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Lois Tilton Reviews Short Fiction, late January

While my previous column looked at some new and changing publications, here I find things rather much the same. A number of smaller and less frequent publications reviewed this time, of which I’m most pleased with Unlikely Story.

Publications Reviewed



Beneath Ceaseless Skies #164-165, January 2015

The themes of the year’s first issues are very clear. #164 tells of transformation, #165 of quests. The stories in issue #164 are shorter than the norm, but it has a bonus of fiction with an excerpt from James Morrow’s new novel.

#164

“Everything Beneath You” by Bonnie Jo Stufflebeam

The girl who wants the name Zhou [meaning boat] was born in a fishing village on the shore of a fantasy China, to grow up dissatisfied with her condition. She wants to be a woman but without the inconvenience of a womb; she wants to love other women, but they never offer themselves to her completely; she wants the sea, which tradition prohibits to her. Uniquely, her body has the odor of a man, of the sea, and this is what expresses the truth of her. As a woman, she leaves the village and is found by the daughter of a [sea?] god, attracted to her scent. This Huan claims she will love her and give her everything she wants, but she turns Zhou into a man, which isn’t what she had wanted, and, moreover, she didn’t ask.

“What have you done to me?” I said. I did not say that it was half-good, half-bad, for I did not want to give her any sliver of hope that this was what I had wanted. If to be without womb one must also be without the rest of a woman’s form, then I was not certain that the trade was worth it.

They live together on a dragon boat until Huan’s father the god learns of their relationship, of which he disapproves.

There’s some neat mythological stuff here, with gods and dragons, although the god part is unclear. Huan’s father at first tries to drown Zhou then grants her a wish, and I’m not sure whether he’s a sea god or not. Unfortunately these fantasy elements are overwhelmed by very mundane and didactic issues of sexual identity. Zhou has gone on a quest to find herself, to find the name that will express who she really is, but the story is overly concerned instead with what she is. “Who” is a different question, which it doesn’t answer, and if Zhou doesn’t know, how can the rest of us answer her?

“The Metamorphoses of Narcissus” by Tamara Vardomskaya

The narrator is a young woman who had been studying ballet when she fell under the sway of a popular transfigurationist artist who wanted her as a model for his transgressive works.

What did it matter, the endless practicing of stag leaps and wolf spins and peacock poses to the tinkling of a grand piano, when I had been the stag and the wolf and the peacock and the grand piano, had been them at the bottom of the sea and in midden heaps and in rivers of cheese and when kissing a basilisk and an icosahedron while hanging by my ribcage from the pendulum of a clock?

Then came war to their country, and everything changed.

A story about what really matters. Although not so much as the first in the issue, there is a discernable didactic tone here, a lesson learned. The artist himself informs the audience viewing his last work that he, himself, is a narcissist, which we didn’t really need to be told.

#165

“For Lost Time” by Therese Arkenberg

A sequel to a work appearing in an earlier issue, in which the young wizard Aniver and his companion Semira sought a way to restore the city Nurathaipolis, lost to Time. Their quest now leads them to the domain of the Queen of Death, with the aid of the most powerful wizard among the exiles of the city-that-was.

The strength of this one is the fantastically-detailed setting, the descriptions both of the city in which the exiles now dwell and the realm of the dead. This particular quest is, of course, one we have seen in many variations from many different mythoi, but the author gives us an original vision of the domain and its ruler.

The Throne’s arms ended in snarling heads, or barbaric weapons, or else only the shape of an unreal substance weathered by unimaginable forces, and on those arms rested slender gray limbs bearing delicate four-fingered hands. Above those . . . looking past Her face for the time being, Aniver stared at the spires that topped the Tenebrous Throne. The structure seemed organic, not in the sense of being alive but in the fact that it couldn’t possibly have been constructed. It had grown or perhaps formed around the shape of the Queen, who sat here at the edge of Her kingdom.

The storyline is surprisingly comprehensible considering the many references to past events, yet readers unfamiliar with them may still be wondering about the tie between Aniver and Semira, and how they came to be involved together in this quest.

“Day of the Dragonfly” by Raphael Ordoñez

Set in a weird fantasy world populated by several humanoid species and other creatures. Our hero is Keftu, whose other identity, when he puts on his special armor, is the Dragonfly, a sort of hero-errant-for-hire, who takes up the quest to save a sort-of-princess from being devoured by a giant ancient moon worm. Exactly why he does this isn’t clear, as the only reward is marriage to the princess, whom he has never seen and whose realm is impoverished. It also turns out that he will be the fifth champion to make the attempt, which means that the danger can hardly be imminent if the worm has been delaying so long for the devouring; indeed, I have to question its sincerity. The person who hires him is the girl’s rude sister, who constantly insults him on the journey while he is fighting their way out of various picaresque perils.

The chitinous spinners that lined the beast’s back whirled with angry glee. As a wing flexed and stretched he slashed at it, tearing the membrane. Now the worm began to drop. He hacked at a fourth wing. The creature managed to curl its tail around him. It latched its claws on his armor and tore him off.

It’s a good thing that all this S&S adventure is clearly intended to make no particular sense, as it doesn’t. The entire quest is mainly an excuse for the author to display the weird wonders of this imagined setting. It makes for some fun reading, but for those of us who do prefer our stories to make sense, it falls well short of the goal.



Strange Horizons, January 2015

Another month with only two stories, one serialized.

“Vacui Magia” by L S Johnson

A short list story, the entries being the steps in creating an infant golem.

Mud and bone, yes, but they are not enough. Your own fluids, clear and bloody, sticky and gelatinous, soaked into little pieces of batting from your grandmother’s fraying quilt. The seed of a man you coax one night behind the tavern, a man that reminds you of a boy you loved long ago who loved another, one of many things we cannot change your mother had said.

The story is thus: a middle-aged witch from a family of witches has never been able to conceive. Now her aged mother, confused in her dying, wishes she could see her daughter’s child. Out of love, the witch creates the golem, apparently knowing that the old woman would no longer be able to discern its true nature.

One of those stories that declares itself hard-hearted and unsentimental, while it drips with sentiment.

“The Animal Women” by Alix E Harrow

The serialized story, which for once is long enough to warrant taking up two story slots. Set in 1968, in the kind of white country community that feels threatened and defensive in the wake of all the changes going on in the wider society outside; typically, their reaction tends to be violent. Candice is a sixth-grade girl with a speech impediment who prefers to express herself through photography. One day she comes upon a house where five strange women live together; they befriend her, and tell her their stories, which are similar.

“We’ve all got stories like that, girl. About being held down too long—beaten bloody, locked away, nothing left at all but our flickering souls. Then the world bent a little, just for us.” She flexed her fingers against the wood and there was the slight snick of claws scraping. “Something beautiful and wild and red-toothed woke up in us. And we were not nothing anymore.”

But her father and others warn her to stay away from that “house full of Negro women”.

This piece is essentially a feminist cliché, with no original elements. It’s all here: the repressive white patriarchy; the prejudice against “Negroes” and the “strange ways” of lesbians – words they can’t even bring themselves to say or may not even know – as well as anyone who’s different, like Candice with her speech problem; the brutal rapist and the submissive women who defer to male power; the women who empower themselves by striking back and taking revenge. The animal shapeshifting is just a metaphor for power and character, with no more interesting backgrounding. Revenge here is the heart of the story, one we’ve all heard many times already, with nothing really new added.



Tor.com, January 2015

Some different approaches to military SF.

“And the Burned Moth Remains” by Benjanun Sriduangkaew

Part of the author’s “Hegemony” military SF series. Once, Tiansong was a wealthy imperial power holding hegemony over other worlds as its Empresses continued to renew their lives into new bodies. But one body decided she didn’t care to be used in that way and fled, bearing crucial secrets, to the sanctuary of an upstart new power. Now, many centuries later, the upstart is the unassailable ruler of worlds and Tiansong a conquered territory, while Jingfei the traitor is confined in a fortress prison along with the secret that the Hegemony’s rulers would give almost anything to possess: the ability to pass on a mind, whole and with all its memories, to a new body. Because they believe that Jingfei possesses the key to controlling the mainframe central to the process, she is allowed a kind of immortality, constant reincarnation into short-lived bodies. The fortress now holds uncounted Jingfeis, incarnated subtly different in body but identical in mind and purpose. To them comes yet another envoy of the Hegemony offering a substantial bribe [they have long since given up on torture] in exchange for her secret.

I have found some of the previous works in this series to be overwrought, with excesses of prose obscuring the story and laying confusion before the reader. Here, the author seems to have found a better balance. No one, indeed, would call the prose flat, but now it serves the story rather than itself, and the subtleties of plot resolve in a manner satisfactory.

Outside the swarm-fortress, Jingfei of Moth River has never been born, her past corroded and her name consigned to forgetting. Inside it, within the bounds of thorn-suns and briar-stars casting sequential dusks, Jingfei has been born a hundred times, a thousand, a million: a multitude of allotropic selves with a mind inviolate as it is divided from shell to shell, a flame passed from one wick to light the next.

While much of the narrative is a duel of words between Jinfei and the envoy, readers should recall that a duel is a form of combat, with an outcome that may be momentous, depending on the combatants. In short, the author is getting better at this.

“Kia and Gio” by Daniel José Older

Kia is supposed to be working this Saturday in her uncle’s botánica, but she can’t concentrate today on anything but Giovanni, who fills her mind despite the fact that he’s been missing for the last six years. At the time, she was ten years old and determined to marry him, considering it no obstacle that he was gay, but even Kia could see at last that he was in love with Jeremy. So no surprise that Gio never hesitated to defend him when Jeremy was attacked by a group of apparent revenants in the night. And was never seen again. Yet until today, Kia never gave up hope that he might be out there, somewhere, in the world, eventually to return.

YA dark fantasy/love story with a flavor of santería.

“Damage” by David D Levine

This one is a space combat story of a war between the Free Belters and Earth, told by a sentient warship that its technician calls Scraps, because it was cobbled together from the remains of two other salvaged craft. Because of this, it carries the memories of its previous deaths, which can’t be erased from its programming, resulting in anxiety and misgivings that it finds painful. The ship has wondered why it was given such human feelings.

“They’re how your consciousness perceives the priorities we’ve programmed into you. If you didn’t get hungry, you might let yourself run out of fuel. If you didn’t feel pain when you were damaged, or if you didn’t fear death, you might not work so hard to avoid it. And if you didn’t love your pilot with all your heart, you might not sacrifice yourself to bring him home, if that became necessary.”

So the ship is entirely devoted, like a lover, to its pilot, “the finest combat pilot in the entire solar system”, although the feeling is hardly reciprocated; to him, the ship is only a tool. At last, with the war effectively lost, they are given one very final mission.

Considerable combat action here, as well as the thoughts of the troops facing defeat and death for a cause most of them no longer believe in. Everyone here is facing a choice, and they do it each in their own way, including the ship. An insightful work, though I rather wish the author had omitted the moral anticlimax at the end.



Unlikely Story, November 2014

The unlikely zine returns to its entomological origins with an announced theme of loss. Which the editors also link to the likely loss of this publication, which would be a loss indeed to the field. If any zine today reliably offers tales that are weird, it’s this one.

Here are seven stories, of which I especially like the Zinos-Amaro.

“Coping with Common Garden Pests” by Will Kaufmann

Post-apocalypse, the narrator struggles to preserve his dead wife’s garden, all he has left of her. But the post-apocalyptic pests are quite a bit tougher now and he ends up coping with them badly.

Next I attempted to pour a small amount of table salt directly onto one of the slugs. When my bare hand approached within a few inches of the slug, it spat some sort of acid at me. The hose, obviously, was useless for washing the stuff off my skin. My hand is spotted with blisters, but at least there is no sign of infection.

Not a very original idea, but it’s done cleverly, resulting in a lighter take on grief.

“On Shine Wings” by Polenth Blake

Space bees. A particularly strange premise that takes a bit of sorting out, as it’s not clear at first if the narrator is ship herself or whatever else, bee or human. It seems, though, that however she began, she is now a living shipmind, wired-in to the controls, so probably holds the position of queen, while the crew/hive fills the interior and presumably keeps her fed. There has been war in the system and existence is perilous, so that mining ships in the outer reaches run dark, to be safe unobserved. The narrator’s ship serves as a fixer, repairing damage to other ships. But a shining-bright ship means danger, one so strong it fears no other.

. . . I didn’t hear again from the dark on light ship. I heard warnings to flee from light ship after light ship. I followed the calls, because when a ship didn’t flee, there were no more sounds. No pale survivors.
The shine ship broadcast a message of peace. I readied for war.

Quite original, if obscure in parts, but the heart of the story is unmistakable.

“Prism City Blues” by Naim Kabir

The longest piece in the issue. A future when immortality has been achieved by means of a retrovirus, but it has to be renewed periodically, at a cost many can’t afford. There is also a biowar underway where altered RV is producing strange mutations, which the scientist in charge of RV development ignores for her own reasons. When poor artist Noah is offered a free dose of RV, he unwisely ignores the maxim that anything too good to be true probably isn’t. He wakes to find himself, Gregor Samsa-like, transformed into a giant insect.

The world was broken into prismatic shards with the same street split ten thousand times and its white line fractured and refracted into rainbows without color. The stressed sensory overload jumped his muscles, launched him off the ground and slammed him into a wall where he leaned with hard hands on his spiky head.

A particularly cynical work which, among other things, suggests that immortality isn’t such a great idea for a society. The narrative, however, is excessively fragmented, and the devolution process doesn’t make any sense, in terms of getting to the final outcome desired by the designer.

“Meltdown in Freezer Three” by Luna Lindsey

Corinne is another aspiring future artist, a composer, but autism has kept her from having sufficient confidence in her creations, so she drives an ice cream truck to make a living, playing a song of her own composition that attracts customers. Actually, the truck drives itself and Corinne sells, with a service insectoid to help if things get too much for her. As they do when some thugs ridicule her as a “retard” and attack her truck, putting it out of commission. Before the tow truck can arrive, the freezers fail, which is potentially fatal to the tiny insectoid aliens who have built an ice city in Freezer Three. “In another hour, the whole icetropolis will be flooded, destroyed, all their beautiful architecture vanished. And the faeliens will be dead of heat stroke.”

This is a story of coping, a positive feelgood piece, but only minimally buggy. Readers may well wonder if the truck and its parts are actually sentient or if this is just Corinne’s way of projecting.

“Miranda’s Wings” by Alvaro Zinos-Amaro

Leonard, a collector of strange specimens, has captured a unique one, a human-sized chimera of woman and butterfly that he has named Miranda.

Leonard had applied his habitual painstaking preservation technique to this specimen, just as he had to thousands of regular-sized ones during his years of collecting. First, he had “relaxed” the young woman’s body just as he would have a butterfly’s, by depriving her of oxygen and draping her unconscious, but still living, body on moistened sheets. Then, with great care, he had applied pressure to her thorax so that her wings would separate. Next, he proceeded to insert a ruler-sized stainless steel rod through her abdomen, careful not to puncture any vital organs, and allowed the entry and exit wounds to heal, suturing as needed. He slid her up and down the rod until her wings were aligned with the edge of his massive spreading board.

Well-crafted classic weird horror, twisting into a particularly satisfying conclusion. I could certainly see it appearing a century ago. Also highly entomological.

–RECOMMENDED

“Gemma Bugs Out” by Victorya Chase

Gemma’s mother died from a bee sting. At her funeral a pill bug bit Gemma and she turned into one, then crawled to her father’s hand.

I uncurled and crawled out of his shirt, rolled down his chest and lay on his knee. He put a hand up to his lap and I crawled onto it. I rolled around between his knuckles a bit, and then fell asleep in the palm of his hand, his fingers curled like giant pillars at the end of the world. I woke up with my head on his knee, metamorphosed as a girl without a mother.

Gemma is also now effectively without her father, who sinks into near-catatonic grief. So life goes on, while Gemma turns into various biting insects and her father fills the house with dying roses, which attract wasps. Gemma particularly likes being a wasp. But then she meets Jack, the mail carrier, and realizes she wants actual human companionship.

Neat original idea, definitely buggy.



