robert A. Heinlein’s Lazarus Long, and Jerome Bixby’s Flint and John Oldman) are not troubled by their condition and enjoy long, placid lives; individuals who become immortal as a matter of choice (like Jack Barron in Norman Spinrad’s Bug Jack Barron [1969]) are typically tormented by guilt and lament their decision. Second, Albright’s method for extending Damian’s life – transferring his consciousness to a different body and providing him with a new identity in New Orleans – connects the film to a related but distinct tradition of stories about individuals dissatisfied with their lives who want to start over again and enjoy a second career. The film thus brings to mind two other works from the 1960s: the Twilight Zone episode “Of Late I Think of Cliffordville” (1963) and John Frankenheimer’s film Seconds (1966).

What writers are telling us is paradoxical but clear: it is all right to become immortal, but it is not all right to want to become immortal; therefore, there must always be something evil about the methods willful immortals employ in order to provide them with a suitable punishment. In The Lazarus Effect (review here), a drug that revives dead people turns them into homicidal maniacs; in Bug Jack Barron, the immortality treatment employs the glands of murdered African-American children; and in Self/less, as the transformed Damian, now named Eddie Kittner (Reynolds), ruefully learns, his new body was not grown in a lab, but rather is the body of another man, Mark Kittner, who agreed to give up his life to provide his daughter with life-saving medical treatment. When his investigation of some troubling hallucinations – actually, the dead man’s lingering memories – leads him to his widow Madeline (Natalie Martinez) and daughter Anna (Jaynee-Lynne Kinchen), he tells her “I’m sorry – so sorry” and insists that “I didn’t know” his new life involved another person’s death (exactly what Jack Barron proclaimed); and during a later confrontation with Albright, he labels him “not a savior” but “a psychopath.”

This is one way in which the film is not as interesting as it might have been. Albright is not a nice guy, but no one can deny that he has made an important and potentially valuable discovery; he further insists that he turned to the use of other people’s bodies solely because the process of growing new ones proved unexpectedly difficult. And arguably, if a person wants to commit suicide in order to earn lots of money, he has the right to do so; a person who greatly admires an aging mentor might even volunteer to allow the man to take over his body. (This possibly occurred in the film, as it seems that an elderly professor has taken over the body of a presumably devoted student.) In sum, while one can certainly challenge the morality behind Albright’s decisions, it was hardly necessary to transform him into a comic-book villain. But as I have noted before, Hollywood abhors ambiguity, assuming that audiences respond best to entirely virtuous heroes battling against entirely despicable villains.

Further, after the film has established that Albright is a scoundrel, it makes perfect sense that, once Eddie stumbled upon his secret, the scientist would resolve to slaughter him – providing the film with that other essential ingredient in Hollywood sci-fi films, violence. What doesn’t make sense is that he never sends enough people to do the job right. After all, we are told that Damian paid him 250 million dollars for a prolonged life, and Albright’s other clients were undoubtedly charged similar sums. He could easily afford, then, to assign more than four people to track down and kill Eddie, and to provide them with more reliably lethal weapons than handguns and cars. But it is a convention of melodrama that, no matter how smart the villain is, he must turn incredibly stupid whenever he tries to kill the hero so the hero can survive. Here, it is just barely possible that one armed man like Eddie might survive an encounter with four men equipped with handguns and a flame-thrower; but it would be impossible for one armed man to survive being carpet-bombed by a dozen drones.

As indicated, Singh and the Pastors were virtually obliged to demonize Albright and imbue him with a propensity for mayhem, yet they admirably did so as minimally as possible: Albright is repeatedly provided with opportunities to defend himself, allowing thoughtful viewers to see his side of the story even while despising him, and the film’s four gunfights are thankfully brief. But these concessions also prevented the film from exploring other interesting possibilities in its premise.

One of these is the notion that an old man, given another opportunity to experience the joys of youth, might actually become bored and dissatisfied and ponder other alternatives. This is precisely what occurs in Seconds, and while there are significant differences between the films, Self/less manifestly borrowed some elements from Frankenheimer’s film. (Both films involve secret organizations that provide older men with new, youthful identities and surround them with fun-loving friends who are actually their secret employees, keeping an eye on their clients and making sure they behave.) Seconds’s Tony Wilson quickly grows tired of a leisurely life of artwork and parties; Damian initially has fun going to bars, making out with a series of women, and gorging on peanut butter (his own body had been allergic to peanuts), but one night we observe him walking out of a lively bar, no longer enjoying the proceedings. Wilson responds to his plight by contacting his former wife (and, in a deleted scene, his daughter) and seeking a second new identity; but although he briefly calls his estranged daughter Claire (Michelle Dockery) and says nothing, Eddie does not need to address the predicament of his unappealing new life, as he must keep rushing around to avoid Albright’s hit men.

Another possibility to consider is that an accomplished businessman, rather than settling into a carefree retirement, might wish to carry on with his profession and duplicate his previous success – like Bill Feathersmith in “Of Late I Think of Cliffordville.” This is what Albright should be encouraging Eddie to do; after all, the stated justification for his procedure is that it will provide “humanity’s greatest minds” with “more time” to do productive work. So, addressing the reborn and relocated “Man Who Built New York,” Albright should be urging Eddie to make himself “The Man Who Built New Orleans.” Instead, he advises him to “relax and have some fun” because “at your age, you’ve earned it.” Yet a man like Eddie, who spent decades as a dedicated, driven executive, would understandably grow weary of a permanent vacation, and if he had not been diverted into fistfights and car chases, he might have attempted to start a new company and launch some projects.

