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Paul Di Filippo reviews Peter Watts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Paul Di Filippo reviews John Varley

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lois Tilton reviews Short Fiction, mid-August

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

Publications Reviewed

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



F&SF, September/October 2014

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

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

“The Rider” by Jérôme Cigut

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

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

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

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

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

–RECOMMENDED

“The Wild Ones” by Albert E Cowdrey

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

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

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

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

“Avianca’s Ghost” by Matthew Hughes

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

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

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

“The Thing in the Back Yard” by David Gerrold

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

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

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

“Marketing Strategies of the Apocalypse” by Oliver Buckram

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

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

“Sir Pagan’s Gift” by Tom Underberg

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

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

The fishmonger children come to throw stones.

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

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

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

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

“The Culvert” by Dale Bailey

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

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

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

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

“Embrace of the Planets” by Brenda Carre

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

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

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

“Will He?” by Robert Reed

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

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

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

“The Way We Are” by Ray Vukcevich

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



Upgraded, edited be Neil Clarke

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

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

“Always the Harvest” by Yoon Ha Lee

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

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

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

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

“A Cold Heart” by Tobias S Buckell

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

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

“The Sarcophagus” by Robert Reed

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

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

Until now, when the Great Ship crosses his path.

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

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

–RECOMMENDED

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cyberminers.

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

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

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

“Married” by Helena Bell

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

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

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

“Come from Away” by Madeline Ashby

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

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

“Negative Space” by Amanda Forrest

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

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

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

“Fusion” by Greg Mellor

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

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

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

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

“Taking the Ghost” by A C Wise

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

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

“Honeycomb Girls” by Erin Cashier

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

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

“The Regular” by Ken Liu

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

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

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

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

–RECOMMENDED

“Tender” by Rachel Swirsky

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Musée de L’Âme Seule” by E Lily Yu

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

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

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

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

“Wizard, Cabalist, Ascendant” by Seth Dickinson

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

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

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

“Memories and Wire” by Mari Ness

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

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

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

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

“God Decay” by Rich Larson

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

“Small Medicine” by Genevieve Valentine

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

“Mercury in Retrograde” by Erin Hoffman

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

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

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

“Coastlines of the Stars” by Alex Dally MacFarlane

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

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

Waves moved against her.

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

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

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

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

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

“Synecdoche Chronicles” by Benjanun Sriduangkaew

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

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

“Collateral” by Peter Watts

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

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

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

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

“Seventh Sight” by Greg Egan

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

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

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

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

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

Tim Pratt reviews Darin Bradley

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

by Gary Westfahl

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Paul Di Filippo reviews Ben Bova

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Adrienne Martini reviews Rachel Bach

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

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

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

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

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 August

Featuring the final issue of Subterranean Online magazine, a great loss to readers looking for good fiction, particularly at the novella length. Subterranean Press will undoubtedly continue to publish single-volume novellas, which alas I see all too infrequently for review. I also read the regular first-of-the-month zines.

Publications Reviewed



Subterranean, Summer 2014

It would otherwise be cause for rejoicing to see the Summer issue of this high-quality online publication coming in at twice the usual length. Instead, it’s cause for lamentation, as the editors seem to be clearing out their inventory into this final issue, after which it will be no more. I consider this a major loss to readers in our field. Few other venues offer fiction at the lengths we can find here; this ultimate issue has four novellas, one more at nearly that length. Here are superior authors that we rarely see from other short fiction publishers. The world of speculative fiction will be a poorer place for its absence.

“Pushing the Sky Away (Death of a Blasphemer)” by Caitlín R Kiernan

An aftermath.

When the australopithecine progenitors of Homo sapiens still struggled to master the most simple tools, the Djinn and the Ghūl waged a terrible war in the wastes of what geographers would one day name Arabia. The latter were defeated and were cast down into the Underworld at the very threshold of Dream. But not before they’d sacked temples and reliquaries, and so they departed this world with many objects holy to their foes.

But the Djinn, before this, had stolen from the demons the Key of Shackles, which they have always wished for the return. So it is a demon who waits with Elisheba, along with the ghouls, who keep their distance, for her coming death. Because Elisheba has not only come to the tombs to steal the key, she has turned it in the lock of her soul, releasing the actinic energy that she will not survive.

Very short piece evoking the deepness of time and the inevitability of death, whether or not we are ready for it. I like the bit that tells Elisheba none of the Hells will accept her, nor will Heaven.

“The Last Log of the Lachrimosa” by Alastair Reynolds

SF horror, set in the author’s Revelation Space universe; it can be read as an entirely independent work. The Lachrimosa is almost as derelict as the wrecks it seeks to salvage. Captain Rasht and his two crewmembers have found a piece of junk in orbit around a volcanic planet, and a lander crashed on the surface. In the lander, they find clear evidence that one crewmember, named Teterev, has survived and gone to explore a nearby cave, from which she never returned. Fired with greed, Rasht leads his crew [with his pet monkey] into the cave in hopes of finding some kind of valuable relics.

Why did we all go down to the surface? The truth was, that was Rasht’s way. If one or more of us stayed in orbit while he was down here, there was a chance of the ship leaving without him. If he sent one or more of us down here, while he stayed in orbit, he could not rely on our trustworthiness. We might find something and lie about it, keeping its secret to ourselves.

Where they see things they should not have seen, grotesque images of beings in torment, wrought in some kind of silvery nanomaterial. The place exudes dread, which they recognize as a psychological weapon, a deliberate attempt to repel intruders. At this point, Lenka and Nidra, and especially the monkey, want to take the warning and turn back, but Rasht insists on going deeper, impelled by greed.