Kaleidotrope, Winter 2015

An issue full of witches, most stories fairly long. The sole SFnal exception is my favorite, though.

“Bread of Life” by Cynthia McGean

A witch performs her spells in the form of stories told to village listeners around her hearth. The only really interesting aspect here is the way the villagers automatically distrust the witch in the tale they are told, yet never seem to notice the one right in the same room with them. Otherwise pretty moralistic and obvious.

“Atomic Visions” by Michael Andre-Driussi

The exception to the rest of the content in the issue, being an alternate science fiction piece – a What If? In this case, What If, after the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, atomic weapons had become a routine conventional weapon in the rest of the century’s wars? The central figure is Buddy Dutchman, a flyer [get that?], actually a bombardier, or at least he seems to have been in WWII, bombing over Japan. He and some of his war buddies are reminiscing over a few beers when Buddy begins to have a series of visions, some of which bleed into each other, of other past and future missions in which he was/will be/ might have been engaged. There is clearly something surreal or at least fantastic about the visions, so that we see through Buddy’s eyes like a later-day Scrooge, unsure if these are events which must or might be.

No, it’s not Y-Day. Luke the Spook, my old bomber, was shot down over Korea. I thought I was going to die. Maybe I did? It’s just a memory ,brought on by being in a parachute again, revisiting that trauma. The war’s over — Korea is free.

If read as an alternate history, the point of departure would be the autumn of 1945, when US invasion forces stormed the Japanese beaches in the wake of the atomic bombardment, leading to the appalling vision of the command ordering their own troops to cross the radioactive ground.

The beach reminded Buddy of Miyazaki. He wondered what it had been like for those Japanese soldiers, guarding the beach against the landing force on the horizon. The odds had been three to two in favor of the Allies, but a successful invasion required odds of at least three to one. Buddy figured the Japanese soldiers had felt confident and ready, seeing better odds than the Germans had faced at D-Day, six months earlier. It was a classic strategic scenario, and by the numbers revealed they could see that the Allies did not have the strength left to enter the endgame on the proper footing. But then the fire had hit the beach out of the blue sky and the odds were changed in an instant.

There is, however, a lot more going on here than a straightforward AH. At one point, Buddy seems to recall dying, and there is the suggestion that he might have actually done so, at least in one version of events; could the entire story be set in his personal Hell? Readers should be alert for subtle hints, particularly those foreshadowing the conclusion.

–RECOMMENDED

“Necessary Evil” by Stephen J Barringer

Here’s a broad and complex setting, meant to replicate certain features of our own history in Europe of the early Middle Ages, when older religions were giving way to a surging Christianity. The immediate setting is an analog of Scotland under the control of warring clans, but there is also a hostile Scandinavia power and more distant but threatening Germanic states. The characters, however, speak a Robert Burns dialect. Our protagonist is Mycroft of the MacAlasdairs, a youngest son apprenticed to a wizard and somewhat estranged from his family while loyal to his clan. Another brother is the lover of Caitryn Kilbarron, daughter of a clan that follows the other religion, which has so far prevented their marriage; relations between the two clans are strained as a result. Now she is near death from some unknown cause and Mycroft is urgently summoned to treat her, discovering the cause to be a powerful curse. Yet when he begs help from his master, the crusty old man refuses. It seems there are greater matters behind the curse, and forces even more powerful than him. Mycroft is left on his own, with little to go on but logic and the principle cui bono.

As the plot takes on the elements of a mystery, readers are likely to fix on the protagonist’s personal name, which seems to be of English, not Scots origin. Of course, this is not our own world or history, but it’s noteworthy that most of the other names appear to be invented, or at least respelled. I can’t help wondering about the author’s choice here. I like the background of Realpolitick behind the more immediate events, and there’s a depth to this setting that it would be easy to see other tales set here, although I’m not aware of any.

“The Salt Wedding” by Gemma Files

A “Jerusalem Parry” story. In fact, the Jerusalem Parry story, as it essentially replicates What Has Gone Before, before finally [or so it seems] bringing it all to a conclusion. At which point, some readers may be expecting my traditional strictures on the evils of serializations, particularly when, as in this case, the various installments have appeared here and there, where readers might not have found them. But this time I must say that I like this version a lot better than the prior ones, and there’s one reason: the narrative voice and point of view, which here belongs to a character who played a lesser role previously, the witch Tante Ankolee. She’s a great improvement over Parry, who had an off-putting tendency to self-pity and whining.

The tale begins when Ankolee receives a visitor from the Royal Navy, begging her aid with the problem of a ghost pirate ship preying on shipping. This is the Bitch from Hell, captained by the accursed pair of Parry and Solomon Rusk, bound together beyond death in chains of mutual loathing.

These survivors told a story of their own, which their rescuers dismissed as mere raving: Said they’d been approached mid-voyage by a spectral three-master massive enough as any four ships slapped haphazardly together — the which, on closer inspection, it seemingly proved to be. Blown forth on burning sails from the darkness, this looming, lurching hulk’s ill-cobbled upper deck was back-lit by an unnatural corona blue-green as the horizon’s sunset flash, and on it stood two equal-phantom figures, a careful distance kept between ‘em: One a single-eyed rogue done up in piratical finery, so large he made the other (tall enough, by most standards) seem small by comparison, while his mate stood slim and upright with silver-pale eyes in an even paler face, clad head-to-toe in parsimonious black.

They have recently been capturing other ships in order to spawn a second Bitch from their timbers, so that they might go their separate ways at last, but the attempt fails. It’s Ankolee who realizes what the missing element of the curse must be, and the method of breaking it.

Entertaining piratical ghost/witch story, enhanced by Ankolee’s vivid narrative voice and improved by the absence of excessive angst. The conclusion wraps the whole thing up quite neatly, and I find myself hoping it is truly concluded, as further sequels would likely be anticlimactic.



Shimmer, January 2015

Four stories in this issue, with some very strange settings.

“The Half Dark Promise” by Malon Edwards

The setting of this horror piece has the name of Chicago but I doubt anyone from the city will recognize much about it, save for the names. Indeed, just about everything else is different, from the gas lights to the Haitian community to the tentacled child-eating monster on the streets to the fact that a kid can carry a machete to school in her backpack. Michaëlle-Isabelle, that kid, also has a mechanical heart and the ability to take off her skin and form a protective shell of it.

When all of the skin has been pulled off, I spread it open and I blow on it. It’s brown with translucence. It catches my breath, like a parachute. It dries with patience, like butterfly wings. As it hardens, I shape it around me, from head to foot.

This, she tells us, is the effect of the disease epidermolysis bullosa, but not in our world it isn’t.

There’s an optimal level of strangeness for any story. This one exceeds it. In addition to the above, the narration includes a lot of Haitian Creole [which is easier to parse if you try to read it as French]. Any one or two of these elements could add richness and interest to the setting and character, but the effect of them altogether in such a short piece is distancing and distracting from the story’s heart, which is the narrator’s pain at losing her only friend, and her determination to fight for him.

The fact is, that the streets of actual Chicago have ample real dangers for schoolchildren walking home, and the death toll is a tragedy and a disgrace to the city. [One reference in the text is, I believe, to the anti-gun pledge.] Reducing this problem to a tentacled monster seems to trivialize it.

“Of Blood and Brine” by Megan E O’Keefe

Here’s a setting with a good level of strangeness, where the elements bolster the storyline. It’s a world where the toxic strength of the sunlight is ultimately fatal to anyone who doesn’t cover the body in a wrap, but children are expected to earn their own wraps before adulthood, along with a name based on the unique personal scent with which their wraps are perfumed. Thus when we meet our apprentice perfumer, she is known only as Child. Her Naming Day is fast approaching, but she fears her employer won’t pay her enough to buy a wrap. Fortunately, a new, wealthy customer comes to the shop while her mistress is out, and Child is disturbed by the fact that she has no scent, no name, no identity. But she offers to pay well if Child can satisfy her.

An interesting society here, with children expected to be self-sufficient before adolescence. It’s good to see Child as a competent member of her profession, ready and able to advance into full adulthood and independence, knowing well the consequences of failure.

Ivy-beneath-cedar wouldn’t care; apprentices were easy enough to come by. The Justice of Bahat would see no harm done—those who failed to earn enough to purchase their own wraps before the sickness took them were considered useless. Just another mouth to feed from the scorched soil.

I like the way she has a brief moment of resentment of the dead, their wraps cremated with them while she has to go without, but not regarding this as an injustice. These few details tell us a lot about the society while keeping the focus on Child’s story.

–RECOMMENDED

“Be Not Unequally Yoked” by Alexis A Hunter

It’s not just that Joash keeps changing into a horse. The horse is a mare, which is clearly a metaphor for his sexual ambiguity. The story doesn’t name what he is, but he has always enjoyed the work that his Amish community considers only fit for women, and he now finds himself longing for the touch and love of another young man, which they would consider sinful. The point isn’t the name, but the fact that he can never be true to himself and fit into the place that the community insists he must – or leave it. Not unexpectedly, he realizes an epiphany of self-acceptance at the end.

The lines inside me dissolve like sugar in water. This is my powerful body. These are my strong hooves, my wild gaiety and fierce exuberance for life. Yet, there are still parts of me that are afraid. There are parts of me that still reprimand me for this sin. I am at once happy and miserable.

The pain of Joash’s desire is well-realized, but I was particularly taken by the pain suffered by his parents, who don’t share the option of a young person, to leave their strictly-governed religious community for somewhere tolerant. We can clearly see how their lives have been in large part destroyed by the attempt to live within this religious community without rejecting their only child. Joash’s sensitivity doesn’t even let his father harness their farmhorse for plowing, a real problem for an Amish farmer. If he remains, they face rejection; already the elders are suspicious. And if he leaves, they will remain as an aging, childless couple with no one to help on the farm and the pity, at best, of those around them.

“Monsters in Space” by Angela Ambroz

A sort of If This Goes On story looking at the exploitation of labor by big corporate interests. The law now holds that the debts of the parents are inherited by the next generations, and everyone has debts. Thus we find fifteen-year-old Louise working off her mother’s mortgage as an oil rigger on Titan. She takes a rather cheerful view of her lot.

When I chance to see a window, I recognize the awe-inspiring grandeur of our Valhalla views. Check that shit out. Methane. Nitrogen. Oozy orange chrome foam. We’re on Titan, bitches! We’re on a giant moon of a giant planet, orbiting a super-giant sun. Wow! I mean, I am impressed. I hope everyone is suitably impressed.

Other workers, less naïve, are less accepting of their situation, a resentment that sometimes materializes in the form of terrorism, which, as is often the case, tends to injure the innocent and miss their real targets, safely out of reach.

Louise makes an engaging narrator with her teenaged point of view, which proves her point about “how the oil companies want to gamify the means of production, and distract us from our oppression, and infantilize us, and so on and so forth, blahdy blah blah.” But despite the lightness of the narrative voice, there’s heavy stuff going on here, and Louise ends up both sadder and wiser, while still essentially herself.



Farrago’s Wainscot, January 2015

Not a new zine but the revival of an older one from long hiatus. It offers four short pieces, on the surreal and unusual side, pieces that I suspect might have not fit into more conventional publications.

“Everyone Has a Twin Except for Me” by Toiya Kristen Finley

That’s the premise: there are alternate dimensions, here called nodes, in which alternate versions of individuals exist. The sometimes-narrator, CF, is a young man tormented throughout his life by a group of bullies, particularly two named Derek and Aaron. To escape them, he flees from one node to the next, but they always find him there. Yet in none of these other nodes is there another CF.

The not-making-sense of this one is stunning. If there is no alternate CF in these other nodes, then the alternate instances of the bullies don’t have a history of tormenting their CF; why would they then pick on him in particular if they have never seen him before? And if the alternate bullies are always in the same place, why doesn’t CF move somewhere else in the world instead of from node to node? It makes no sense that the bullies would have absolutely nothing else to do but follow one favorite victim around.

Aside from being unconvincing, the story tends to be unclear as it flips from one narrative form to another.

“Sinfonia 22″ by Forrest Aguirre

Told in documentary snippets, the life of a 17th century Italian composer, from which readers can piece together the story of his final days and opus.

It is a dance, a triumphal celebration, as if Livetti himself had spit a musical raspberry at the plague, the vicissitudes of war and love, authority, the social status quo, and even those who sought for and engineered his demise.

Intriguing puzzle piece with no fantastic content.

“Of Homes Gone” by Jason Heller

Long ago, say the whispers, there was Law, and people lived inside. Then the ceilings collapsed and the walls contracted and the floors became hungry and almost everyone died. All that’s left inside the buildings is death. Buildings are vindictive, unpredictable, sheltering one minute and murdering the next. Outside makes more sense. You can see things coming. You have room to run.

A surreal and distasteful future, when the underclass camps outside and ekes out survival, while a privileged class lives in a more stable sort of inside. One of these, Sarah, our narrator, is an Enforcer of the Lack of Law, a typical abusive cop who thinks nothing of casually destroying an innocent person’s livelihood to get the information she’s looking for, which, when she finds it, she wishes she hadn’t. Or maybe not.

A dark fantasy like this one isn’t meant to make literal sense. It’s meant to draw readers into an unsettling place, to evoke disturbing sensations. And in this case, to consider the situation of the homeless today and their helplessness in the face of the Enforcers of Law.

“Time is a Twisting Snake” by Richard Bowes

Another collapsing future, this one in the approaching world when the rise of the oceans is drowning the coastal cities, including the former New York, now known as Big Arena. Fitting its current status as a new Venice [I assume the old one has been submerged] the residents of the Big Arena are trying to recreate the tradition of marrying the city to the sea [apparently in hopes of appeasing it]. Our narrator has taken on the role of Doge.

We don’t yet have a proper Bucintoro, that floating gold throne room on which the Doges of Venice sailed forth each year onto the Adriatic Sea. I stand on the deck of a garishly painted barge loaded with flowers and towed by a fireboat. The regatta accompanying us includes everything from sailboats to ferries and is larger than it’s ever been before.

But time and fashion moves on while social media evolve, and the narrator is becoming passé, obsolete. There are new fashions, favoring youth, and the narrator must either join them or fade into oblivion.

Now the thing is, I like this setting and I’m anticipating the story set in it. But then comes Part Two, and the Venice-like setting almost disappears, until I realize this is actually a story of aging and the way the powerful can cope with it in this future. And it becomes clear that he may have made a devil’s bargain to pay for that golden throne. So in the end it all works, but the abrupt disconnect is a bit jarring.

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

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

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

Russell Letson reviews Elizabeth Bear

Elizabeth Bear is one of those writers I will follow through genre neighborhoods that I would normally avoid – her 2011 alt-historical novella ad aeternum got me to read and enjoy a vampire story (which usually leave my blood lukewarm). So when I saw ‘‘steampunk’’ among the marketing labels listed on my review copy of Karen Memory, it was the author’s name on the spine that encouraged me to go along for another ride through another category I usually find rather overworked. And the narrator’s voice in the opening line pretty much sealed the deal: ‘‘You ain’t gonna like what I have to tell you, but I’m gonna tell you anyway.’’ Direct address and nonstandard grammar – shades of Huck Finn, if (as we discover directly) Huck were a 16-year-old orphan girl working as a (ahem) seamstress in a brothel in Rapid City (which is not quite Seattle) during an alternate Rutherford B. Hayes administration (that is, c. 1878). When she tells us that her name is actually spelled Memery-with-an-e, I thought I heard the promise of some interesting thematics in the offing, along with the immediate sense that Karen has some interesting literary predecessors in addition to Huckleberry Finn – maybe a dash of True Grit and a nod in passing to Sarah Canary. (And quite a bit later, a considerable homage to M. Jules Verne.)

The steampunk world of Karen Memory is also a frontier world, all muddy streets and plank sidewalks and hard-handed working folk – lumberjacks and sailors and aspiring prospectors off to the gold fields up north. It’s the kind of world in which Huck would be right at home, though Huck never got around to visiting any place like Madame Damnable’s establishment, at least in Mr. Mark Twain’s accounts of his adventures. The Hôtel Mon Cherie is a pocket environment, a world of women – with the exception of the ex-slave doorman Crispin, who is gay, and Miss Francina, who’s ‘‘got a pecker under her dress.’’ But, Karen assures us, ‘‘that ain’t nothing but God’s rude joke. She’s one of us girls every way that matters, and handy for a bouncer besides.’’ (The piano-playing Professor is conventionally male but not a resident, and Signor, the deaf white tomcat, gets the not-a-human pass.)