This might have led to a provocative sequence addressing an interesting question: are some individuals successful because they are remarkably talented, or because they are remarkably lucky? The Twilight Zone’s Feathersmith is confident that he can earn himself another fortune, but a series of bad decisions leads him into an alternate present where he is not a tycoon, but a janitor. Eddie, too, might have stumbled as he endeavored to make himself into New Orleans’s Damian Hale, as suggested when Eddie and his former colleague Martin O’Neil (Victor Garber) agree that they had both made bad choices as elderly men: “so much for the wisdom of experience.” Yet the quiet drama of a failed business deal was regarded as insufficiently appealing to audiences believed to be yearning for more and more action.

Still, instead of emphasizing missed opportunities – what the film failed to do – reviewers should properly address the filmmakers’ actual priorities – what the film does. One of its foregrounded messages is obvious and banal: daddies should love their daughters. The deceased Mark Kittner was a good father, even though he could only afford a tiny house, because he paid attention to his daughter and sacrificed his life to restore her health; Damian Hale was a bad father, even though he lived in a lavish condominium, because he neglected his daughter to focus on his business, alienating her so much that she becomes the leader of a nonprofit corporation, first called the Green Coalition and later the Triborough Community Coalition, which is clearly dedicated to opposing the actions of wealthy executives like her father. Now, some fathers might argue that the film is presenting a false dichotomy, that it is actually possible to become both a financial success and a satisfactory parent, but hey, there are more poor people than rich people in a typical audience, so a film should logically console its less fortunate viewers by reminding them that, at least, they are much better parents than those millionaires buying vacation homes in the Bahamas on House Hunters International.

Another point made by the film is that today, thanks to the internet, it is much harder to keep a secret. In 1966, if Seconds’s Wilson had found himself in Eddie’s predicament, he would have been unable to track down the company head or his body’s former home; but by Googling Albright’s term for putting people in new bodies, “shedding,” Eddie finds information about the scientist who first developed the idea, Dr. Francis Jensen (Thomas Francis Murphy), and later locates his widow, Phyllis Jensen (Sandra Ellis Lafferty), who leads him to Albright. Google Images provides the location of the distinctive water tower he observed in his “hallucinations,” and a GPS device then takes him to the tower and Madeline Kittner’s nearby house.

Self/less is also a tale of two, very different, cities. New York City is the place where everybody works hard, whether they are ruthless businessmen like Damian and Martin or energetic idealists like Claire. New Orleans is the place where everybody kicks back and relaxes – playing basketball and pool, engaging in extreme water sports, joining street bands, dancing and drinking in bars, and enjoying one-night stands. Indeed, the only people regularly observed working in New Orleans are Albright and his henchmen, suggesting that the city is a center for criminal activity as well. To complete the film’s moral geography: the small town of Brighton, Missouri, is where upright individuals like the Kittners avoid these damaging extremes, holding low-paying jobs that give them ample time to spend with their families as they proudly display the American flag outside their homes. Significantly, it is only after Eddie visits Madeline’s house, and meets Madeline and Anna, that he begins his transformation from heel to hero. Finally, good folks like the Kittners sustain themselves by dreaming about someday retiring to an island in the Caribbean, also far away from the temptations of urban vices, and this is where the film concludes.

While the film is about a new way for elderly people to literally recapture their youth, its three older characters additionally illustrate traditional ways to figuratively recapture one’s youth. Phyllis Jensen, suffering from Alzheimer’s disease, loves to wallow in happy memories, as she drifts from answering Eddie’s questions to reminiscing about the time she first met her husband. In the film’s opening scene, Damian seems energized when he contrives to confront and defeat a youthful business rival. And Damian’s colleague Martin, though he looks even older than Damian, has married a second, much younger wife (portrayed as an irksome bitch who drives away their maids), and he has started a new family. The film touches upon other forms of ersatz immortality: Albright notes that, in a sense, Damian’s many buildings will make his immortal, and the film echoes The Age of Adaline’s point about the immortality achieved through photography, as Eddie and audiences can see and hear the dead Francis Jensen thanks to a film clip on the internet.

The film unexpectedly offers a critique of America’s obsession with cars. Needless to say, Damian’s vast wealth is symbolized by the limousine he rides in, and his leisurely new life is signaled by the sports car placed in his driveway; as the pursued and the pursuers, Eddie and Albright’s thugs are constantly driving cars; and at one point, the opponents even employ their cars as weapons, crashing into each other in a scene that bizarrely recalls Mad Max: Fury Road (review here). With cars on their mind, characters even trivialize the experience of entering a new body by repeatedly likening it to driving a new car: one of Eddie’s first comments after waking up is that his body “has that new body smell”; when Eddie learns that his body had a previous occupant, Albright’s employee Anton (Derek Luke) makes light of the situation by saying, “You thought you were buying a new car,” but instead “it has a few miles on it”; and when one character is wounded shortly after getting a new body, he says, “The first time I take it for a spin, I get a scratch on it.” But if people are like cars – useful but disposable vehicles – it becomes easier to justify the homicides that Albright’s procedure requires.

Overall, while a film with many distinctive features, Self/less is ultimately similar to The Lazarus Effect, The Age of Adaline, and other films involving immortality in one central respect: it is a cautionary tale, advising viewers that immortality is a curse, not a blessing, a condition that its victims long to escape. This film’s particular version of that message is that seeking immortality is selfish, and it is ultimately far more rewarding to be selfless, like Mark and Eddie Kittner. Whether this represents timeless wisdom, or a tired rationale for the unavoidable mortality we now must endure, may only be determined at that expected future time when scientists actually achieve human immortality.

Gary Westfahl has published 24 books about science fiction and fantasy, including 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. His new book, the three-volume A Day in a Working Life: 300 Trades and Professions through History, is now available.


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