We know from the beginning that things did not go well, as the piece opens with Nidra informing Rasht what his imminent and unpleasant fate is going to be, and the reason for it. In the course of this explanation, we learn just what she discovered there, the nature of the peril, and her plan to avert it, while saving both herself and Lenka. Even the monkey, despite the fact that she hates it. Now I wouldn’t call Nidra an unreliable narrator, but she is definitely a prejudiced one. So while she makes her case that Rasht’s fate is deserved, I’m not sure we can entirely believe her. Nor can we be sure whether it will be effective in its intended purpose, which is another question altogether, an issue of ends and means. It does seem that she’s going rather too far than would be strictly necessary, which is one thing that makes the piece horror—the other being the uncertainty, the suspicion that one day or aeon in the future another Rasht will come along and be even more undeterred, someone who may release what is within the cave into the universe.

I’m never sure that this narrative strategy, revealing the conclusion at the story’s opening, is an optimal one, but the author manages, despite it, to generate a level of tension and an atmosphere of adventure as well as dread.

“The Very Fabric” by Kat Howard

Dark fantasy. The sky tears open and kills Viola’s brother.

Viola looked up. “Oh my God, the sky.” It was obscene—the tear, the absence in the midst of the stars.

Then someone comes to her with the opportunity to mend it.

Nice realization of the image. The vows are a bit sententious and repetitive, however.

“The Things We Do for Love” by K J Parker

Set in the author’s Invincible Sun universe and featuring another con man and rogue, who calls himself Buto, here.

Let me explain. I was born a nobleman’s son, but that must’ve been a mistake. Really, I’m a thief. A nobleman’s son, caught red-handed committing a crime, treats the whole thing as a joke and pays the price for his fun with his father’s money. A thief, caught by the ankle in a dark shop, kills someone. I must have known that, or I wouldn’t have taken the knife with me in the first place.

Things go well for him in his chosen way of life until he meets a young woman who calls herself Onofria, a witch. An awfully accomplished witch. After a while, he realizes he can’t escape her—can’t leave her, can’t kill her, and can’t even kill himself.

After she brought me back to life on the battlefield, I confess, I loved her; more, I have to say, than I’d have thought possible. To owe someone your life; to know that you left her, and she followed you, and she was there when you needed her most, because she loves you—I realised just how wrong I’d been, running away from the most wonderful thing life could possibly give me. To think, I told her, to think I could’ve died, and never realised. There, she said, it’s all right now. It’s going to be all right for ever.

Ominous words.

A dark fantasy on the theme of having too much of a good thing, whether love, wealth or immortality. As is usual with this author, the narrative voice carries the tale briskly along in an entertaining manner, but there are also philosophical asides that make it even more interesting.

“West to East” by Jay Lake

Short piece of SF—a stranded on inimical planet story. This one’s problem is the incessant winds, that sometimes exceed 900 knots. The two-person landing craft has been disabled and can’t get back to the mothership in orbit, or even get off a message to it, telling what has happened. Then, watching the local lifeforms that they call ribbon-eels, our narrator gets an idea.

Her comment about spiders made me think of airborne hatchlings on Earth, each floating on their little length of thread. “I wonder if we could use some of those damned things as sails. If we could get the boat off the ground and pointed into the wind, we might be able to climb high enough on deadstick to at least get off a message to Prospero.”

It’s a neat idea in a neat setting. Some readers may consider it fragmentary, and it exhibits the ending narrative problem in which we’re not clear what condition the narrator is in or how he is telling the story. But it’s pretty clear that this ambiguity is intentional on the author’s part; the intent is to leave us suspended in an exhilarating manner that may recall the conclusion to a very famous film. Unfortunately, the narrator’s sidekick reminds me think of Marcie from the Peanuts comic strip, which isn’t a Good Thing.

“What There Was to See” by Maria Dahvana Headley

Ghosts. In the mid-19th century, Beate became almost entirely blind at age five, in consequence of a fever. In place of the world of light, she began to see the world of the dead, populated by centuries of ghosts. While Beate found this shadow world a place of interest, she caused her parents great embarrassment.

Together, the Abendroth’s [sic] bore the burden of their daughter. In public they were gracious sufferers of their misfortune, but at night, they’d silently lie awake, and blame each other. Their daughter was seventeen, but her mind was younger. She was pursued by imagined friends and enemies, never silent, always gabbling. Her parents dreaded her.

When she is seventeen, they learn of a doctor who claims to have developed a technique to replace her damaged corneas with those of rabbits. The surgery itself goes well, but other aspects of Dr Von Hippel’s estate prove unsettling. At first, Beate was dismayed to discover that his grounds seem to be entirely free of ghosts, a circumstance she has never before encountered. But afterwards, through her rabbit’s cornea, she perceives that the place is haunted by the ghosts of tortured rabbits, as well as an apparition from which all the other ghosts have long since fled in fear.

A fine piece of horror. Except for making it clear that the bear-ghost is not merely a bear, the author leaves much about this ghost as a mystery—how, for example, it is able to reach into the physical realm, and why it targeted Beate’s father. This deepens the ominous aura of the story, as we can never be sure what the unpredictable apparition might do next. The conclusion is also unusual. While most of the story is told primarily from the several points of view of the characters, near the end it turns remote and flat, reflecting the style of an academic report. We already know that for Dr Von Hipple, Beate’s original attraction was as an experimental subject; he exhibited her to medical conferences as well as in his report, under the anonymizing label B A. What we see at the end is that in the story the author has rescued her from this anonymity, as well as all the others, and rendered them as living individuals.

“Grand Jeté (The Great Leap)” by Rachel Swirsky

The title clearly signifies the ballet, and there is the strong influence of the work Coppélia, in which a mad scientist produces a life-sized animated doll. But the leap being taken by Mara is in fact the long, dark fall into death from osteosarcoma. Her mother had been a principal ballerina and danced in the Coppélia ballet, but she never wanted Mara to follow her there. Unfortunately, she died of a fall when Mara was quite young, and all her daughter has of her now are the video recordings stored by her home studio’s AI. For her father Yakub, his wife’s death would have been unbearable except for Mara, who became the center of his life. Now, with chemotherapy failing, the prospect of losing her is unendurable. He diverts his research into creating artificial soldiers and produces a replica of Mara, into which he wants to download her mind.