In fact, most of the cast (the good guys at least) are from the ranks of the marginalized, outsiders of one kind or another: not only the rest of Madame’s ‘‘seamstresses’’ but the black (also ex-slave) US Deputy Marshal Bass Reeves, his Comanche ‘‘posseman’’ and friend Tomoatooah, the formidable Chinese liberator of stolen women Merry Lee, and the sex-trafficked Indian (East variety) sisters Priya and Aashina. I suppose the villains are outsiders as well, in the sense of being nasty, sadistic, and psychopathic even in roughneck Rapid City, but they remain, however tenuously, part of a man’s-world power structure and well within its cultural if not its legal margins.

Madame Damnable’s establishment is a refuge for orphans and ex-slaves and transvestites and spoiled tomcats. It’s neither a utopia nor a democracy but a functional, hard-nosed-but-benevolent matriarchy, getting along in a flawed and fallen world. Karen and her colleagues face a series of escalating and interestingly interconnected problems, starting when the Hôtel gives sanctuary to a trafficked and practically enslaved young woman (Priya) and her injured rescuer (Merry Lee), who are being pursued by the sadistic rival brothel-owner Peter Bantle and his gang of thugs. Soon Bass Reeves and Tomoatooah show up, having pursued a serial killer of prostitutes to Rapid City. Proof that the murderer is in town arrives in the shape of a flogged corpse dumped behind Madame’s establishment – a combination calling-card and threat. Eventually there is much worse and far-reaching evildoing that threatens more than Madame’s establishment or the city’s unprotected streetwalkers.

Steampunk, like most branches of the fantastic, is strongly determined by its furniture (to use George R.R. Martin’s useful term) – steam and Edison-era electricity for power, leather and brass, goggles and helmets and frock-coats and corsets, levers and gear-trains and pistons, oh my. And airships. Gotta have airships. But some of the most interesting elements of Karen’s story are not generated by that furniture, though it hangs about in the background of many scenes, like the new sewing machine ‘‘that you stand inside of and move with your whole body, and it does the cutting and stitching and steam pressing, too.’’ Instead, important events are driven by socio-politico-economic and emotional forces common to our history and hers – politics (sexual and garden-variety), labor exploitation, bigotry, psychopathology, friendship, loyalty, duty, and love, particularly Karen’s love-at-first-sight for Priya.

I notice that much of the book’s non-melodramatic foreground deals with domestic matters à la 1878: sewing, cooking, shopping for groceries or boots. There’s an especially appealing visit to the local covered market, where Karen notices

oranges from China and alligator pears from Mexico…. Scallops as big as your hand, that you could cut and eat like a fillet steak. Oysters by the gross and by the dozen, plain briny honest fare for whores and tradesmen alike…. Saffron, cinnamon, nutmeg, peppercorns. Sea salt in great soft, sticky flakes…. Anything you have ever eaten or wanted to eat, basically, and a slew of other things besides….

But ample supplies of cruelty, greed, ambition, and plain meanness are also available in Rapid City, and they eventually call that heavy steampunk machinery to center stage, where it clanks and chuffs and sparks its way through the big set-piece action sequences. Along the way there is plenty of no-tech derring-do as Karen and her ‘‘sisters’’ and allies display their grit, spunk, smarts, nerve, guts, and other monosyllabic virtues on the way to untangling and defeating the interlocking villainies that threaten their delicate stability.

Karen Memory is a delight, a tour-de-force of historical reimagining and character creation, and a ripping yarn full of surprises, and despite Karen’s opening line, I can’t imagine anyone not liking what she has to tell us.

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 Michael Moorcock

“Bulletin! Dateline: London. Michael Moorcock Enlists in Rudy Rucker’s School of Transrealism!”

Well, maybe that’s overstating the case for Moorcock’s employment of his own autobiography as the substrate for a work of fantastika, in the manner described in Rucker’s famous “Transrealist Manifesto.” And I’m sure Moorcock, one of cyberpunk’s—and hence one of Rucker’s—spiritual forefathers, was doing this kind of thing in smaller doses even prior to Rucker’s brainstorm. But still and all, the most recent novel from the New Wave Grand Master does fall squarely into the same camp as many of Rucker’s novels, also consorting with recent slipstreamy tales like Terry Bissons’s Any Day Now.

Up until page 35 of Michael Moorcock’s brilliant new fabulaic book, The Whispering Swarm, you assume you are reading a straightforward roman a clef, a subtly transmogrified (James Ballard = Jack Allard, etc., although plenty of real names are used as well) autobiographical memoir of a young fellow named Michael Moorcock as he navigates the streets of his beloved native London from birth in 1940 to circa 1956. But then onto the mundane scene comes one Friar Isadore, a strange humble little chap who is a member of the secretive order known as the White Friars.

It eventuates that the White Friars live in a magical neighborhood reachable thru big antique wooden doors found—if the percipient is lucky and sensitive enough—off a certain London mews. Inside is the realm known as Alsacia, a kind of “nexus of all realities” (to use the Marvel Comics phrase) where characters out of fiction consort with personages from history. At the ethical and moral center of Alsacia are the White Friars, a Christian order who received a special dispensation and charter centuries ago. And their ongoing mystical quest across the Black Aether seems to need the help of one Mike Moorcock to insure its success.

But for a while the heedless young lad is more besotted with the beautiful robber Captain Molly Midnight, and they go off on some transdimensional hijinks together. But as the lure and rewards and pleasures and challenges of mundane London reassert themselves, Moorcock strays from Alsacia. Years go by without a return visit. Our man is now in his twenties and well set-up in his professional writing life and a sideline of musical performances. He’s bedded many entrancing mortal women and finally married one. Their first child arrives. (And throughout all of this we are reveling in numerous genre tidbits, such as the role Harry Harrison played in the inspiration of Elric.) Perhaps the only drawback to banishment from Alsacia is “the Whispering Swarm,” an annoying susurrus of strange voices that comes and goes in Moorcock’s ears only.

Then, in his late twenties, a talking raven named Sam and a beautiful green Lagonda limo arrive to usher Moorcock back into the bosom of Alsacia. He becomes the live-in lover of Molly Midnight; takes lessons in “Radiant Time” from Father Grammaticus of the White Friars; and engages in various adventures straight out of Alexander Dumas. Best of all, when in Alsacia, the Whispering Swarm disappears. He thus balances a split existence, shuttling back and forth between the two spheres. In the mundane world, all sorts of vastly interesting career stuff is happening, as well as the entire Swinging Sixties. In the uncanny place, eternal battles and controversies ebb and flow. Moorcock participates fully in both realms. But this account—the first in a series—ends with another exclusion from Alsacia, voluntary this time.

Moorcock interweaves his two strands into a cat’s cradle of wonder, with each narrative illuminating and heightening its counterpart, so it’s patently stupid to try to assess them separately. Nonetheless, I feel compelled to try to disentangle them and gauge them apart from each other, just for the moment.

The autobiographical, mimetic portion strikes me as the superior half of the tale. Moorcock vividly conjures up the years from 1940 to 1970 in colorful, rhapsodic, heartfelt ways. He sketches characters deftly and deeply, not least of all himself, of course. He is unsparing of his own follies and ambitions, artistic and marital, facing the matter of his somewhat squandered talents and irresponsibility full on. Consider this soberly insightful passage, for instance, regarding the success Moorcock experienced.

But fame is power and power is a drug. You fascinate everyone, including yourself. You start getting as interested in you as they are. Life is so easy. Power is thrust at you from all sides. They want you to lie to them. Screw them. They wanted you to tell them stories. Sing them songs. In return you could do whatever you wanted.

This account sometimes resembles the cynical narratives of the Angry Young Man School, like John Braine’s Room at the Top. At the same time though, Moorcock is clear-eyed enough to recall and share the wonderful Edenic or Arcadian aspects of his life and the era at large. Regrets, despite everything, are pretty much nonexistent. And so, especially for the SF fan, this roman a clef aspect is fascinating.

The fantastical half of the book I found fun, but not an advance on Moorcock’s previous explications of his Multiverse. I was continually comparing it in my head to his Second Ether trilogy, which I regard as perhaps his best instantiation of this concept. He does introduce a few new refinements and speculations and historical allusions. But the novum is by now well worn.

Yet when you re-yoke these two halves together—as the book’s stout craftsmanship insists you must, ferrying you smoothly and blithely from one shore to another, in a craft whose keel is solid naturalism and whose sails are pure magic—then the result is an organic work that shows the whole man, and his dreams.

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-January

In this column, I’m looking at new and changed publications, befitting the new year. Notably, we have Clarkesworld in its January issue beginning a program of publishing Chinese authors in translation. Indeed, this seems to be a growing trend, as the second issue of Uncanny is anchored by a fine piece by Hao Jingfang, to which I present this year’s first Good Story Award. I also have the debut issue of a new electronic quarterly, Straeon.

What I like to see in a new publication is something distinct, something that makes it stand out from the mass of other, too-similar zines. Straeon’s mission statement seems to reject this, promising an eclectic mix with no particular mission or direction. Uncanny’s new issue, on the other hand, shows signs of adopting a distinct identity. I’ll be looking forward to seeing how these new ventures shake out as the year goes on.

And in February, I’ll look at F&SF with new editor C C Finlay at the helm. It may be an interesting year.

Publications Reviewed



Clarkesworld, January 2015

This is a milestone issue for CW, Number 100, and the zine is marking it with a bonus of fiction. There are six original stories here, two of them translations from Chinese authors, in part the result of a program funded by last year’s Kickstarter campaign. There is also the first part of a fantastical piece by Catherynne M Valente, vexingly serialized and thus incomplete here.

“Three Cups of Grief, by Starlight” by Aliette De Bodard

Set during the expansion of the author’s Dai Viet Empire into space, when the authorities have encountered the problem of insufficient agricultural land suitable for raising crops [notably rice] to feed a growing population. Duy Uyen came up with the solution of building agricultural space stations, a project of such importance that the Empress, upon Duy Uyen’s death, decreed that her mem-implants be given to her successor on the station instead of her eldest child, as tradition demands. This son is devastated by the decision, suffering a second bereavement.

“They took her away from us,” Quang Tu said. “Again and again and again. And now, at the very end, when she ought to be ours—when she should return to her family . . . ”

The story visits the loss from three different perspectives: Quang Tu, the scientist who received the implants and wishes she hadn’t, and Duy Uyen’s other child, now an AI Mind in a starship. Each section is given a preface describing a different variety of tea, a drink of solace and comfort symbolizing the different flavors of grief. “Do not over-steep it, lest it become bitter.” I do wonder why the mem-implant couldn’t have been copied, which is perhaps a facile solution.

“A Universal Elegy” by Tang Fei, translated by John Chu

An epistolary story, letters written by a woman to her brother. Irina suffers from an “inhibitory neuron blockage disorder” which may be the reason she has a history of choosing abusive men. After she leaves her last lover, she takes up with a man named Hull, although “man” might not be the right term; despite a superficial resemblance to human, he is a member of an alien race very different indeed. At first, she writes that he has been very good for her, although readers may recognize signs that suggest a controlling spouse:

. . . finally, I realized that, all along, Hull had been guiding me, consciously training me. Through constant, ever deeper, ever more meticulous interactions, like how our ancestors sliced ever thinner slices of graphite until they finally sheared off a sheet of graphene, my already keen powers of perception and expression improved.

But eventually matters between them come to a point when she realizes she can never become what he wishes her to be.

This is an odd story, in large part because Irina is a narrator we can’t trust to know either herself or the world around her. Certainly she doesn’t seem to know, as we never learn, just what Hull saw in her and why he took her on such a long journey to his homeworld [or, for that matter, why he had left it in the first place]. If this is a way of acquiring prey, it seems like way more trouble than it’s worth. There are a number of other elements I find mysterious – the exact nature of the green flame, for one. And the unidentified Alia, after whom Irina’s calendar is named. But Alia’s epigraphic elegy suggests the core of the story: that a person needs to be complete in herself in order to love. But whether Irina has become such a person, we don’t really know.

“Cat Pictures Please” by Naomi Kritzer

The narrator is an inadvertently self-aware AI with access to the internet, which gives it broad knowledge of individual users.

And here’s the thing, I also know where you ought to live. There’s a house for sale two neighborhoods over that’s within distance of your favorite coffee shop; it’s in your price range, has off-street parking, and the neighborhood school is better than the one where you live now. I know where you should be shopping and I’m pretty sure you’re lactose intolerant and should be eating less cheese, and the underwear you like is currently on sale and by the way, your car has a recall and you really ought to get your teeth cleaned.

What the AI wonders is what it ought to do with all this information, and its inclination is to help people. But not for free. In exchange, it wants cat pictures. Cute ones, of course.

Amusing lite piece. It doesn’t suggest too strongly that an AI with such abilities might use them for evil rather than good, but readers might uneasily recall how easily good intentions can backfire.

“The Apartment Dweller’s Bestiary” by Kij Johnson

To be more clear, this is a bestiary for the single apartment dweller who can’t seem to form a permanent relationship; these are imaginary creatures for the solitary and lonely, thus it’s no surprise that many of them are of the comforting sort.

Your begitte, which you got from a buddy when he moved in with his girlfriend, is a spotted one with crazy long white whiskers. It sleeps on the couch most of the time, looking like a novelty throw pillow. It grooms itself and it does not shed.

Essentially, this is a list story about the ways to be a relationship loser. Too long a list; it gets kind of tedious by the time we get down the alphabet.

“Ether” by Zhang Ran, translated by Carmen Yiling Yan and Ken Liu

The narrator lives in a dystopian near-future when everyone seems to be concerned solely with banalities.

When I was young, the Internet was full of opinion, thought, and passion. Exuberant youths filled the virtual world with furious Socratic debate, while the brilliant but misanthropic waxed lyrical about their dreams of a new social order. I could sit unmoving in front of a computer screen until dawn as hyperlinks took my soul on whirlwind journeys. Now, I sift through front pages and notifications and never find a single topic worth clicking on.

He is one of the few people who seem to recall how things used to be and to be aware of this phenomenon or bothered by it until he encounters a protest demonstration; as the protesters flee, one of them grabs his hand and spells a word into it. This chance encounter leads to a life-changing experience.

At its heart, this story is about a man reclaiming the independent spirit of his youth, the young man who said, “Fuck you” to his brutal, oppressive father but has now fallen into a life-rut with no real friends. But this is also a political story, as we discover when we learn the reason the protesters have resorted to the finger-talking as a way of evading ubiquitous surveillance. It’s interesting that this society is ostensibly benign; although police seem to be everywhere, they are polite and agreeable to the narrator. It’s also interesting that this society isn’t specifically Chinese; most of the cultural references seem to reflect the US. There is also a likely political reason for this, one that involves suppression of dissent. And there are many ways for an individual to address this suppression.

–RECOMMENDED

“An Exile of the Heart” by Jay Lake

The good part is: there’s some action here. The ungood part: our narrator uses the phrase “death by screw-up”, and that seems a good description of Trieste. This is a less-credible future with the orbital space stations, the moon, and possibly even Earth are ruled by hereditary aristocracies, all conspiring against each other. Trieste is the heir to one station, but she gets kicked off through a combination of screwing up and her mother’s jealousy. After which, she screws up on another station and causes an international incident while getting her tutor killed. Sent to yet another station, she falls with suspicious haste in love with its Biomistress, a person who can whip up pheremonal sexual attraction potions as well as gene-tailored viruses. And she screws up again, until she ends up going out the airlock, which would seem good riddance. Except it’s not as simple as that.