The story is divided into three acts, each with its own point of view. We begin with Mara trying to cope not only with her own impending death but her father’s obsessive, smothering grief. When her father shows her the doll, explaining it as a gift to her, Mara reacts with anger, knowing he has made it to replace her in the form of the healthy girl she used to be.

Guilt shot through her, at his confusion, at his fear. What should she do, let him destroy this thing he’d made? What should she do, let the hammer blow strike, watch herself be shattered?

Because of her love for him, she allows him to take the copy of her mind and download it into the doll that will be there for him when she is gone.

It is in Mara’s story, through her eyes, that we most clearly see Yakub’s ongoing grief. His own act [Tour en l’air] focuses more on his childhood and his marriage, the love for his wife, becoming finally his resolution to go on in his own way with the copy of his daughter. The final act [Échappé] belongs to Ruth, the name that Yakub gives her when he realizes there can’t be two Maras in the house. This is hard at first for her to accept, as her memories are all Mara’s, her identity Mara. But that Mara is already gone, and Ruth comes slowly to realize that she will have to form her own identity now, diverging from her original’s just as the biological Mara diverges from the person she had been, slowly becoming her death. Realistically, the two never really reconcile, never entirely escape their mutual resentment.

But no, her experiences were diverging. Mara wanted the false daughter to vanish. Mara thought Ruth was the false daughter, but Ruth knew she wasn’t false at all. She was Mara. Or had been.

This is a strongly moving story of grief and loss that transcends its comic origins. The science-fictional aspect is secondary, albeit essential. Most of the story is entirely and profoundly human.

While the setting is clearly in a near future, the story and characters have a strongly old-world feel to them. Yakub’s grandparents, who raised him in Poland despite his birth in the US, were Holocaust survivors; his first language still seems to be Yiddish, which Mara has learned as well. While he is clearly a skilled engineer working with artificial intelligence, on secret military projects, we see him here as a tinkerer in a basement workshop, not a modern laboratory. When he suspects that a rabbi friend might consider Ruth to be a golem, the concept seems to fit the story more than the thing Ruth is supposed to be, a near-future AI.

The text of this piece is marred by an unacceptable number of errors, which makes it hard to know if there’s a reason that Mara calls Yakub “abba” without capitalizing the Hebrew word for father.

–RECOMMENDED

“The Black Sun” by Lewis Shiner

In the issue’s longest piece, Shiner visits an alternate Germany of the 1930s, where master magician Ernst Adler assembles a group of colleagues in the Art to take down Adolph Hitler while he is still vulnerable. The story is all AH with no fantastic element, but there is a persistent hint of the possibility, since Adler’s plot rests on the known susceptibility of both Hitler and Himmler to the mystical occult, centering on the Lance of Longinus, supposed to have pierced the side of Jesus on the cross, imbuing it with great powers. The plot, as such things always go, is complex, as is the storyline, accordingly. This provides a great deal of the interest, along with the ensuing action. The complexity leads to tension, as the possibilities for failure accumulate. Shiner knows well that the best-laid plans can end up in the rubble, and he allows his characters to fail at some points so that events aren’t entirely predictable.

There is less interest in the characters; despite the author’s efforts in that direction, they didn’t really come to life. The plot tension results more in concern for Adler’s scheme failing to go off as planned than the fate of the people involved in it. They are a diverse group, each with unique skills, such as slight-of-hand, hypnotism, escape artistry, and impersonation, and the plot seems particularly tailored to their abilities. Which makes me wonder: Adler had no real idea which of his fellow magicians would respond to his call, yet the main elements of the plan seem to have been established beforehand. It seems a bit contrived. Of course, all stories of this sort have to be extremely contrived, but it’s not good when readers notice it, rather like the tricks of a stage magician.

“He Who Grew Up Reading Sherlock Holmes” by Harlan Ellison®

A slight piece, a series of incidents meant to exhibit the principle that some force of cosmic justice prevails in human affairs. Some of the incidents display a strain of sadism. The interest would seem to lie in sorting out the allusions and discovering where they point.



Clarkesworld, August 2014

A bonus this month, with four stories posted.

“The Rose Witch” by James Patrick Kelly

In a fantastic version of Eastern Europe, the rose witch has died, leaving her mostly untrained apprentice to tend the garden, where the plants are slowly beginning to die. Julianja was chosen because of her blood; a drop of it drawn by a thorn will mix with the odor of the selected bloom to cause visions. One day a young man comes seeking a vision from the dog rose; his family has been afflicted with an ancestral curse that is also a treasure and seeks to end it. In his vision, he sees Julianja, so he invites her to come with him to his castle where he will try to end the curse.

A neat fantastic premise here, with the wagon filled with the “uncles’” bones. In many respects, it resembles a fairy tale, but it’s more original. In particular, we have a narrator who steps to the front of the stage and addresses the readers directly.

You have very little understanding of the life of a girl at that time and in that place. You do not wake at the first hint of dawn or take to your bed at dusk because it is too dark to do anything else. You have never tried to eke a day’s nourishment from an onion and some rotting parsnips or squatted over a cesspit. Julianja’s life with Tzigana had presented her with precious few choices and all of those were predictable and circumscribed. She’d not even had the power to decide which chore to do first, whether to spend a dreary day sweeping dirt floors or scavenging firewood. Never had she had power over another—and a man, at that.

Julianja is a strong, well-drawn character who takes advantage of the change in her circumstances.

“Bonfires in Anacostia” by Joseph Tomaras

Sex and politics in the surveillance state. The center of the story is a middle-aged couple, Darius and Brandon, of whom the salient fact is neither that they are a racially mixed nor a gay couple, but that Darius works for a particularly secret division of the NSA. A dozen years in our future, control over the news media has been effectively achieved, so that most people in the country aren’t aware that the residents of DC’s Anacostia district are burning down their own neighborhood. The real secret, however, is the reason, which stems from the program to disguise the squalor of the place with projected holograms, to which the residents have taken offense. As Darius unadvisedly explains to the guests at their dinner party,

And someone—no one knows who, and I would know if anyone knew—tried to set one of the mansions on fire. And that was when they learned what it took government scientists a year and a million dollars to figure out: That fires disrupt the holoprojections. A well-aimed laser would do the same, anything that directs enough energy and light in the right place, but fires are more affordable. More democratic, if you will.