Readers familiar with Lake’s work will inevitably compare Trieste to his well-known heroine Green, but the comparison is entirely in Green’s favor. Trieste is self-centered, foolish, and reckless. The narrator keeps telling us that this is a famous love story, but her instant attraction to Axielle isn’t particularly convincing, especially given Axielle’s abilities. The only moment of real poignancy I find here is when Trieste is told on her deathbed that her lover will not, at last, be coming to her. The narrator tells us that after all the screw-ups, she went on to have a brilliant military/political career, but this is something we never see and, indeed, seems to be the stuff of self-created myth. And about that: the piece opens with the narrator addressing a group of children who beg to hear a story; the voice is colloquial and seems uneducated.

What do you want, you little handgrips? I ain’t told you enough stories yet? There’s school enough in the comps and nets to make you all perfessers of some damned thing or another.

Yet Trieste’s story is told in more formal and refined language, an anomaly that no one listening seems to notice. Readers, probably, will notice something more at the end – a moment that redeems many of the story’s apparent inconsistencies and deficiencies.



Straeon #1, December 2014

The promising debut issue of a new quarterly zine from the publishers of Stupifying Stories, intended to be more literarily ambitious in its content. The title seems to mean, simply, “Stories”, although the focus is generally on genre content. The editors declare that they intend to follow no particular direction aside from perceived quality, and I find the fiction here to be largely along the lines prevalent in most of today’s publications, soft SF of some sort. Happily, there are a good number of longer works among the ten stories here, including one novella. I hope the zine sticks around and finds its own place in the mix.

“Lady Sakura’s Letters” by Juliette Wade

Set in the Imperial Heian era, the story is told by a tengu, a supernatural shapechanging creature of Japanese folklore, here called a goblin – not the best term. This one seems to have some qualities of a dryad, as connected to a particular sugi tree, which is hit by a bolt of lightning and then cut up for use in woodworking. He thus finds himself incorporated into Lady Sakura’s writing box, from which he urgently seeks escape, but in doing so he possesses her body and becomes involved in her sad situation. Her husband[?] has abandoned her, and she has just miscarried their child. With no other outlet for her grief, she pours it into words, onto the paper in her writing box, into the ink that flows from her brush.

She carried no inkstone, but the very sound of her voice seemed to draw more ink from the brush. A shining, dark thread curled forth, shaping women’s characters in the air. Then the black ink fluttered apart, and each fragment changed, blushing to the pale pink of blossoms in spring. Cherry blossoms— real sakura petals—fell to the sugi needles at her feet.

A magical story, a union of two spirits seeking truth and freedom. Both are trapped – the tengu in the wood of the box, the lady by the constraints of her social position. “He knows nothing of the typhoon that rages inside me, because I must keep the face of delicacy.” But she is the one with the power to free them. The images of ink forming words in the air are beautifully done and evoke the spirit of this mannered, highly literate era.

–RECOMMENDED

“Avenzoar’s Dilemma” by Pat MacEwen

Dr Wilsey is an elderly retired surgeon with a couple of dark secrets in his past. As he considers a final solution in the nursing home, a visitor arrives, who proves to be linked to one of those dark moments. Tommy Mandracken has an unusual request. Wilsey removed a rare wax bezoar from his stomach when he was a baby; now the grown Tommy wants him to put it back. Seems that the bezoar has certain magical properties related to a hereditary hex in the Mandracken family.

Lord, Sister was livid when she saw those lumps in my specimen jar. She glared at me, burning twin holes through my hide with those green and blue lasers. Eyes her young nephew inherited, I guess, once his lost their baby blue.

It happens that the surgeon kept the bezoar, so Mandracken breaks him out of the nursing home and the two embark on an adventure to obtain it, during which Wilsey learns a lot about his past that he had never understood.

The horror develops slowly in the course of this dark fantasy that reads in some ways as an action thriller, but it culminates in a direct confrontation with the nature of evil. Nicely done.

“Rains of Craifa, Figure One – Girl with Shavlas” by Lara Campbell McGehee

In his youth, Valco had wanted to go to art school, but instead he went into the family mortuary business, where his talent is only put to use in cosmetic restoration. Now, at age thirty-two, he has burned out and feels only contempt for his profession. He decides to take a vacation and ends up, strangely, on Craifa during the rainy season, which is the tourist season on this worldlet. While the natives of the place resemble humans in many respects, they seem to be a sort of amphibian species that estivates during the dry season and only wakes when the rains begin. Valco is at first repelled by the constant sogginess, until he meets a young local woman with a positive view of life.

“Valco, flowers are not pretty long, butterflies and birds are not living long—or a rainbow, or—or a beautiful sunrise. These things—they are all short. Does it mean they not matter? If you pull a flower to give someone, it mean nothing because it dries? Nothing is always, so you think you should not try to keep it as long as you can? And maybe because nothing is always, it is more… more… I do not know how to say it.”

This is a pretty standard epiphany story, where readers will see the enlightenment long before Valco catches on. Craifa and its people are well-realized, but the place makes a highly unlikely tourist destination.

“The Art Teacher” by Gillian Daniels

Lalita is a children’s art teacher on Europa, where alien delegations often meet. The species she calls the Silver Ladies is telepathic, and in apparent consequence haven’t developed a concept of art, which frustrates Lalita, although she very much wants to draw them. A crisis in communication, however, proves the value of Lalita’s art.

Here is a particularly neat sort of alien:

From their shoulders, the Silver Ladies grow rows of small, clear eggs with their minnow-sized young floating inside. If Lalita didn’t know the topknot on each of their heads contained a second brain, the three of them would look like slender ballerinas with their hair tied back in buns, necks weighed down with necklaces of pearls.

The experience of telepathy is also well done, and it’s a bit satisfactory to see the rather supercilious aliens realize they have erred.

“Kelly’s Star” by Ian Creasey

It’s Joanne and Kelly’s 250th anniversary, which is a landmark because they are the first couple to reach it in this age of extended life. In consequence, they have an unwelcome celebrity, and their anniversaries bear a heavy burden of expectations.

Having a 250-year-old marriage was like owning an irreplaceable 250-year-old vase: the pleasure of having it was diminished by the burden of dealing with everyone who wanted to admire it—or break it, envious that they didn’t have one themselves. The pressure to preserve it was enormous, and Joanne felt as though they had a responsibility to stay together just to prove doing so was possible.

Once, Joan had a star named for Kelly. Now, they are travelling to visit it, a lengthy journey with plenty of time for a quarrel to fester.

A relationship story, with some depth in the insights.

“The Splintered Stars” by Jenny Mae Rappaport

Maddox is part of a convict crew conscripted for the mission of piercing the glass shell of the universe [there being such a thing]. Their minds have all, except for the captain, been wiped of memory, leaving only their mission. But Maddox is different. The captain has specifically requested him for this crew in order to take revenge, because his crime had been to rape and murder his daughter. And now he has made Maddox remember.

Maddox held out his hands to the captain, palms facing up. He would do penance in his own way. Andromena was just a girl, all those years ago.

“Bring it on,” he said.

A thought-provoking story of guilt and memory. Everyone here is guilty in some way – the criminal crew, the sadistically vengeful captain, the bureaucrats who sent them all on this one-way mission. The crew, however, with no memories of their crimes, possess a kind of innocence. Only Maddox and the captain have the self-knowledge of their guilt and thus the responsibility to deal with it. An interesting concept. As for the glass wall of the universe, we learn nothing really about it. Maybe the gods really did set it up.

“Cupful of Sunshine” by Anna Yeats

The setting is the thing here – a retro-noir urban hellhole divided into Upcity and down in the sewers, where the deformed live in exile. Al runs a nano-body-mod shop down there, although he keeps the scars on his own face for effect. He also does illegal cosmetic enhancements on dames and dolls whose features have started to sag; Upcity likes to come slumming downstairs. One day a striking redhead approaches his shop, but she is abducted off the street by the minions of the Upcity crime lord known as Johnny Boy; later, she is returned to him as a warning.

The lid screamed metal against metal before it spun off, clanked against the concrete floor. Liquid sloshed and so did my insides. The smell coming out of the barrel burned every hair in my nostrils, putrid with acid and rancid meat.

Now Al is worried, because he enhanced the woman he loves, Etta, before she went up to earn the top place in Johnny Boy’s harem. He fixes himself up to save her, and mayhem ensues.

So the setting is the thing, and the setting doesn’t make much sense, besides being clichéd. Why a future where people talk like 1930s gumshoes and wear fedoras? Why a legal prohibition of reconstructive surgery? Why, if the cops scan everyone coming up from Downcity, doesn’t their machinery work? Why, if Johnny Boy knows everything that goes on below stairs, is he fooled by Etta’s disguise? If readers can ignore all this, the story offers entertainment value appropriate to its model.

“Sunira’s Daughters” by Robert Dawson

A couple of geneticists become interested in the case of a family from India with an unusual custom: no girl can marry unless her brother gives her in marriage. For girls without brothers, this is a hardship, and among Western immigrants the custom has died out over the years. Now the scientists are dismayed to discover that among the descendants of these women, not a single male child has been born; the old custom had existed for a reason.

I thought for a minute. “I suppose it might be. Something in the mother’s immune system could cause her to miscarry male embryos, perhaps. A dominant gene on the twenty-third chromosome?”

“Yeah,” he said. “It would have to be dominant, because anything lethal to males would never manifest via the allosome inherited from a carrier’s father. Or perhaps mitochondrial DNA…”

They realize that within a few centuries this mutation is likely to spread to the point that the world will have a serious sexual imbalance, but for a number of reasons, they can’t get anyone to take their research seriously.

A thought-proving piece of real science fiction, a genuine idea story exploring the sort of problem that no one wants to address. Even one of the scientists, a woman, is concerned for the implications for women; she doesn’t want to see society adopting the patriarchal norms of the village from which the original case came. The author leaves it up to readers to imagine the society that’s likely to emerge from this mutation, but his protagonist isn’t hopeful. I do have to suppose that the consequences would have been much worse with the sex ration reversed. On the other hand, in the protagonist’s world, other issues are likely to cause even greater problems, which sort of diffuses the potential impact of the idea.

“Signal” by Renee Carter Hall

The longest story here, set in a far future when humanity has left Earth to its other animal species, now evolved [by design?] to sentience. Our protagonist is an especially curious raccoon named Jak, who one day discovers what seems to be an old flip-phone. Still working. When Jak manages to turn it on, it fills his mind with strange images, words and ideas. His clan says that no good can come of the device and insist that he bury it again. Instead, Jak leaves home to find a coyote who, it is rumored, may know more about it. For most of the story, it appears that the clan is right in distrusting the device. Some other animals exposed to it die from brain hemorrhage, which we begin to suspect means they aren’t yet ready for it. And indeed, Jak seems to be addicted to the thing. But the consequences in the end are momentous, for better or worse.

This is the familiar Hero’s Journey, combined with the suggestion of an Uplift theme. There are obstacles and setbacks on the way, as there must be, and readers are meant to wonder whether Jak is doing the wise thing. There is reason for doubt, and it centers on the device, which is pretty clearly described as a flip-phone:

Then he realized the thing opened like a mussel shell, hinged on one side. He pried it open carefully, hoping for a morsel of chewy meat inside, but instead there was a segmented pad like
the underside of a turtle, with strange little spots in each section. He pressed the sections and found them slightly spongy.

Further, the images it shows him have humans walking on the streets using such phones, and it tells Jak that the name for such devices is “phone”, which term he uses for it during the rest of the story. But it clearly is much more than the smartest phone of today, with a power source capable of surviving centuries if not millennia, and a telepathic capacity capable of overloading unready brains. This is a far-future device, yet the images and information it conveys to some of its animal users are largely those of today: McDonald’s advertising jingles, Rolling Stones songs. However, a rabbit who receives the images sees visions of holocaust, a world burning.

So we are left with two alternatives. Either humanity has indeed brought destruction on the world through its Mephistophelean pride, and the phone is a remnant of that era, lost and found by chance. Or it was left behind deliberately in hopes that one day other species would be ready to receive its messages. Either it brings hope or destruction. And are the animals of this future Earth better off as they are, or will they be uplifted to a better state? There’s also the suggestion that, whichever view is correct, the phone is going to cut off the natural evolution of the animals to a different, possibly better state than whatever comes to pass as the result of the phone. The story provides an answer to some of these questions, but readers may not concur.

“A Kernel of Truth” by Heather J Frederick

A fantasy world, or perhaps a science-fantasy future, in which sentient flora and fauna share the world amicably, more or less. As in all polities, there are power struggles, regulations, taxes and lawyers. And here we find individuals engaged in scientific advancement, as well. Our protagonist, Ruth Sunflower, is a seeker after knowledge and also a science fiction author, who is excited to see that his First Contact novel may be becoming reality. But bureaucracy stands in his way.

Morning brought him a throb at the base of his pedicle and an ache in his core. The bright alien disk was truly gone. And nowhere in Frond’s Constitution could he find a way to circumvent the Mayor’s ban on Floral Assemblies.

An unusual, entertaining story. I like the depiction of the sentient plants and their methods of operation and mobility.



Uncanny, January/February 2015

The second issue of this new zine continues to be promising. I see an emphasis on global fiction, notably the Hao Jingfang story, and wonder if this will be a trend.

“Folding Beijing” by Hao Jingfang, translated by Ken Liu

It’s the fiftieth year since the city was rebuilt to fold into itself and reform as another place altogether, while occupying the same terrestrial location.

In the early dawn, the city folded and collapsed. The skyscrapers bowed submissively like the humblest servants until their heads touched their feet; then they broke again, folded again, and twisted their necks and arms, stuffing them into the gaps. The compacted blocks that used to be the skyscrapers shuffled and assembled into dense, gigantic Rubik’s Cubes that fell into a deep slumber.

The ground then began to turn. Square by square, pieces of the earth flipped 180 degrees around an axis, revealing the buildings on the other side. The buildings unfolded and stood up, awakening like a herd of beasts under the gray–blue sky. The island that was the city settled in the orange sunlight, spread open, and stood still as misty gray clouds roiled around it.

This is an audacious concept. [Some readers may be reminded of Farmer’s "Dayworld" universe, but this one has unique features.] The author approaches it slowly, subtly, as our protagonist, Lao Dao, ends his workday at the waste reclamation plant just before 5 am, moving through the throng in the marketplace all crowding into the food stalls for their morning meal. Gradually, the streets clear as the cleaning trucks move through them, exhorting the people to go home before the change comes. It takes a while before we realize that, like the other denizens of Third Space, he never sees it in daylight.

The sun rose gradually. The sky was a deep and pure azure, with an orange fringe at the horizon, decorated with slanted, thin wisps of cloud. The eaves of a nearby building blocked the sun, and the eaves appeared especially dark while the background was dazzlingly bright. As the sun continued to rise, the blue of the sky faded a little, but seemed even more tranquil and clear. Lao Dao stood up and ran at the sun; he wanted to catch a trace of that fading golden color. Silhou­ettes of waving tree branches broke up the sky. His heart leapt wildly. He had never imagined that a sunrise could be so moving.

Out of every forty-eight hours, Third Space, with the mass of the population, is only allocated eight, while the ruling elite takes twenty-four. This is real wealth inequality, extended to time.

Lao Dao’s father was among the rebuilders of the folding city, lucky that he was allowed to populate Third Space, which exists in large part to process and recycle the waste of the other two. Lao Dao has a goal, embodied in the young daughter he adopted as a foundling in his late forties. He wants to send Tangtang to a good school. He wants her to have a better future, perhaps even move up to one of the other spaces. This will take money he can neither earn nor save on his own, so he’s seized the opportunity to illicitly deliver a message from a young man in Second Space to the young woman in First Space whom he loves. Unauthorized movement between the spaces is risky but possible, slipping into the cracks in the ground through which the buildings rotate. As he does, we share his journey of discovery, seeing the vast contrasts among the three levels.

There’s a lot here for readers, from the personal story of Lao Dao to the social commentary on inequality. Third Space is the China where most people live today, crowded, hurried, a place of exploitation, while the more affluent spaces represent the new moneyed class and the true elite, who rule. Yet it is not a typical dystopia. The complaints people have tend to be minor, such as a cheating rent collector or a food stall with substandard fare. It’s noteworthy that, like Lao Dao’s father, they want to be in this place; we see nothing that would prevent them from moving elsewhere if they wished. It’s a phenomenon universal in human history: people have always tended to move into urban concentrations. And, as Lao Dao learns, the ruling elite keep the waste workers employed rather than outsource their jobs to automation. This is a work of science fiction, we are reminded, concerned with the possible future, not simply critique of current-day situations.

All of it, the world and the characters, is well-crafted. We feel for Lao Dao, his desperation, his fear of humiliation in his shabby clothes, with the odor of garbage on him, his wounded pride at the pity of a wealthy girl. Yet we also see his strong will and a core of integrity, at war with his need for the money offered – a man who eats only a single meal a day to save for kindergarten tuition. The best-realized setting is the marketplace of Third Space, where we can almost feel the frying oil from the food stalls settling into our pores and Lao Dao’s empty stomach clenching at the scent.

–RECOMMENDED

“The Heat of Us: Notes Toward an Oral History” by Sam J Miller

An alternate/fantastic account of the 1969 Stonewall raid, in which the gays not only fight back, they do so in “the first public demonstration of the supernatural phenomenon that would later be called by names as diverse as collective pyrokinesis, group magic, communal energy, polykinesis, multipsionics, liberation flame, and hellfire.” This is essentially a recollection of the event from multiple fictional points of view, using the polykinesis as a metaphor for the collective rage felt by the group’s victims; thus only minimally SFnal. I found the most moving image to be the twin cops, one gay and closeted, living in constant fear of exposure: “. . . the constant shame and terror that I always felt around Quentin. The fear that he’d see me staring at some boy’s backside, or spot some infinitesimal fraction of an erection, and Know Everything.”

“Pockets” by Amal El-Mohtar

An interesting fantasy premise: Nadia begins to find things in her pockets, things she never could have put there, things that shouldn’t have been able to fit into them, like a trombone. At first, she tries denial, even to the point of sewing her pockets shut, when she wears pockets at all. Then, after a friend urges her to tell the secret, they begin to investigate it scientifically, discovering that the phenomenon must be telekenesis: someone is putting into their pockets the things Nadia is taking out. The description of the various random objects is well-done, but it’s pretty disappointing to find that someone just down the hall; the solution is too facile, and the connection, once established, overdone.

“Anyone With a Care for Their Image” by Richard Bowes

In an overly-mannered SFnal future, people, at least those with images to cultivate, send out robotic avatars to public events or other “tiresome social obligations” as substitutes for their physical presence. Unfortunately for the narrator, politics and reality intrude violently into his precious and well-ordered virtual salon.

The image I take from this one is the excess of the court of Louis XV before the revolution, although the narrator informs us that his model is in fact the coronation of Napoleon III. The story is brief, a cautionary flashlit scene, but it provokes reflection.

[Note to copyeditor: an automata?]

“Love Letters to Things Lost and Gained” by Sunny Moraine

The narrator lost an arm in an accident, and it was replaced with an advanced cyber-prosthetic. But rather than accept or embrace it, she feels a profound sense of alienation and resentment, while at the same time personifying the device as if it were sentient.

I don’t like you. We’re stuck with each other, but I don’t like you and I don’t like that everyone is expecting me to. Like you’re a favor that was done for me. Done to me—I never asked.

The method the narrator uses to generate integration of the new limb might seem odd, overly identifying the prosthetic as a persona in its own right, but then, I can’t really speak for individuals in that situation. The author has clearly considered the histories of others in such circumstances and their reactions, which sometimes extend to re-amputation. Individuals, the story tells us, must find their own paths at their own pace.



Apex Magazine, January 2015

With another year, readers are promised another new editorial direction, but I sense a possible return to the zine’s original orientation towards horror.

“Pocosin” by Ursula Vernon

The story is titled for its setting, done in rich detail, but its strength is in characters and dialogue. Maggie is an aging witch who lives in an isolated place because she wants some rest. She doesn’t get it, as a dying possum god comes to her for sanctuary, because they’re coming for him and he doesn’t want to go. She can’t bring herself to turn him down, so she sits on her rocker on the porch and waits to stand them off, both God and Devil, who each seem to want the possum mainly because the other does. The first gives up easily, the other not so much, although he and Maggie are closer acquaintances.

“You come to my house,” snapped Maggie, thrusting the pliers at him, “and you have the nerve to threaten me? A witch in her own home? I’ll shoe your hooves in holy iron and throw you down the well, you hear me?”

The premise seems at first rather odd, because what kind of god is mortal? The answer seems to be: the animal archetypes, who die and yet never do because it’s their form that’s immortal, always reborn again even while an individual bodily incarnation might perish. Maggie suggests that these deities are in fact older than the two more powerful Personages who visit her porch. And in the end, we see why the possum god was so anxious to avoid being taken by them, which would have removed him entirely from the world where he belongs. This is what Maggie fought to save.

Vernon is definitely the best thing to come from this zine last year, and it was her name in the ToC that convinced me to give this year a look. I like her reworking of American folklore into forms and voices that are her own.

–RECOMMENDED

“Multo” by Samuel Marzioli

A Filipino ghost story. When Adan was a child, the neighbors upstairs told stories of a ghost [mga multo] that haunted their grandmother, a spectre they called the Black Thing. Adan, being the youngest, was most susceptible and had frequent nightmares about the ghost; once, he heard a voice telling him, “When the old woman dies, you and I will meet again.” Now, as an adult and a father, he gets a message from his former neighbors telling him the old woman has just died.

This is ambiguous horror, well-balanced. The text makes it clear that the older children regularly made up stuff to scare Adan, and he had a very vivid imagination that brought his fears to life in his mind. It seems reasonable to suppose the apparition he heard when a child was only a nightmare. So he keeps telling himself.

“Anarchic Hand” by Andy Dudak

Dimia, suffering from a cancer incurable in her own time, had herself cryoed. She now awakes, as always in these stories, to altered circumstances; she is no more than an illicit copy of her mind [an instance in the parlance], illicitly snatched and downloaded into the mind of a poor teenager who makes his living as an “instance whore”, hosting other minds for adventures to which the customers don’t want to subject their own bodies. It seems that poor young Ciaran is infested with quarreling instances who can’t agree on their plans for his body, and they snatched Dimia as a tiebreaker.

This is a highly unlikely scenario based on a premise so overdone that the genre has long since abandoned it, told largely in the mode of withholding information to stretch out the reveal, which isn’t worth it. If readers take one thing from the piece, it would be a reiteration of the old lesson: Don’t be dumb enough to freeze yourself and expect the future to welcome you.

“John Dillinger and the Blind Magician” by Allison M Dickson

Historical fantasy. Dillinger, aware that Melvin Purvis’s G-men are planning to ambush him at the Biograph, meets urgently with the wizard Argyle Paendragon, from whom he wants a spell to create a simulacrum to leave the theater and be gunned down in his place, while the real Dillinger makes a getaway. Argyle is dubious about the notion and also about helping Dillinger, whose character he suspects. But there are others involved in the plot.

To properly appreciate this one, readers should be aware of the aspect of the Dillinger myth that has the FBI mistaking their quarry and shooting the wrong man, while the real Dillinger got away and was never found. An unexpected twist comes at the end.

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

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

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

Paul Di Filippo reviews Greg van Eekhout

Not all writers can be, oh, say, Ernest Cline or Richard Morgan, leaping, after a relatively short or nugatory apprenticeship, into fame and Hollywood options with a debut novel. Some of us take a little time to get rolling, but the resulting books might be all the stronger for a slow maturation.

In any case, Greg van Eekhout published his debut story away back in 1998. Sixteen years later, in 2014, his “first hardcover for adult readers” appeared, California Bones, and it proved endearingly worth the wait. (And of course he was certainly not inactive during that interval, producing three prior books.)

California Bones is an accomplished “urban fantasy” in the old sense of that term, closer to Crowley and Beagle than to the contemporary school of “feisty gal and her werewolf lover battle zombies.”

In van Eekhout’s scenario, California is a separate nation from the USA, a realm of deep magics of a peculiar sort. The main form of power-manipulation is osteomancy, and involves magicians acquiring the powers of the creatures whose prepared bones they ingest. Given the existence of krakens and firedrakes, among other fabulous beasts, this allows for some fearsome feats by the magi. But traditional methods of accomplishment were deemed too slow by the ruling Hierarch, a nasty sort, and he began literally eating his foes, acquiring all their hard-earned magics at a gulp. This savagery has allowed him to rule California tyrannically for nearly a century.

One of his victims was master osteomancer Sebastian Blackland of Los Angeles, who left behind a young son. We witness the father’s gruesome death in a prologue, then jump into the life of the adult son Daniel. Now a thief with one eye peeled for the Hierarch’s forces, Daniel has assembled a colorful crew of pals who help him on his heists. Their newest venture is undertaken as an assignment from Daniel’s criminal Uncle Otis: to break into the Hierarch’s ossuary, fabled repository of his uneaten backup magical bones.

The book is three-quarters a rousing caper movie, and one-quarter a tale of revenge and revolt. It ends with Daniel defeating the Hierarch and abandoning LA, in possession of the Hierarch’s juvenile clone, or golem, who innately stores up all the same magics as his sire—though without conscious trained access to them.

California Bones exhibits numerous felicities. First perhaps is the venue, a consummate New Weird counterfactual locale blending naturalism with supernaturalism. Boldly asserting an inexplicable parallel development with our world, right down to the existence of Disneyland and Rhino Records, van Eekhout introduces plenty of estrangement. For instance, his LA has no freeway system, but rather a network of canals! Then come unforgettable characters running the spectrum from purely decent to infinitely evil. Midway along that continuum are the fascinating Gabriel Argent and his “hound,” Max, a human slave trained to sniff out magics. Finally, van Eekhout’s prose and plotting are Zelazny-crisp. All in all, an engaging thrill ride.

Before looking at Pacific Fire, the sequel, I should mention that van Eekhout is contributing to a great subgenre, “California SF,” as summarized in a recent set of articles at the LA Review of Books. Some editor should assemble an anthology of such tales—it would be a guaranteed winner, I think.

Pacific Fire picks up during its own Prologue in much the same mentoring way its predecessor began: with Daniel attempting to teach Sam the golem some magic. Then, again mimicking California Bones, we jump ten years into the future. Sam is now eighteen or so, something of a Michael Valentine Smith naive savant, due to his unnatural birth and upbringing. He and Daniel are still wearily on the run. But now, for special reasons, their pursuers are redoubling their efforts.

Back in LA, Otis, Gabriel and a third boss, Sister Tooth, are looking to consolidate their triumvirate place in LA’s power scramble by constructing a giant firedrake as a weapon of intimidating mass destruction. And they need Sam the golem as the magical engine at its heart, no matter that the boy will be destroyed in the process. In a surprise move, Gabriel seeks to undercut his supposed allies by secretly getting in contact with Daniel and cajoling him to agree to another caper: destroying the firedrake before it is fully born. But the road to Catalina Island, where the firedrake is being assembled, is strewn with dangers both magical and carnal.

Van Eekhout switches his POV from Daniel to Sam in a generational kind of move, and the tactic pays off. Instead of simply recapitulating the same sensibility and attitudes, the author delivers a fresh perspective on both the actors in the game and the social structures that support them. The dual POVs also allow for suspense, as the narrative is free to shift between Daniel and Sam at cliffhanger moments.

Along the way we meet great new characters, such as Em, Sam’s lethal new partner, and Mother Cauldron, an osteomancer straight out of a fairy tale. Old favorites such as Daniel’s pals Moth and Cassandra return as well. The estranged California venue is not such a surprise the second time of course, but van Eekhout still manages to disclose fresh little nooks and crannies of the territory. I was particularly taken with some scavengers dubbed the leeches, who are like something out of Mad Max.

Van Eekhout’s scrupulously crafted language continues to flaunt that Zelazny-esque balance of demotic and poetic. I am also reminded of Steve Gould’s voice in the Jumper books. He is very kind to his readers by putting lots of background info up front to bring newbies up to speed. But really, this sequel is merely the second half of a single long narrative, as is evidenced by the surprise crucial reappearance at the climax of some vital figures from Daniel’s childhood.

The book comes to a highly satisfactory and resonant conclusion, while still keeping its face turned toward an open horizon of further adventures. I look forward to van Eekhout’s continued California Dreamin’.

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.

Gary K. Wolfe reviews James Morrow

In the first chapter of James Morrow’s picaresque fable of Darwinism Galápagos Regained we learn that our heroine, Chloe Bathurst, is a successful actress in potboiling Victorian dramas with titles like The Beauteous Buccaneer, The Last Days of Pompeii, and Lanterns on the Levee. This not only becomes a recurring plot point as Chloe repeatedly draws on her theater experience in devising the various schemes and hoaxes that propel her through her subsequent adventures, but it also gives us a clue as to what to expect in Morrow’s own loony romantic plot, with its unlikely coincidences, hairsbreadth escapes, characters popping up out of nowhere when needed, and large-scale stage effects, like a fake volcanic eruption and a full-scale replica of Noah’s ark built by Peruvian Indians. Before it’s over, we will also encounter a fast-talking American con man who has built an island empire called Duntopia (a ‘‘pinnacle of diminished expectations,’’ with the Book of Mormon chosen as its gospel simply because of its dullness); a daring French balloonist who might have been borrowed from Jules Verne; a time-warped hookah-den in Constantinople whose patrons from the future include Gregor Mendel, Teilhard de Chardin, and Rosalind Franklin; a group of Peruvian Huancabamba Indians whom Chloe tries to pass off as the Lost Thirteenth Tribe of Israel; and of course Charles Darwin himself. In short, there is a great deal of stuff going on in Galápagos Regained, and while it doesn’t always hang together seamlessly, it’s never less than provocative and entertaining. For readers who might find the opening chapters a tiny bit slow, rest assured that by far the funniest parts of the novel come in the second half.

Written in an ironic version of the arch narrative voice of much Victorian fiction, complete with brief chapter abstracts in the table of contents, the novel rests heavily on the shoulders of the idealistic yet endlessly resourceful Chloe, whose overall goal is to save her lovable but dissolute father from debtor’s prison. Her concern for social justice prompts her to spontaneously step out of character during a performance and lecture the audience, and soon after that she’s looking for work. The new job turns out to be as a kind of zookeeper for Charles Darwin’s menagerie of specimens, many brought back from the Galápagos Islands. Chloe becomes fascinated with Darwin’s ideas – so far only written down in a short unpublished manuscript (this is prior to 1850, and On the Origin of Species is still nearly a decade off) – so when she learns of a contest offering £10,000 for anyone who can prove or disprove the existence of God, she figures Darwin’s ideas of natural selection – passed off as her own – could win her the prize and bail out her dad.

But it turns out the contest sponsors also offer research grants, and have already funded a trip to Mount Ararat to discover Noah’s Ark. Chloe persuades them to fund her own expedition to the Galápagos to find the ‘‘tree of life’’ which will show that God is not needed for evolution, and the expedition – which involves surviving a shipwreck, joining a trading expedition up the Amazon, briefly getting involved in the South American rubber wars (the episode that seems least fully integrated), hitching an airship ride over the Andes, and eventually making it to the Galápagos with the help of those native Peruvians and their ark – is the core of the story. But Chloe and her companions are racing against two other expeditions: the search for Noah’s Ark (which will presumably prove the existence of God), and a second expedition to the Galápagos, sponsored by Darwin’s later nemesis Bishop Wilberforce, whose goal is to wipe out all the lizards, snakes, and birds that might lend credence to Darwin’s theories.

This is fabulist historical fiction not unlike how John Barth approached it in The Sot-Weed Factor, and its outlandish plot developments are anchored by the sheer likeability of Chloe and the other characters, including her irresponsible gambler brother, a love-smitten vicar-turned-atheist, and a castaway wild woman, picked up en route, who becomes Chloe’s acolyte. Interestingly, Darwin himself is the least romanticized figure in the book, coming across as distant and even a bit chilly when Chloe first meets him. That may be because his ideas turn out to be as much a hero of the tale as Chloe herself, particularly the idea of speciation as represented on the Galápagos Islands, which is discussed at some length and with admirable clarity almost throughout the novel. Morrow is not unfamiliar with the classic science fictional notion of using ideas as heroes – he did it in The Last Witchfinder and The Philosopher’s Apprentice – and his title Galápagos Regained, suggesting both Darwin and Milton, certainly calls attention to this. But I can think of few authors who would try to cast a deeply intellectual psychomachia in the form of a wildly comic picaresque tall tale, and fewer still who could get away with it and have so much fun in the process.