Cynically clever, subtly dark vision of If This Goes On, in which we see the continuing increase in the security state and the inequality of wealth and power. The author has a welcome deft touch.

–RECOMMENDED

“The Saint of the Sidewalks” by Kat Howard

Miracles. There has been a proliferation of saints. In desperation, Joan asks for a miracle, making an offering to the Saint of the Sidewalk, a homeless woman whose belongings were consumed by a fire but whose body was never found.

She set her cardboard on the sidewalk, prayer-side up. Then lit the required cigarette—stolen out of the pack of some guy who had been hitting on her at a bar—with the almost empty lighter she had fished out of the trash. You couldn’t use anything new, anything you had previously owned, in your prayer. That was the way the devotion worked: found objects. Discards. Detritus made holy by the power of the saint.

Unfortunately for Joan, after the lightning struck her offering, she is all-too-easy for her devotees to find: the Saint of the Lightning. People send her emails asking for miracles, and there seems to be no way to escape them. Or the lightning.

Amusing short piece. This is the kind of stuff I’d like to see under the label Urban Fantasy, instead of the sparkling and kick-assing that unfortunately has prevailed for some time.

“Five Stages of Grief after the Alien Invasion” by Caroline M Yoachim

A list story of sorts. The Eridani have come to Earth, strangely unaware that the planet was inhabited, and spread the spores meant to develop into their staple food crops, while eliminating weeds, such as the native inhabitants. Large numbers of Earth species die out, and there is great mortality among the oldest and youngest humans. When they realize the consequences of their action, the aliens attempt to make amends, but they’re still not planning to leave.

This background is revealed in a series of linked vignettes, in which different humans react in their own ways to their loss from the spores. The best of these is “Denial”, in which Elli carries around a wad of old blankets that she identifies with her dead child.

“Did you paint the windows?” she asked. Their apartment was on the third floor, and it had a lovely view of the treetops. “Lexi will want to see the birds.”

Not all of these work so well, particularly the “Anger” section, so that I think the story is as much hampered as it is enhanced by the list format.



The Dark, August 2014

At one point, I wondered whether this new zine would fall into the horror or the dark fantasy side of the genre map. By now, it’s quite clear that the answer is fantasy, even when it includes dark SF.

“When Swords Had Names” by Stephen Graham Jones

The narrator is a former soldier, a deserter who was starving when he encountered a small group of men around a fire and begged to share their meal.

I sat, and the leader removed the meat from the fire, carved it into portions, and for the first time in my life I understood what it was not to just eat, but to be consumed myself, by the food I chewed. . . .

Each bite of anything else I ate, I would have to close my eyes to swallow it down.

From that moment, his only thought was to obtain more of that meat, by any means possible. Even when he came to realize what meat it was.

A tale of the willing embrace of evil, in a way worse than cannibalism. Yet a familiarity with addiction, with the effect of some drugs on the brain, makes this one disturbingly credible.

“Tommy Flowers and the Glass Bells of Bletchley” by Octavia Cade

Tommy is more than a born engineer, he has a particular affinity for glass. It talks to him, it gives him ideas. Which becomes more important at the onset of WWII.

Turing wants a relay-based machine to help with decoding. Something to supplement the Bombe he already has, something to turn disembowelled alphabet into language. And there is the Heath Robinson, an infernal contraption too slow for Flowers, a cartoon effort he thinks. But when he looks at it he sees switchboards, and glass, and he goes to Turing, then, and tells him he can make something better.

This is a story of betrayal, and readers who know the way the British government betrayed Turing after the war will recognize this. Tommy can say it wasn’t his fault, he can say he was just obeying orders, he can say he was just trying to do the right thing, but the glass knows the truth. A strong indictment, a metaphor for a national shame.

–RECOMMENDED

“Not the Grand Duke’s Dancer” by Emily B Cataneo

Marina was a born dancer.

I didn’t always dance for the Grand Duke. Ballet was once my own, the burning light in my chest when I was a girl living among the smokestacks and tenements on the northern edge of Petrograd. In those years, I danced through dirty snow, pirouetting over pigeon-bones and practicing first through fifth position. I imagined I was twirling on the stage of Marinsky Theatre, that pastel-green puff of a building on the bank of a canal only a few miles away, but in another, glittering world.

At first, it was fine to have a patron, fine to be the Grand Duke’s dancer, but he becomes so possessive that he refuses to let her go, not even after her death.

A tragic piece, as we sympathize with Marina’s reasonable desire to be her own dancer, neither the Grand Duke’s nor the devil’s. She has determination and strength of will, but it isn’t ever quite enough. It doesn’t seem fair, but that’s death.

“A Fairy Tale Life” by Daja Malcolm Clark

A fairy tale nightmare. Daniel is the lead developer on this interactive Goldilocks module, which he had intended to give to his son even before its official release. Instead, as he tests the program, he finds himself trapped in it.

This isn’t exactly a new scenario. Readers will be looking for the element that makes it original, unique, but instead there is a muddle of several, that don’t really make sense as a whole. It can’t seem to decide whether this is a science-fictional nightmare or a psychological one. One the one hand, it seems that the AIs are taking over the human world, and Daniel’s fate is their doing. On another, we find him reliving his nightmarish childhood, with Goldilocks morphed into the wicked Aunt Mary who raised him.

“Good boys don’t let down their parents so bad they go away. So—into the closet—where it’s too dark for your storybooks,” she says, and with the claw propels him past the front door to a narrower one in the hall. She opens the door and thrusts him into the coats and sweaters hanging there, and they swing on hangers against his back like the memories he’s tried to keep at bay. She shuts the door, and as the darkness of the closet envelops him, he’s ten years old again.