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

Faren Miller reviews Alaya Dawn Johnson

We first see Emily Bird, teenage heroine and viewpoint character of Love Is the Drug, waking up in a Washington DC hospital. She turns out to be fortunate in many ways, beginning with her heritage and station as the child of privileged black scientists, both deeply involved in work for the government, she is close to graduating from an elite prep school with honors sure to appeal to all the best colleges, dating a glamorous young man from her own social set. And yet the greatest luck may simply be survival, untouched by the plague that’s raging through this near-future: some kind of mutant flu with gestation periods and symptoms similar to Ebola’s, a less drastic fatality rate but far more victims due to its rapid spread worldwide (including parts of the US) – apparently the work of ruthless terrorists. Citing a socialist regime in Venezuela as the most likely suspect, America is already at war, and by this point nowhere seems truly safe. Emily’s hospital window looks out on a street, weirdly empty ‘‘until a solitary tank grumbles down the road, guns steady.’’ Curfews and quarantines abound.

Against such a background, her bout of amnesia after a party seems trivial, even if it was triggered by a date-rape drug (as some fellow guests believe) – unless there’s a connection to the threat of global apocalypse. Something has attracted government agent Roosevelt to her case. At the hospital where Emily stays overnight, then at her Uncle Nicky’s (where she retreats as large parts of DC go under quarantine), he keeps grilling her about the lost hours. Though her pal Coffee – in many ways the opposite of boyfriend Paul – is an avid chemistry student and occasional dealer, born in Brazil, no one as intimidating and obsessive as Roosevelt could simply want to throw a monkey wrench into the drug trade.

Coffee and the girl he likes to call by her last name explore the mystery in different ways. He wants to find a drug to break apart her mental block. Bird’s inner being (maddeningly out of reach) tosses out its own occasional clues to the puzzle. Meanwhile, she and a young nephew roam Nicky’s huge library of black music, exploring a culture that his wayward father loves but most of her family has largely rejected.

Chemistry and the scientific method pervade this book, where each chapter title follows a [substance name] with its atomic formula. Bird wants to find out what her parents are really doing in their secret government lab almost as fervently as she needs to understand her own nature and figure out what she can make of it – outside the trajectory they planned as a nonstop path to success. Blending elements of mainstream YA, dystopian SF, and political thriller, Love Is the Drug manages to fascinate, wherever and whenever it may go.

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

Lois Tilton reviews Short Fiction, early January

Looking mostly at the print publications this time, not seeing much difference from the previous year.

Publications Reviewed



Asimov’s, February 2015

The issue is anchored by an entertaining novella by Nick Wolven. There’s also an Elizabeth Bear reprint among the novelettes.

“On the Night of the Robo-Bulls and Zombie Dancers” by Nick Wolven

A near-future after wake-up pills have been approved and universally adopted, allowing everyone to be awake and working 24 hours out of the day – if they have a job. Gabriel is one of the fortunate, slaving dayshift and nightshift at the securities trading firm Kappalytics, although the traders only follow the dictates of the robo-quants, AIs who can calculate trends far more rapidly than mere humans. But the current trend worries Gabriel’s boss.

Meaning this time is different, Gabe. Meaning if this bubble pops, you and I and every other asset-wrangler on this planet are going to fall to Earth with a wet and splattery sound. Meaning the proverbial end of days just became a matter of high probability.

So he is sent across town, during the nightshift, on a mission to consult a legendary, now-reclusive guru, who would know the answer if any human might. But the nightshift is when the crazies emerge to carnival and howl, the werewolves and vampires, the warring mercenary companies, the satanic cultists who raise the dead with massive infusions of wake-up pills. It’s a journey across hell, wild and demented and a lot of maniacal fun for readers if not necessarily for Gabe.

The two science-fictional ideas here mesh quite well. The first and most important is the universal abandonment of sleep and its consequences, the severity of which make me dubious that the wake-up pill could ever actually have been approved by the FDA. The driver is ambition, as we see buildings full of families cramming their kids night and day to fit them for future success in the rat-race. But society’s losers, too, are popping the pills, driving them into a variety of frenzies. Only Gabe and his wife seem to be nostalgic for the possibility of sleep, of taking an evening off to have dinner together. Fragments of Shakespeare keep repeating in Gabe’s mind: Sleep no more. Macbeth does murder sleep. . .

The 24/7 workday would seem to fit well into a world of global securities trading, where the sun never sets on the markets. The author has the jargon of the milieu down, and the sense of universal desperation, but the problem is with the AI analysts, who are shown as not only omniscient but unanimous, as they would have to be. First, if the human traders do nothing but follow the lead of the robots, they would be entirely superfluous; the AIs could place the trades themselves, more quickly and efficiently. But more, if everyone has exactly the same information and is taking the same positions, no trading would be possible. A trade requires two sides; a buyer needs a seller. This half of the premise just doesn’t make sense. Fortunately, the premise isn’t taken seriously enough to fatally mar reader enjoyment in the more adventurous part of the story, Gabriel’s journey through the city’s sleepless streets.

[The location of the oracle was Delphoi, not Delphos, after whom the place was said to be named.]

“Rattlesnakes and Men” by Michael Bishop

After a tornado left them homeless, Wylene and her husband Reed made the mistake of relocating to southernmost Georgia, following an offer of housing and jobs. What no one had mentioned was the local requirement for every household to harbor a gene-modified watch-rattlesnake [although their benefactors’ name of Shallowpit might have been a hint]. Upon which, Wye enters into a local war, in which local authorities suppress any reports of snakebite injuries in order to protect the homegrown business/obsession.

The most immediate association might be with the practice of snake-handling in some churches of the region, but clearly the story’s primary metaphor is directed at guns and the obsession with them that prevails in many areas of the US. It’s an overtly political work. While the author doesn’t condemn the entire population, regarding much of it as victims, he strongly mixes the profit motive with a hostile fanaticism that sees women, especially “buttinski foreign hoors”, as a prime target, and snakes/guns a symptom of testosterone poisoning. In short, a political piece.

“Red Legacy” by Eneasz Brodski

A kind of confusing piece that seems to involve an alternate Cold War. Marya heads a secret Soviet cloning lab in which she is employing Lamarckian principles to develop organisms capable of withstanding radiation. She is an obsessive personality, but lately her primary obsession is with her daughter, who died of leukemia. In the course of numerous recreations, she has managed to eliminate Alexia’s cancer, but she still dies every time, after about sixteen days of life. In the meantime, she has to hide Alexia’s illicit presence from Soviet inspectors and hold off commando raids from the evil, Darwinian decadent capitalist regimes which want to destroy her work.

This is the story of an individual driven to madness by obsession, told, for no discernible good reason, in alternating first- and third-person voices. But the science-fictional interest is in the Lamarckian science, which apparently works in this version of the universe as it did not in our own, when Stalin tried to force it down the throats of Soviet scientists, to disastrous effect. Here, the disastrous effects are mostly the product of Marya’s mania.

“Ghost Colors” by Derek Künsken

Brian has inherited the Pablo’s ghost from his aunt Nicole, which isn’t unusual, as ghosts tend to follow families. Pablo isn’t a very bothersome ghost, mostly just whispering about his research into the color of extinct animals now only known from fossils: “Traces of copper, revealed by synchrotron rapid scanning x-ray fluorescence, map the presence of eumelanin to predict the color of ancient feathers.” But the whispers do bother his new lover Vanessa, who lives entirely in the present and never clings to relics. And Brian can’t do that, can’t discard everything connected to his past, which includes Nicole. But Vanessa wants him to undergo a treatment to alter his DNA, that will exorcize the ghost.

This one touches the heart. But I can’t think the DNA treatment is the safest idea, not for a man who hasn’t yet had children. Is Vanessa worth it? The story doesn’t really let us know her well enough to judge.

“Forgiveness” by Leah Cypess

Anna is a high school student whose boyfriend, a classic abuser, has anger issues that he has taken out on her. After she reported him, the courts installed a chip that doesn’t allow him to strike out. In theory. But Anna still loves Michael and hates to see how he’s been broken by the consequences of his sentence. Problem is, if his violence has been curbed, his anger hasn’t. Anything but.

I suspect this is going to be a controversial story, because the issue has been politicized and positions solidified. Anna suffers as much from this politicization as she does from Michael’s anger, because it deprives her of real support. Her therapist has a sign on the wall that declares “Feelings can’t be wrong”, but Anna has learned this is a lie. The heart goes its own way, even if it doesn’t make sense to others. But how she feels for Michael and what she should do about him are different issues.



Analog, March 2015

Unlike its sister-zine’s February issue, this one is very full of much shorter pieces.

“Tasha’s Fail-Safe” by Adam-Troy Castro

An “Andrea Cort” story, which is to say, a series story. One of my numerous problems with series is that I tend to harbor the suspicion that the story could just as well have been told using any invented protagonist without the need for the backfill required by referencing a character readers may or may not be familiar with. So I wonder: does this particular story require the presence of that particular character? Here, I have to answer: Yes, it probably does. Andrea Cort, to put it most simply for readers unfamiliar with her, is an angry individual who hates everyone and everyone hates her. At one earlier point, she encountered the eponymous Tasha, with the usual inimical consequences. Tasha has gone on to a successful career as an undercover agent, working to uncover the identity of a spy. Unfortunately, the spy caught on to her, and Tasha was forced to activate a program that short-circuited her brain. Her superiors have reason to believe that Cort will know the safeword to deactivate it.

So there’s a lot of talking. Way too much of it. The author takes most of three pages to keep telling us that Tasha had made a mistake by trying to go alone home at night. Later, more pages are devoted to explaining the convoluted plot she’s been trying to unravel, when these details impinge not at all on the story at hand – Cort doesn’t even have the clearance to know about them. Then lots more pages are spent as Cort tries to trick the spy into confessing – totally unnecessary, as the spy’s identity turns out to be already known. Which is why I tend to be impatient with series stories. The author is overly fond of this character and believes her to be of such superior intelligence that she can solve any insoluble problem put to her; the entire plot seems to exist in order for her to prove this, once again, by talking and, once again, assert her asocial nature. But a lot of pages are sacrificed to this end, at which the whole thing comes down to a single word, almost in the manner of a punchline.

“Brigas Nunca Mais” by Martin L Shoemaker

Another series, or at least a prequel. Following the events of the previous story on the Aldrin, Carver is marrying his Tracy, at which she demands the story of the ship’s captain’s long-ago tragic wedding, which is the story here. I don’t know if the author expected the reveal at the end to come as a surprise to readers, but I’m sure it won’t.

“Karma Among the Cloud Kings” by Brian Trent

Preema is one of a small group of Jains who have fled to space hoping to find lives of pure ahisma, subsisting on photosynthesis. They have taken work at an extraterrestrial hydrogen generating station, clearing debris from the collection spires.

Each spire is a three kilometer-long lance through Tempest’s cobalt-hued clouds. Each collects planetary hydrogen day and night, pumping the gas straight up to Lindorm Refueling Station where ships from across the solar system come to refuel. A gas pump for spacefaring society.

Until they discover that they have been lied to.

The core of the story is one of the most oft-repeated scenarios in science fiction, but the author has set and populated it anew in an original way. He does have one slip into anthropomorphism at the conclusion, however.

“Robot Boss” by Erick Melton

A future workplace in which the supervisors of humans are AIs, with the usual robotic limitations, leading to trouble. Fortunately, Don finds a way to blackmail his boss into more reasonable behavior because it seems that AIs, as well as humans, can lose when they fail to meet production goals.

The robots here don’t seem sufficiently intelligent to qualify as AI, in the usual sense of the term, but what gives me pause is the notion that CDs would still exist in any sort of future scenario. I have an easier time believing in the paper documents. The narrator’s numerous mentions of obsolescence don’t change my mind on that one.

“After” by Ron Collins

A brief appreciation of the universe.

“Blue Ribbon” by Marissa Lingen

4-H fairs out in the Oort Cloud, where space racing is part of the competition. But as the competitors in the youth races come across the finish line, there is a disturbing silence from the station, which isn’t made better when an automated message does come, informing them that the station is indefinitely quarantined and all ships are to go elsewhere to dock. Problem is, the youth racing craft aren’t equipped with FTL and can’t go anywhere else. They’re also limited in rations and life-support. In short, we seem to have an SF problem story.

This is one of the most ancient and honorable strains of science fiction and usually showcases the characters’ ingenuity in surviving a desperate situation. This YA piece, however, showcases only the characters’ character and general good sense while they sit and wait for rescue, while the narrator discourses on the family structure out in the Cloud. Which is pretty dull stuff. Realistic, no doubt, because in many actual crises there isn’t anything to do but sit and wait for rescue, but dull nonetheless.

“Second Birthday” by Elisabeth R Adams

A distinctly distasteful [intentionally] story of reviving extinct species, and the ethics involved. I suspect that the author hopes that Erika might one day stimulate someone’s prey drive.

“The Badges of her Grief” by Andrew Barton

Another old story – humans have colonized a world and enslaved its sentients as work animals, although they have now been officially recognized as autonomous. In principle. Lot of lecturing, no real story.

“An Immense Darkness” by Eric James Stone

This one is timely, very much so. Antonio and his wife were partners in a team developing programs simulating human minds, until a terrorist attack killed Shanisha. Antonio slips into depression, spending every night in the lab talking with her simulation, until a Federal agent comes to tell him they’ve caught the terrorist and want to interrogate a simulation of his mind in ways that the law wouldn’t allow to treat a living person.

He is not certain that the sensory deprivation will succeed, so he works on creating the perfect torture environment, one that simulates every one of the tens of thousands of pain receptors in the human body. He creates a control panel that will allow the sensation of pain to be localized or general, strong or mild. With all the receptors set to maximum, it will cause pain beyond anything any human being has ever experienced.

But it will just be a simulation of pain in a simulation of a brain. Nothing more than that.

What we have here isn’t really an ethical problem. It goes beyond that, when the ethical problem is solved and all that’s left is the opportunity for revenge. Even if the torturer’s victim is only a collection of zeros and ones, the problem is in the mind of the torturer, which is real.

“The Extraordinary Extraterrestrial Togo Mouse from Ghana” by Ryan W Norris

A reporter has come to see the mice and give the author an opportunity to lecture on biology for most of the text, after which we get the explanation, which is amusing if not unexpected.



Interzone, January/February 2015

Five stories here, of which the first three have an awfully similar theme of dysfunctional individuals confronting their personal problems. There are no strongly science-fictional settings, with most being almost as fantastic as otherwise, and mostly enjoyable.

“Nostalgia” by Bonnie Jo Stufflebeam

Tori is someone whom readers will probably label a loser; after attending college, she is now sweeping up offices and toking on drugs that sharpen and sweeten her memories of her past, although we see that her former friends are even bigger losers and her ex is a toxic taker who rides in and out of her life, disrupting it and keeping her from developing a healthier relationship. The potentially healthier relationship is with Kay, a talented photographer who has Tori’s best interests at heart. But Kay is a “slate” [as in, blank] in the process of surgically taking on a sexless form, and Tori is concerned about how this will affect their relationship; physical intimacy is very important to her, and her relationship with Meredith was intense. “It isn’t a surprise to see Meredith there, but also it is a surprise, as each time she shows up it sends a shock down Tori’s belly to her groin. A Pavlov’s bell.”

Sexuality and sex are central to this piece, with vivid descriptions in several scenes, yet in several ways it is saying that there must be more to life than orgasm. Thus the contrast between Tori’s two lovers, in which Meredith is more of a turn-on, but Kay is the one who stands by her when she needs it. It’s notable that the text doesn’t promise that Tori is going to choose Kay in the end; perhaps she’ll find someone new. “It’s a beautiful feeling, to see and not see what the future will bring.”

The story is only slightly science fiction, set in a future pretty indistinguishable from our own.

“An Advanced Guide to Successful Price-Fixing in Extraterrestrial Betting Markets” by T R Napper

Altair, aka Spaceman, credits his Asperger’s, along with a healthy dose of o/c, with being bullied in school as a child, but he is also a math prodigy, currently obsessed with the mathematics of gambling, in which he has achieved a certain success. The first sort of problem is alleviated by the presence of Vega, whom he needs and loves. It’s the gambling that gets him in trouble, as gambling often will, when he becomes involved in a project to randomize the way he goes up and down the stairs in his apartment building, to create a market for alien gamblers.

The rules said you could not step on every stair, and wherever possible, not step on stairs with obvious stains: knots for wooden stairs, chewing gum for concrete, that sort of thing. So the rules, as such, were not too onerous. Randomising was basically to ensure that the aliens placing bets on which stairs I would step on would have a viable betting market. Some days I’d be creative – miss three steps, walk on one, miss another three. Those times I just knew there was some lucky alien punter up there grinning while they cashed in their long-shot ticket.

It’s not at first clear if there actually are any aliens or if Altair is imagining the whole scenario, until an alien enforcer shows up to inform him that he’s recently lost a bundle on his stair-stepping and Altair owes him repayment. And so that Altair will take the situation seriously, he tales Vega hostage. A desperate remedy is required, if only he can think of one.

I like this bit of science fantasy, with its darkly gonzoid tone, best of all the pieces in the issue. Happily, we can be pretty sure that Altair isn’t going to mend his ways altogether, take all his meds, and shower regularly, but I’d suspect he’ll be getting out of the alien betting rackets, for Vega’s sake if not his own. Those aren’t the kind of guys you want to be messing with.

“The Ferry Man” by Pandora Hope

Heldig has been suffering from morbid depression since the death of his wife, a siren he abducted from her rock in a Norwegian fjord when he was passing it on his ferry. He resents the efforts of his cloddish son Barry and Barry’s shrewish wife to return him to normalcy by gifting him with a dog, which fears his presence. He finally contacts a woman who claims to be a “hugger”, a giver of comfort, despite the objections of his son, and after several sessions with Maggie May, he begins to feel better, coming back to life. But matters aren’t as simple as that.

This is a subtle and enigmatic dark fantasy, told by a narrator whom readers must suspect from the outset, when we read the scene at his wife’s deathbed.

Every day, there was less and less of her. Just before she died, she was no more than a skeleton under the quilt, and only her eyes moved. There was something in them that scared me, something wild and angry and struggling to be free, like a caged animal. I was holding her bone-thin fingers and she pushed my hand away, one of her nails drawing blood. That was the last thing she did.

This is a variation on the “animal wife” story, in which a human takes a supernatural woman captive. In this case, there is no shapechanging, no hidden animal skin, but it’s clear that the siren has been with the ferry man against her will, finally wasting away, away from her native waters. We also have the testimony of the dog, which seems to know there is something very much wrong with him. Then there is the unhealed scratch on his arms, perhaps inflicted by his dying captive, perhaps by Maggie’s cat, an animal wiser than the dog. Other hints: a ferryman is, in many mythologies, a personage who carries the dead, even possibly a bringer of death in his own right. And there’s a suggestion that he might in fact be the shapechanger of the story, a pooka with the form of a horse, who often carries his riders away to their doom. The notion of a pooka abducting a siren may be stretch, however, and belongs in the realm of reviewer’s conjecture.

“Tribute” by Christien Gholson

Several points of view here, and it’s quite possible that none are human, although this doesn’t really matter. First, we have the last survivor of a line of sort of godlike entities whose ancestors first came to this planet a very long time ago; their death shells stand on the barren plain, where the narrator attempts in vain to form a shell of her own, not knowing how, as her mother died before she could teach her. In the distance is a city where the inhabitants might be human. The people have a legend of a destroyer god they name Kaayem to whom they have made human sacrifice in the past. Now – or perhaps then – a political faction is reviving this legend in order to take control of the polity. Certain of the other citizens wish they could stop this movement but are unable. More and more frequently, they bring children to a cave up on the plain where they leave them as sacrifice. The first entity, whom we recognize as the original inspiration of the god, is greatly disturbed by this practice.

One of them made a sound. Nothing in my life had prepared me for that sound. A terror swept through me. And sorrow. I tried to speak with them. I asked who they were, why they were there, but when I did they both cried out. The pain waking off their cries was so overwhelming, I fled.

It’s noteworthy that one of the characters has the title of Ferryman, who leads the sacrifices to the cave where they die. We have no real idea what the first entities actually are, other than large and powerful, with an apparent ability to warp time. But what the two species have in common is that they have lost the knowledge of their pasts, and from this comes tragedy. The possibility that this is a cyclic process is intriguing.

“Fish on Friday” by Neil Williamson

After Scottish independence, a nanny state takes hold and does a lot of silly things, in a silly story.



Lightspeed, January 2015

Three self-contained stories, several of them YA, along with the latest installment in Hughes’ “Erm Kaslo” serialization, with our hero getting ever more tangled in complications.

“He Came From a Place of Openness and Truth” by Bonnie Jo Stufflebeam

Longest piece in the issue. High school student Ben meets Mickey while they’re both working at the haunted house, and something gets set off between them. Not that Ben is gay, or anything like that, as he assures us repeatedly. But there’s this something. They start to get it on, although there are times when Mickey grosses him out, like talking about his semen. Eventually they move in together, and that’s when Ben realizes that Mickey is actually an alien, sent to Earth to clone humans as manual laborers [thru the use of Ben’s sperm, don’t ask how]. This discovery places a strain on their relationship.

Mickey stepped closer, and I realized too late that I should have backed away; that’s what you do when you’re scared of someone, when you’re mad at someone, and damn it if I wasn’t both at him at the same time. But then he got so close I could smell him, all weird and musty like he was, and he hugged me, and I couldn’t stay mad. It was even kind of cool, that he was from another planet and shit.

I often find YA a turnoff, but I the voice and point of view here are amusing and the lesson unobtrusive. It’s interesting that we don’t know for sure if Ben in fact is gay or whether he was only in denial about it, pre-Mickey. The point is, it doesn’t really matter. He loves Mickey, and Mickey loves him, and that’s what matters. They should both lay off the chips and junk food, though.

“Men of Unborrowed Vision” by Jeremiah Tolbert

Class warfare. In this near-future scenario, the protest movement is now using drones for surveillance of possible police brutality. Mara, a college student from a genuinely disadvantaged background, is a volunteer drone operator when she is alarmed to learn that people are dropping out of a scheduled demonstration. Worse, a longtime friend, a pacifist, has been arrested for murdering his college roommate. Mara drives to help him, along with a wealthy classmate, where they discover what the 1%’s latest dirty move has been.

This YA is awfully unsubtly political; the Evil Plutocrats are named Bloch.

“Headwater LLC” by Sequoia Nagamatsu

An ingenious use of Japanese folklore, specifically the figure of the kappa, a being with a hollow at the top of its head, filled with water said to have magical properties. Yoko once befriended a kappa, Masa, but when she let the Mean Girls at school know about the water, they set up a corporation to exploit them. Now bottled Headwater is a thriving business, but it’s too late for the kappas, in chains.

Masa has been crying—there’s a large puddle where he stands. Yoko mops the floor, takes a small towel and pats Masa’s feet dry. When she’s done, she pulls up a stool and takes a blue ribbon out of her pocket not unlike the one she gave him when she was a child and ties it around one of his wrists.

A story of betrayal and regret. The author doesn’t let us entertain the notion that there’s a facile solution to this situation, whatever Yoko might wish.

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.

Lois Tilton’s 2014 Reviews in Review

Looking back over 2014 to pick my favorite stories, I don’t see it as a really good year for short SF. From many directions come charges that the field has fallen into a rut, and the evidence doesn’t strongly dispute it. Subterranean Press discontinued its high-quality magazine and no new periodicals have yet risen to replace it, although Uncanny shows promise. Overall, my assessment of this year’s stories would have to be: lackluster.

Most disappointing were the old-line print periodicals. There was plenty of good-enough fiction published, but few stories that made me sit up in awe and think: “I wish I could have written that.” I found a lot more outstanding pieces of fiction in the electronic periodicals, most notably Tor.com and Clarkesworld. It was also a good year for anthologies, especially for Hard SF of which I see far too little in the periodicals.

This year’s new author of promise is J Y Yang.

PRINT PERIODICALS

F&SF

If the field is in a rut, it’s most visible here. Only a few years ago, I recall selecting more stories for my list from this magazine than just about any other venue. Now, not so many. And it’s noteworthy that most of these came from a guest-edited issue: Paul M Berger’s “Subduction” and Spencer Ellsworth’s “Five Tales of the Aqueduct”. Fortunately, the zine continues to publish Robert Reed, although his contributions here this year were not my favorites, and the ever-entertaining Matthew Hughes. I also liked Sarah Pinsker’s “A Stretch of Highway Two Lanes Wide”. But this is a decline, overall, from better days.

Asimov’s

At one point, this magazine used to vie with F&SF for the honor of premier source of short fiction in the genre. While the zine is less addicted to the work of the same regular authors, it still isn’t publishing a lot of new, exciting work. It did give us what I consider Robert Reed’s best piece of the year: “The Cryptic Age”. I also liked Derek Künsken’s “Schools of Clay”.

Analog

Here, stasis would seem to be a feature, not a bug, but given this, I found the quality of the fiction on the upgrade, the best being Craig DeLancey’s “Racing the Tide”.

Interzone

This just-as-venerable print magazine definitely showed that it’s open to change, continuing a shift from dark future dystopias to more optimistic works that include actual fantasy. The best here is still SF, however, such as Nina Allen’s sophisticated “Mirielena”. I also liked new author D J Cockburn’s debut piece, “Beside the Dammed River”, with a fresh look at dystopia.

ELECTRONIC PERIODICALS

Tor.com

This website is one of the few sources I read selectively, given the amount and variety of the content, but I’ve found a lot of good original stuff here over the last year. I’m particularly pleased by the number of longer stories, most notably the fantasy novella by new author Pasi Ilmari Jääskeläinin: “Where the Trains Turn”, and the long novelettes by Richard Bowes: “Sleep Walking Now and Then”, and Julio Cortazar: “Headache”. Also Anna Tambour’s “The Walking-Stick Forest”.

Of shorter works, Marie Brennan had two fine fantasies: “Mad Maudlin” and “Daughter of Necessity”. I also liked the imaginative science fantasy “Combustion Hour” by Yoon Ha Lee and Genevieve Valentine’s intricately plotted “The Insects of Love”.

Clarkesworld

The fiction here tends to be at the shorter lengths, but not less in quality. I note that that Robert Reed had two highly strange and original pieces here in 2014: “Pernicious Romance” and “wHole”. Other of my favorites were by Kat Howard, “The Saint of the Sidewalks”; Joseph Tomaras, “Bonfires in Anacostia”; J Y Yang, “Patterns of a Murmuration in Billions of Data Points”; Tom Crosshill, “The Magician and LaPlace’s Demon”, a fascinating science fantasy.

Beneath Ceaseless Skies

This site has become a long-running success, and one of the few regular sources for secondary-world fantasy, which other publications have largely disdained. I’m particularly pleased to find K J Parker publishing here now, with “Heaven Thunders the Truth”. I also enjoyed “Make No Promises” by Rachel Halpern, “Crossroads and Gateways” by Helen Marshall, and “The Sorrow of Rain” by Richard Parks.

Strange Horizons

My favorites from this ezine were Polenth Blake’s “Never the Same” and J Y Yang’s “Storytelling for the Night Clerk”.

Shimmer

This eclectic little magazine is now digital. I liked Craig DeLancey’s ambiguous “Cantor’s Dragon” and K M Ferebee’s imaginative fantasy “The Earth and Everything Under”.

Subterranean

Unhappily, this publication didn’t go out on the strongest note. I did like “The Things We Do for Love” by K J Parker, “Pushing the Sky Away . . .” by Caitlín R Kiernan, and “Grand Jeté . . .” by Rachel Swirsky.

The Dark

This new dark fantasy zine is starting to fulfill its promise with such works as “Burial” by Helena Bell and “Mr Hill’s Death” by S I Gilbow.

Lightspeed had a full and interesting year with its kickstarted “Women Destroy” issues, but I can’t say this resulted in the best quality fiction. Best by far was from the regular lineup, Theodora Goss’s fine creative fantasy “Cimmeria: from The Journal of Imaginary Anthropology”.

Apex Magazine has been struggling recently with an instability of editorial direction. It did publish good stories “Economies of Force” by Seth Dickinson and “Jackalope Wives” by Ursula Vernon.

ANTHOLOGIES

I’ve been known to complain in the past that I see too few original anthologies, but 2014 gave me more than I managed to read. The year had a particularly good crop of Hard SF collections, and I’m not going to complain about too much Hard SF.

Hieroglyph

This one was created by a collective headed by Neal Stephenson on a mission to pull SF out of its rut and imbue it with a sense of “techno-optimism”. There’s good stuff here, real science fiction, which is all too rare on today’s publishing scene. Among these stories, I especially like the realistic, probable futures portrayed by Geoffrey A. Landis in “A Hotel in Antarctica” and by Cory Doctorow in “The Man Who Sold the Moon”.

Reach for Infinity

Another good SF anthology from Jonathan Strahan, the theme being human expansion into space. The best stories are “The Fifth Dragon” by Ian McDonald and “Kheldyu” by Karl Schroeder.

Fearsome Magics

Another anthology from Strahan, this one fantasy and not quite as successful as the science fiction volume. I best liked “On Skybolt Mountain” by Justina Robson.

Carbide-Tipped Pens is another Hard SF anthology, not as good as its title, edited by Ben Bova and Eric Choi. It has a nice piece by Gregory Benford: “Lady with Fox”.

Upgraded, edited by Neil Clarke, takes on the subject of artificial intelligence. I liked Ken Liu’s “The Regular”.

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.

Lois Tilton reviews Short Fiction, late December

And that’s it for the year.

My year-end summary of 2014’s best fiction will be posted soon.

Publications Reviewed



Lackington’s, Fall 2014

Subtitled: Institutions. The editor describes the collective tone of these four stories as morose and melancholic, fitting the oppressive nature of the institutions in which they are set. Morose and melancholic they are, but the institutional theme isn’t strong in all these pieces. Rather, I found the depressive tone of these stories were in reaction to great loss, generally mass death. Overall, however, I enjoyed them. Most were original in different ways, possessing a freshness – all but the last, which was awfully stale.

I’ll look at Lackington’s again.

“Stalemate” by Rose Lemberg

Peeling away the layers, what we find here is a story of friendship. The nameless protagonist has lost his memory, which he gradually regains over the course of the story. He wakes in a bare utilitarian space habitat where no one recognizes him, but tests reveal that he is an engineer, so he is assigned as such. While we wait through his recovery, the details of his past life are gradually revealed. As a child, his genius was recognized so that he was sent to Gebe, a world?/city? dedicated to knowledge and the arts. At some point, immortality was conferred on him in recognition of his achievements. But greed and jealousy brought war to Gebe, and all its beauty was destroyed.

He dreams of Gebe, a city once paved with reinforced cinnabar and etched with mazes, a city of soaring spun glass and masonry coffee shops – but now its beauty’s been erased, drowned in shrapnel, reformed and erased again under the perpetual red skies choked with toxic fumes.

The narrator has a sole friend, Kabede, another immortalized individual, with whom he disputed the future of Gebe. Kabede wished to prioritize the safety of the surviving population at the cost of their art. The grim utilitarian habitat where the narrator now finds himself clearly indicates that Kabede’s wishes prevailed. Kabede’s mind has now been fragmented among a hundred similar habitats, which converge at intervals, when the narrator can briefly visit the friend he once knew, only to have his memory wiped again before he wakes on a new habitat to begin the cycle over.