And on yet another hand, the scenario involves Daniel’s failure as a husband and father. These latter two would make more sense if the failure were a strictly psychological one, without the mediation of AIs—as indeed, we can’t be sure that it’s not. We have only Daniel’s own word for what’s going on, and his perception is clearly warped. But by what, we’ll never know.



Apex Magazine, August 2014

The editor introduces this issue by claiming it’s “incredibly good”. Such claims always cause the contrarian in me to rise up and ask, “Oh, really?” For one thing, a publication’s editor isn’t the best objective judge of such matters. And for another, an “incredibly good” publication isn’t something we see very often. I’d love to find more incredibly good issues of any magazine, but the fact is, I rarely do. Of course the proof of any claim is in the reading, but I’d say the editor ought to keep working on “good” before trying for “incredibly”.

“Ten Days Grace” by Foz Meadows

A very familiar dystopian setting where society has been taken over by an unoriginal religious police state, with things like the Spousal Laws and Bureau of Family Affairs. Julia has a black mark on her record ever since she became pregnant during an affair with a married man. The Bureau gave her the choice between losing the child or taking a husband of convenience. Now that man has died, finding his own side of the bargain unfulfilling, and Julia has ten days to find another.

Like homosexuality and abortion, single parenthood had been illegal ever since the National Family Party came to power nearly three decades ago. As soon as the cause of Julia’s sudden nausea was correctly diagnosed, she’d been brought before the Bureau and called to account for the genesis of her not–allowed–to–be–illegitimate offspring.

The conclusion comes with a nice twist, but in general the unoriginality of the scenario and infodumpfery are hard to overcome. While readers are clearly expected to sympathize with Julia, I find myself turning to one of the two real innocents here: the dead Robert, whose bad bargain forever denied him the role of progenitor and drove him, pretty clearly, to drink and death. We’ll never know what impelled him to make the decision to take Julia to wife, or what kind of prenup they signed, but I can’t help thinking he probably expected more and even may have deserved it.

“Sister of Mercy” by Amanda Forrest

A plague of hallucinations has filled the hospitals, patients driven insane by the visions it brings. The doctors, Lisette among them, can’t keep up with the inflow, and there is no known cure. Lisette has started to perform euthanasia on some of the worst cases, whose suffering is unbearable. Then her sister Rose is brought in, and she takes an even more desperate step.

When I slipped the spoon into the ocular cavity and extracted my sister’s sight, my stomach heaved because I couldn’t help but imagine the pain. My own sister. Do not vomit inside an airtight suit. I ran to the isolation airlock and managed to get my helmet off just as I pushed through the door and vomited. After returning, three hard swallows to strengthen my courage, and I accepted the scalpel from the nurse. Gentle pressure to sever the optic nerves.

Lisette escapes the hospital just ahead of a vengeful mob calling for her head, but she takes Rose with her, and now in the wilderness she devotes her efforts to curing her sister by implanting golemish eyes made of a special clay.

This one does a good job of challenging readers’ assumptions through the narrator. The odd ritualistic cure, the eyes of clay—it all seems perfectly reasonable if we believe Lisette. And why shouldn’t we believe Lisette? Until we listen to Rose. Even then, it’s hard to know just what to believe, except that narrators can be unreliable. I’d call this one SF horror, though it takes a while for the horror to seep in.

“The Sandbirds of Mirelle” by John Moran

The narrator, a teenage novice assassin, has come to this world that seems to have a single wonder:

Then a bird broke free. It was long and green and rose from far underground before skimming the crust in a wide arc. At least that’s how it seems now, after so many years. I saw the trailing filaments of its wings and its corkscrewed path through the sand — but instead of falling, the ground twisted and broke into a thousand channels and lattices. There were curls under and over, crystals mixing with the surface in swirls of red, green, yellow, and blue, all freezing into nets of light.

While the other two tourists and their guide ooh and ah over the spectacle, the narrator murders them in turn, even though his assignment is only for a particular one. He’s essentially practicing on them, an exercise in on-the-job-training.

For readers, this is an exercise in making no sense. The setting makes no sense—that an assassin would travel so far for such a task; for the people who die, their deaths make no sense to them, as one’s own death rarely does, particularly in circumstances such as this. For the assassin, the sense is in the payout he expects and the experience; he now knows what his profession will be. He doesn’t come to any profound epiphany as the result of his acts; indeed, he’s a kind of emotional blank, despite his penchant for discussing death with his potential victims. For readers, this isn’t enough sense to make. Death can be senseless. Violence can mess up a place. We may sift through the bloodstained sand for more significance, but it’s not there.

“Juniper and Gentian” by Erik Amundsen

We know from the opening paragraph, from the title, that this one will have a poetic conceit expressed in the prose. Gentian is that sort of name.

Gen walked on the endless, oscillating sea of liquid metal hydrogen and tried, tried to keep her consciousness together. The knight who followed her into the atmosphere, swam through the outer sea of hydrogen with her, he was here too. His armor defied the pressure, his banner defied the heat, and his hands, deep within the boiling, rolling mass of Jupiter. He stood beside a tree that constantly remade itself as it burned and crumpled.

So what’s actually going on behind this dreamlike imagery? It seems that Gentian, with nothing better to do, was recruited by a project meant to spread humanity across the stars like milkweed seeds from a pod, like invasive weeds. To do this requires the sort of advanced technology indistinguishable from magic, which is to say an effort of the will in which Gentian, in the form of the starship, makes and remakes herself a near-infinity of times until she makes herself where she was meant to be. [Or fails to, which seems to be a definite possibility here, as Gen is not the most apt pupil in the program.] Jupiter is a trial run, a nice place to visit but not her destination.

Mostly, this is what I call pretty writing, pleasant to the read, although some readers may become impatient with it and start to demand what it’s supposed to be about, what’s actually happening in the real timeworld. Once we do realize it, there is no tension here, as we’re pretty sure Gen is going to succeed in her own way and her own time, which doesn’t matter here, as time is one of those magic things as well. And Gen, apparently, even if she fails, will be able to recreate herself to try again. But I do wonder, nonetheless, about the passengers in Gen-the-ship, waiting for her to find her way. Who would take passage in a ship so untried, who doesn’t know her way and might never find it? How real are these passengers in this ship of magic? Are they, too, destroyed and remade, over and over until the moment when Gen finally gets it right? This would suggest either that such a mode of transportation is commonplace in Gen’s future world or that the population is really really desperate, at which the text hints very faintly but doesn’t go into detail.

The piece provides an interesting illustration of the difference between SF and fantasy, or the ways we read them. If it were fantasy and the magic was magical, then the dreamlike knight could be Sir Jupiter, the planet’s avatar, who meets with Gen on the road of her quest and sets her a series of questions to prove her worthiness, after which he magically grants her the power to reach her goal. But if this is SF, then we see the knight figure as a figment of her imagination, a functional device created by her mind, and all that stuff must be taken as metaphor and symbol.

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

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

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

Gary K. Wolfe reviews Daryl Gregory

I’m not entirely sure when the meme of collective first-person plural titles got started, but by now you could pretty much compile them into a rather mordant short-short: David Marusek’s ‘‘We Were Out of Our Minds with Joy’’, Karen Joy Fowler’s We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, and now Daryl Gregory’s We Are All Completely Fine, to which we might append E. Lockhart’s recent We Were Liars, just by way of putting all those other cheery groups in their place. That irony, of course, is implicit in the earlier titles, and is particularly apt for Gregory’s new short novel, which concerns a therapy group for victims of horror stories: an elderly wheelchair-bound man who was the sole survivor of a Sawney Beane-like family of Arkansas cannibals; a well-dressed woman whose flesh had been peeled back so that a psycho called the Scrimshander could carve designs on her exposed bones; a severely withdrawn young woman raised by a cult who incised cryptic symbols all over her skin; a young black man addicted to an RPG zombie game through his omnipresent smart glasses, which he thinks reveal to him actual hidden monsters; and a semi-famous former boy detective whose monster-hunting adventures in a town called Dunnsmouth became the basis of a series of YA books. That town name, a portmanteau of Lovecraft’s most famous villages, is an unsubtle clue that Gregory wants to invoke some of the materials of classic horror fiction, but Gregory isn’t a horror writer. He doesn’t try very hard to make us feel the terror of extreme experience, but he’s very interested in the pain of the aftermath, and particularly in the dynamics of trauma and the sense of isolation in the victims.

This has consistently been one of the trademarks of Gregory’s deeply humane fiction, whether he’s dealing with possession (Pandemonium), zombies (Raising Stony Mayhall) or drug-induced psychosis (Afterparty). Even the grotesque mutations of The Devil’s Alphabet were family, and a kind of family emerges from We Are All Completely Fine as well. Stan, the cannibal victim whose eaten limbs have been replaced by prosthetics, is a kind of cranky uncle impatient with Martin’s defiant refusal to take off his high-tech frames, while the cult survivor Greta is a withdrawn kid sister and Harrison the monster detective tries along with Barbara the Scrimshander victim to maintain a more cordial level of discourse like civilized parents. But the putative parent figure turns out to be Jan, the psychotherapist who has brought the group together, and who has a few secrets of her own (which, though foreshadowed, I didn’t see coming at all).

As the narrative progresses from the growing tensions during the therapy session – all narrated in that first person plural – to third-person glimpses of the home life and backstories of the various patients, the various hidden connections among the group become apparent, and an actual supernatural threat emerges that will require each member to make use of his or her particular strengths. This is where Gregory’s measured restraint emerges as one of the novel’s strongest virtues. The idea of a group of seemingly disparate individuals pooling their resources to face down an archaic terror is a well-worn convention of horror tales – think of Stephen King’s It or even Stoker’s Dracula – but Gregory eschews the sort of setpieces that could easily have made this novel five times as long, and that might disappoint some readers expecting a more conventional horror novel. But Gregory is interested more in empathy than revulsion, more in accommodation than heroics, and more in the victim than the monster. The result is his most tightly constructed and compulsively readable novel to date, and a small gem of what we might call post-horror horror.

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, late July

This time, scheduling issues led to a shorter column than usual. I guess it averages out.

Publications Reviewed



Beneath Ceaseless Skies #151-152, July 2014

The first issue has people afflicted by their pasts, the second by hostile forces. The one I like is the Marshall.

#151

“Rappaccini’s Crow” by Cat Rambo

Referencing the Hawthorne classic, but not following it. The setting is an alternate history at a time resembling the beginning of our 20th century, in which a world war is being waged, even longer and harder than the one we know. The object of contention is not territory but a strategic substance: phlogiston. As one wounded soldier puts it:

“That’s the contradiction at the heart of the war, see! Fighting over a precious resource, and using all of that resource in the fight. They keep saying that once the war is over, humanity will advance, once it’s got all that phlogiston to devote to its own noble needs. But that will never happen. They’re too evenly matched. And too many people are making money from supplying the machines to fight the wars. It won’t stop.” He paused and lowered his voice, forcing himself calm. “It won’t stop till all of us are dead.”

These casualties are inmates of an asylum run by the eponymous doctor, who has obtained the contract for their care by promising to cut costs. Thus he stores their brass prosthetics, on the grounds of keeping them for subsequent patients. Less-disabled wounded are fitted up as cyborgs and sent back to the front, an image that will doubtless suggest to readers a steampunk-noir milieu.