I can’t agree with the narrator that the outcome is a stalemate. The narrator has lost this game, or rather, given it up for his friend. The outcome is Kabede’s vision realized, and for the narrator’s vision, there is no hope. Kabede has ensured the safety of the people of Gebe by ensuring that they will never possess or create anything of value, nothing that enemies might covet. From this, we realize the magnitude of what the narrator has sacrificed. It is indeed a melancholy outcome, yet the story considers that the narrator values his friendship above his own vision.

Thing is, I can’t help thinking other alternatives existed, that the story never really explored. What of the immortals, who would seem to be beings of some power? Why didn’t they come to the aid of Gebe or its people, who were so valuable? Why was it left on its own without aid? The situation appears contrived, or at the least unexplained, and I’m not buying the memory-wiping aspect, which seems to exist only for the convenience of the author’s narrative, one of those that opens from the point of view of a character who knows nothing of the situation he is in, which readers gradually discover as the character does. These openings can be confusing at first, and this one isn’t helped by the author’s decision to mix up the personal pronouns, which adds to the initial unclarity.

“More Embers than Feathers Filled the Firmament” by Penny Stirling

The solitary surviving wagtail shares her sad history of the ill-fated war that doomed her kind. It seems that the king of the wolves had a great taste for waterfowl, and he devoured so many that the birds became desperate. In response, a solitary siskin assassin struck, but the lupines wreaked terrible vengeance.

An original and uncommon tale, with the emphasis on the prose, alliterative and allusive, reminiscent of Norse literature.

While wolf’s wife wailed away weeping, wishing she were sleeping a sad dreaming sleep, slips away the slayer siskin in success, sky-sailing to the ice-land Spheniscidae Sea.

This is not a hero-tale, filled with brave and glorious deeds. It’s a genocide. The birds were overmatched from the outset of the war they had not sought, and none came to their aid. The wagtail’s song is a dirge. There is more than a hint of melancholy humor here, but behind it is a figure of grief and bereavement, burdened with loss. “I linger in life feeling the graveness of my duty to eulogize all the lost . . .” Between her own digressions and the interruptions of her audience, we miss much of the tale, but perhaps the scope of the tragedy would otherwise be overwhelming.

–RECOMMENDED

“The Harbour Bears” by Trevor Shikaze

A brief tale of self-realization. Something is killing and dismembering the homeless people down by the harbour. Readers might think of the perpetrators as werewolves, but the title suggests otherwise. Luke, looking down on the harbour from his high window, doesn’t think of much, until a homeless woman suggests he stop taking his pills, and he wakes to reality.

Not the sort of story from which readers ought to expect a lot of sense, besides the metaphorical, which reflects the economic inequality prevalent today.

“Fertility Tree” by Reclo Etino Vibal

The time has come for Halimuyak to go to the fertility tree and conceive a daughter. Unfortunately, she gives birth to a son, and the tribe will be cursed if he remains on their island. The conclusion is remarkably unoriginal, despite the vegetative fertilization processes.



Strange Horizons, December 2014

I prefer the shorter two of this month’s offerings.

“Kenneth: A User’s Manual” by Sam J Miller

The creator/s [?] of Virtual Kenneth aren’t pleased with some aspects of the manufacturer’s instruction and have issued this manual in correction – with which the manufacturer is likely not pleased. It’s not really clear exactly what Virtual Kenneth is. A software program? A robot? We’re told that the manufacturer has an entire line of virtual boys, of which Kenneth is the most popular model, but the creators are aggrieved that the product has sacrificed their truth of him for the sake of sales. Bitterness here:

We, the creators, who cling to that privilege as we cling to the use of the Royal We as a euphemism for one man chasing glimpses of a long-dead boy in a long-dead world. Or The Manufacturer as a gentler way of saying Greedy Capitalist Fuck Who Doesn’t Care Who He Hurts.

The point being that it doesn’t really matter exactly what Virtual Kenneth is, because his reality is a cherished memory given some sort of immortality by those who loved him for what he was. This is a love story, the portrait of a character, and only in the most nominal way a science fiction story.

“The Dying Embers” by Inkeri Kontro

There is a delight in novelty, in the freshness of a new voice and a new point of view. Lately, a number of stories from Finland have appeared in my purview, and being new to me, have afforded this kind of delight. But the appeal isn’t entirely in novelty. I’ve read many stories narrated by sentient houses and buildings, but never before by a sauna. I like the sauna. He has neared the end of his useful life and touched a number of human lives, but has never felt his love requited quite as he would have liked. And he has an admirable sense of responsibility to his children, despite their shortcomings.

“I thought he would take more after me,” she said, and I could not understand what she meant. Ahava was in his core his mother’s image, but she would look only at the surface. She could not look at the child without bursting into tears. She only lasted a month.

From an interestingly novel point of view, the reminiscent story of a life lived – not all joy and not all sadness.

–RECOMMENDED

“Nkásht íí” by Darcie Little Badger

A dual-narrator story, told by a pair of girlfriends who have a disturbing encounter with ghosts. Although the primary narrator is Josie, Annie’s remarks are the more portentous, as they open the story with words passed down by her great-grandmother:

A ghost is a terrible thing.

Someday we will all be terrible things.

The two girls have set themselves up as listeners, an occupation much needed in an indifferent world, but questionably remunerative. They’re paid, they say, only in karma, which raises the unanswered question of how they pay rent and bus fare. One day a man comes to them with a story of his daughter’s death. As he tells it, his wife was killed in a car accident that gravely injured him, but as he tried to reach his young daughter, an “owl woman” took her from the car and carried her to the river, where she drowned her. The bereaved man wants closure, wants someone to believe him, wants to understand. Annie thinks she may know what actually happened, and the girlfriends set out to explore the scene of the accident, where they find terrible things, of which perhaps the most terrible is that they stem from love.

There is folk tradition at the heart of this tale; Annie is an Apache, and Josie from some other Native American heritage, but it’s Annie who sees things others cannot. The traditions, the ghosts, the girls’ encounters with the place below, this is all good stuff. In many ways, it’s Annie’s story, told by Josie, but unfortunately, we have to sit through Josie’s dull account of her own prosaic family troubles, beginning back in junior high school. If these events did more to illuminate her relationship with Annie, with the essence at the heart of Annie, it would be one thing. But they don’t. Despite all the mundane details that distract from the ghost story, very little of either girl is revealed here, but it’s Annie of whom I need to see more.



Beneath Ceaseless Skies #162-163, December 2014

The stories in issue #162 deal with transformation and feature loyal servants. In #163, the characters are pursued by malevolent beings who turn out to be not what they first appeared.

#162

“The House of Gold and Steel” by Marissa Lingen

Kaisa is taken from the almshouse to serve as the sickroom attendant in a wealthy house where the daughter Aneta has a transmutation talent; unfortunately the magic has gone wrong in her so that she exists in a coma while her greedy mother uses her ability to transmute base objects into gold, and even sells her powers to others.

After a few months, she even began to allow me to be present, to hold things and in minor, unobtrusive ways assist when she used Miss Aneta’s transmutation powers. I began to see where all the golden decorative objects and steel automated devices around the house had come from, and how the Mistress could afford to hire more servants and purchase more luxuries all the time.

Kaisa feels sorry for Aneta and finally begins to learn how to channel her power. She thinks the sickness in her magic might be cured or at least ameliorated, but this is the last thing the mother wants, to lose her hold over her daughter.

An overly positive piece, in which Kaisa’s rather far-fetched scheme to save Aneta isn’t very likely.

“Goatskin” by K C Norton

Shanzi is a goatskin girl, which means she is a shapechanger. She is sold to be the servant of the beautiful lady Uduru, who has a power of her own, to bring the rain. Shanzi likes her mistress and is pleased with her situation. When evildoers abduct Uduru, she uses her transformative powers to save her. But in doing so, she learns more about what she might become, herself.

Shanzi is a well-done character with strongly-held opinions of her own. I like the descriptions of her transformation: “When I unwound myself, I was a puff adder—big and sharp-toothed and poisonous, the safest things to be when you’re a girl on her own. I slid off sideways in the earth, so as not to startle the buffalo.” It’s interesting that she accepts her slavery as the natural order of things, although she is not particularly obedient. But she also sees how that order can work to her advantage, along with her power. This is no epiphany or transformation, it’s just Shanzi being herself.

#163

“Alloy Point” by Sam J Miller

Here we have a city of gold and steel – or more generally, Lustrous and Base metals, which by law may never be alloyed, nor may the workers of one contact those of the other. Except that, for surveillance purposes, all functional base metals must contain a thread of the lustrous, which seems contradictory to me. Ashley and Gabriel have defied the rules to have an affair, and, sure enough, they are detected by a monstrous metalman enforcer. Ashley runs to draw it after her, hoping to save Gabriel, but she can feel the presence of the metalman always behind her through the rails. Readers might wonder, what rails? Train rails? No trains go by during the course of the story. Where are the rails going? Is this where Ashley is going? And why follow the rails when she knows the metalman will just follow them?

This piece is an example of the common story failure to think the setting through, a typical monocultural, oppressive dystopia that makes no sense in realistic terms, as opposed to a metaphor for class distinctions. Why would an entire city population be based on the properties of metal? What use is the prohibition against alloying the metals? The author wants this setting so he can put his story into it, but a setting has to make sense on its own terms [or else be clearly absurd], and this one doesn’t. The worth in it comes when Ashley confronts the metalman and realizes what it really is and how it was created.

She could see how it had been assembled; could trace the human form inside that blasphemy of metal bristles and blades. It was naked—no human clothing could ever fit such a jagged and monstrous silhouette, although shreds of filthy rags still shivered in the wind at the base of some spikes. She saw the iron rods added over time to stretch bone and muscle, giving it longer arms and an extended spine that formed an impressive hunchback and would surely have had it standing well over seven feet tall if it ever stood up straight.

This idea has potential, but it needed more work.

“Until the Moss Has Reached Our Lips” by Matt Jones

Here’s a strangely fantastic setting, an island apparently inhabited by a small clan, that has been invaded by inhuman [or so they seem] creatures called Kaparan, who infiltrate themselves into the very material of the island itself. “They turned the elements against us. They let us waste away.” At last the elders died, but the Kaparan attempted to convert the younger members of the clan to their own ways. However, they didn’t count on Pirro, who refuses assimilation. To escape the island, he has the youngsters dig up the coffins of their dead elders and use these to float away on a stormtide. The elders, he insists, will guide and protect them at sea.

I do not know how long we wait, but I can tell when the water comes, when the flooding starts. I feel the waves crash up against the coffins and then we are all moving. I imagine us a fleet of varnished wood carving over the tree tops and over the sand until we are cresting toward the sky, scraping at dark clouds, pushed up higher and higher into the echo and crack of thunder, the splintering of wood. I feel as if the waves we are riding might carry us above the storm, like we might wash ashore on some airy beach and struggle across fine-grained sand only to find the very bodies once beneath us singing and dancing under the shade of trees, welcoming us home back into the light.

And then things get really weird. The story is enigmatic but fascinating. Who and what the Kaparan are is never really clear; they might even be gods. The youngsters might or might not be dead. But death, here, is clearly not the end of things at all. Or so the Kaparan say, but who knows if they can be believed?

–RECOMMENDED



Tor.com, December 2014

“Skin in the Game” by Sabrina Vourvoulias

The setting is a fantastic South Philly inhabited by zombies, vivos and ghosts, not quite literally. The zombies are addicts, the ghosts are homeless, but there are plenty of actual witches around, as well as literal monsters. Jimena is both a witch and a monster, the respective inheritance of her mother and father, but above all a cop whose beat is Zombie City. Now disemboweled corpses are starting to appear there, and she recognizes the handiwork as one of her own kind – the heritage of her father, that she has tried to repress all her life.

Non-Latino folk have magic too. I sense it when I go to the Ukrainian neighborhood to buy pierogies, or when I pick up an order in Chinatown. Sometimes I even feel it reaching out to me from my father’s people if I get roped into working the St. Patrick’s Day parade which, thankfully, isn’t often.

It’s an awful lot of magic for one place. The setting is lively and vibrant, even the grimmer aspects, which have a noirish tone from the cop work. And the monsters are interesting, not-vampires called Nedders [from "adder"] for their origin as snakes. The resolution, however, came as pretty facile. If the Nedders were so easily overcome, I’m not sure why people waited to confront them. And it doesn’t make sense that they committed the killings to smoke out Jimena, when it turns out they knew all along who and what she was, and could have taken her at any time.

“Father Christmas: A Wonder Tale of the North” by Charles Vess

A fairytale version of the origin of Father Christmas. He was once a young hunter who led a normal human life, until one evening he saw a beautiful young woman riding “on the broad back of a great snow bear through a cascade of soft moonlight.” Unfortunately, she was the daughter of the King and Queen of the trolls, but Nikolas was not deterred. He wooed and won her, and the birth of a son completed their happiness until the troll Queen interfered and lured the boy away. Nessa confronted her mother and demanded the child back, but unfortunately, as she returned with him, she was caught by the sun and turned to stone. She left Nikolas with twelve magic stones, which he used to animate twelve wooden daughters that he carved. Again, the family lived happily until the troll Queen again abducted her grandson, as well as the twelve stones, returning Nikolas’s daughters to wood. But he still was undeterred, even when imprisoned.

In that chamber of eternal darkness, on that great root, he carved all the bright memories of his time on earth. And there too he carved all of his hopes and dreams for the future that lay ahead. Those hopes were what nourished his mind and his heart and his body through the long, long years he spent there in that darkness.

A nice seasonal tale. I note that while there are no explicit Christian references here, there is plenty of symbolic imagery, beginning of course with the birth of a baby boy. The story makes use of the potent number twelve, and Nikolas rides through the world on the back of a giant enchanted elk. We can easily see how these elements might mutate into something slightly different, which is what stories do, and I’m sure readers will be making associations of their own. While at the end there might be references to gifts, the heart of this one is the strength of family love.

Some readers may wonder why Nikolas could find the troll home so readily at first, but not later, after Nessa was dead. But locations of this sort tend to be shifty.

“A Long Spoon” by Jonathan L Howard

The necromancer Johannes Cabal finds himself in need of assistance and summons it from Hell.

The choice had been forced upon him by circumstance. If he summoned some common or garden demon, it might feel beholden to report his business to Satan; that would never do. He and Satan were not entirely sympathetic to one another these days. If Satan maintained a Christmas card list—which is not as unlikely as it seems—then Cabal was surely off it.

Her name is Zarenyia, and Cabal would describe her as “really rather beautiful”, if he overlooked the arachnid aspects of her appearance. Cabal’s difficulty had begun when he attempted unsuccessfully to contact the soul of an ancient sorcerer, Luan Da, who reacted by making attempts on his life. After negotiating an amicable agreement with his spider-devil, they are off together into the demonic Abyss, where adventures await.

Much fun, much wit. This piece is part of a series, but enjoying it requires no previous familiarity with the previous tales.



Nobody’s Home, by Tim Powers

A novella subtitled: An Anubis Gates story

In a fantastic 19th-century era London, Jacky, wearing a fake mustache, is searching for the monster who murdered her poet fiancé, whose ghost she keeps with her by means of ashes from his pipe in a vial around her neck. She encounters another young woman, Harriet, who is attempting to exorcize a ghost of her own, the Indian husband who wants her to commit “sattee”. Harriet’s attempts fail as her ghost sets her on fire, and when Jacky goes to her aid the two ghosts collide, attracting swarms of other spirits and those who hunt them. In desperation, they seek the aid of Nobody, who lives on a barge in the river, but Nobody has an agenda of his own.

I find it interesting that this could be considered a rather typical contemporary urban fantasy tale, save for the setting in a quasi-historical city. I emphasize the “quasi”, as there is very little of the actual historical London here, save for a few topographical landmarks; it’s a landscape that should be familiar to the author’s readers but quite navigable for those new to it. There’s a lot of interesting ghost lore, which seems to be the original creation of the author. I’m particularly taken by the use of a hopscotch course for the purpose of exorcism.

Of the two protagonists, Harriet seems to belong entirely to this story, while Jacky enters it and leaves it with her adventures incomplete. At this point, it’s hard to feel much sympathy for Jacky, whose obsession with vengeance bodes ill for her. Harriet offers her good advice, to which Jacky should have listened.

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.


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