Rappaccini has a pet crow, Jonah, of great intelligence and malevolence, hated by both patients and staff, such as the orderly Vivian, our narrator, another less-disabled soldier. Vivian knows that Jonah is a poisoner and has attempted to kill the bird, but fears Rappaccini. This is where readers will expect the heart of the story to be, given the title, but the author has decided to cram a lot more into the text. So we learn that Vivian was a Navajo child sent to a boarding school to be purged of tribal heritage and given to Jesus, whom he embraced there. Also that Vivian is transsexual and ran away to join the army as a boy—the desperation for cannon fodder making it easy for both the underaged and thinly-disguised women to sign up, although Native Americans are relegated to support jobs in this history. The irregularity of his enlistment also gives the authorities an excuse to deny him the honors and benefits he earned, now that he’s no longer of use to them.

What we have here is a jumble, as if the author were a tourist packing to go home with all the souvenirs of her journey and crushing them to fit them into her suitcase. In consequence, the story lacks focus and a clear center, with instead an overload of backstory. I keep thinking I’m going to hear a TV pitchman: But wait! There’s more! The amount of back-grounding would be appropriate for a novel-length work, not a story of this length. As it is, I have a great deal of information about Vivian, but I can’t say I really know him.

A title like this one generally declares a theme, as well as a claim of association to the work being referenced. Thus we must be aware that in the Hawthorne story, the title character was the mad scientist’s daughter, who was pure of character but toxic of flesh, due to her work tending her father’s poisonous plants. This Rappaccini is not a mad scientist but a war profiteer, his garden contains no more poisonous plants than is usual for a medical man, and his poisonous pet crow is highly toxic of character. Clearly, this represents an inversion of the original work. But otherwise, I see no real thematic connection here. Vivian, certainly, is not Rappaccini’s daughter. I can imagine a Hawthorne-like spiritual tale with Vivian caught between the love of Jesus and the hatred of the demonic figure of the crow, but I suspect that’s entirely in my mind and not the text.

“Crossroads and Gateways” by Helen Marshall

Dajan the hunter has been wandering Zamani, desert of death, trapped in his own past and unable to move on, until Esu the trickster god confronts him there to place him at a crossroad. In their encounter, we hear the story of Dajan’s life and his love for Duma, the cheetah woman who killed him.

Neat mythic stuff. I really like Esu, whose godhood is evident, particularly in his psychopomp role. The sense of time/eternity here is also well done.

When had he last tasted the gifts of the living? When had he last drunk in their memory of him? How long had he wandered the desert while his brother’s line fell to the sands?

–RECOMMENDED

#152

“The Topaz Marquise” by Fran Wilde

Marcus is a jeweler who finds a ragged man at the door of his shop one morning, desperate to sell him a gem that he claims to come from the Jeweled Valley. Marcus cheats him on the price of the topaz and plans to make a large profit by cutting it into smaller, more fashionable stones. The topaz, however, proves to be cursed—as readers will be expecting after seeing the jeweler’s dishonesty.

That’s about what there is to it. No surprises. Marcus continues to reveal his bad character, taking advantage of his apprentice, while she begins to have ominous, foreboding dreams. Nothing could be more thick-headed than Marcus as he fails, time after time, to recognize what he’s dealing with, while it’s evident from the outset to the rest of us.

“What Needs to Burn” by Sylvia Anna Hiven

Interesting setting here, in a world being consumed by what its denizens call “the dry”. This is a supernatural phenomenon, involving carnivorous horses and other ills infesting the desert that encroaches on the inhabited places. Utah Sullivan has been on the run ahead of it, along with Shadow, member of some sort of supernatural race known to normative humans as savages or barefoot. Shadow claims he was sent from God to save Utah Sullivan, for reasons we are not given to understand. [I can’t help considering this a case of the Magic Negro phenomenon, even though it’s not an exact match.] They are both near death when they encounter Ephraim Wood, owner of a nearby town. Wood threatens to kill Sullivan unless Shadow can go out into the desert and bring back a Fishgirl, another sort of supernatural creature that exudes water.

Shadow is a credible sort of supernatural person; the Fishgirl is something else again.

She oozed water from her eyes, the corners of her mouth. It beaded from her pores, too, and ran down her belly and made her green scales glisten. The water was crystal clear, and where a drop landed on the ground, a flower grew. A flower. My jaw dropped at that.

And even if that were credible, the idea that such a being could fill a well to sustain and entire town is even less so. Also, while the setting has interest, the plot unfortunately does not, being both moralistic and predictable.



Tor.com, July 2014

A good number of independent original works this month, at some substantial lengths.

“Sleep Walking Now and Then” by Richard Bowes

The title refers to an interactive play being both set and staged in the now-decrepit but once grand Angouleme Hotel, forever haunted by murders and mystery involving its owner, Edwin Lowery Nance. Nance is played in this production by Jacoby Cass, the playwright. A great point is made about the actors falling into their characters, which only enhances the readerly conviction that the sinister events of the past are about to be replayed.

Almost all tellings agreed that Nance, in the dim light thought Evangeline had gone to the elevator and stepped through the open door. He followed and found not Evangeline but a nine-story drop. How the elevator car happened not to be there was a matter of mystery and dispute.

The number of possible victims and suspects makes for interest, as we’re pretty sure that someone is going to die, but not quite who nor how. Yet the work is considerably more than a murder mystery. The strength is in the stagecraft, with compelling descriptions of the scenery that should surely make readers wish they could attend the production.

–RECOMMENDED

“The Angelus Guns” by Max Gladstone

Strong signs of allegory here. Our protagonist is Thea, her brother is Gabriel—”Gabe of the Seventh Chorus, Second Tenors, Antiphon”—of the heavenly chorus. Thea herself is retired from all that, gone from eternity into the timestream to observe creation in all its simplicity. But she remembers past wars when the chorus has destroyed creation when it got out of hand, taking its own way, its own ideas. Now there is rebellion in heaven, which is to say the Crystal City, and Gabe has joined it, celebrating life in its carnal physicality. Thea has gone to bring him back, to save him.

Thea’s old mother held out her hands, and the twin suns dimmed. Across her palms lay a sword. Fire gleamed from the four-foot blade. Fire was the blade: a nova’s fury, a fusion furnace confined by the magic of magnetic fields. The hilt alone did not burn. Jet, that, like her old mother’s flesh, and the grip wrapped in local lizard-skin. A personal weapon, honed and kept with care since long-gone days of active duty.

There’s no Lucifer here, but we get the point clearly without him. Totalitarian heaven, perfection, omnipotence is the enemy—of freedom, creation, individuality, for which Gabe is the spokesman. The moral dilemma belongs to Thea, to whom loyalty calls from both sides. It’s not exceedingly subtle. The story is primarily in the scenery, with its flashing blades.

“A Short History of the Twentieth Century, or, When You Wish Upon a Star” by Kathleen Ann Goonan

Feminism, rockets, drugs and Disney. The story of Carol Elizabeth Hall, whose father was a rocket scientist after WWII and whose mother was a chemist-turned-reluctant-housewife. Wanting to emulate her father, despite his initial scorn that a girl would want to be a scientist, Carol takes up rocketry as a childhood occupation that leads, after setbacks and detours, into space. The most fulfilling aspect of the story is the evolving relationship between Carol and her mother and her belated understanding of her father’s failed career. The rest is highly nostalgic but takes a too-familiar path through the thickets of “girls can’t do that”. The author has made sure to hit every well-known landmark on that road, but for every former girl who will recognize some or all of them and say, “Yes, it was really like that”, others of us are here to say, “Well, no, not really.”

“Brisk Money” by Adam Christopher

An intriguing conceit: according to the editorial blurb, Raymond Chandler once wrote a series of stories featuring a robot detective; he attempted to burn them, but they were retrieved by his housekeeper and passed on to us. But there’s a problem with such a conceit, which is the questions it will raise in the mind of readers: Is this really Chandler’s voice? Are these anachronisms? To which I would probably say: No, and Yes. While these are minor issues, I would definitely have preferred this one unChandlered, as a generic noir robot detective story set in some past LA, to which readers could make whatever Chandler comparisons that seem fit to them. Because it’s a good enough story that I’d rather set the quibbles aside.

So our hero/narrator is the positronic robot Ray, paired with his mainframe Googol in the classic male detective/female secretary roles. Or so it seems. Because it’s 1962 and computer memory is based on large reels of magnetic tape, Ray’s capacity is limited; every night he has to return to his office and download the day’s memories, then start blank in the morning.

Those whirring tapes, they were me. My mind, my memories. Everything I’d seen, heard, done; everywhere I’d gone. Everything I’d thought and computed, calculated, figured. On those spinning reels I was copied, backed up—the last version of me, anyway. The last day’s work. At midnight I plugged myself into Googol and shut down my circuits to recharge the batteries. Then she began copying my internal memory bank onto an empty spool, a process which took four hours. Another two hours to erase my internal tape, then a restart and I was back in business.

One night, however, there is a power loss, and Ray finds himself with a retained memory, as well as a package of money and a gun. Being programmed as a detective, he tries to solve this mystery.

So, a pretty neat past-future detective story, of which the primary interest is in the programming and the memory; it is in fact a good entry in the smaller subset of Memory SF. The plentiful allusions are also of interest—the author pays appropriate homage to Asimov, for example, but I’m not sure about “Googol”.

“A Cost-Benefit Analysis of the Proposed Trade-Offs for the Overhaul of the Barricade” by John Chu

Civilization is perennially threatened by a deadly phenomenon called Turbulence, against which the Barricade has been erected. Ritter is a new engineer assigned to routine maintenance, but Turbulence has initiated a new mode of attack, and the Barricade has failed in his sector. An improvement to its design is urgently needed, and Ritter sets right to it, this being an entirely mental process not involving crude methods like physical tools and materials.

Creating a machine was like working out subtle mathematical analyses while hoisting unbalanced boulders into their proper places. Father could imagine vast, complicated designs outright. Everyone else imagined parts into reality and then hefted into place. Crenels deepened on gears Ritter imagined into tiny battlements. Cams smoothed into pleasing ovoids. He mated them to motors and actuators that he belted and wrestled into the design. Ritter’s body ached from the strain and sweat stung his eyes.

The fix works, but it isn’t good enough to satisfy Father, the chief engineer of the Barricade. It’s quite clear that nothing would have been good enough—Father being that kind of guy. Ritter is brilliant but handicapped as an engineer by his telepathy, which creates too much distraction to allow him to concentrate at full force. He would like to have it expunged from his mind, but of course it proves to be an advantage in the end.

A sufficiently advanced technology is not only indistinguishable from magic, it can be pretty dull stuff. The text employs the terminology of engineering and construction, but in fact it’s all mind-wavium; we might as well have mages holding off the forces of Chaos, from which this stuff is entirely indistinguishable. The characters and the storyline don’t help, being entirely cardboard. Not credible, not good.



Scale-Bright by Benjanun Sriduangkaew

A novella connected to the author’s previous stories on a subject in Chinese myth: the archer who shot down the rogue suns and married the goddess of the moon. In these variations, Houyi the archer is a woman. Here, however, the focus is on the moon goddess Chang’e’s orphaned several-times-grand-niece Julienne, now living in contemporary Hong Kong, where her aunts keep an eye on her. Julienne learns that having divine relatives can involve unusual complications. This is her [rather belated] coming of age story, in which she finally identifies her heart’s desire. It is closely tied to yet another mythical tale: that of the white serpent and her green sister, here called a viper. Thus as the story begins with Julienne on her way to work, she meets

. . . a woman bleeding under the clock tower. She wears a vivid shade of good emeralds from eyeshadow to stiletto heels, marred by that one slash of red. The woman bears this coldly, eyes straight ahead, only now and then caught by a spasm that tautens her lips over her teeth. Her gaze catches Julienne’s and holds fast.

The woman turns out to be the green viper of the myth, and thus a demon, which rouses the ire of Julienne’s more formidable aunt, who doesn’t like demons on principle, and especially if they mess with her niece. It seems, however, that the green viper is seeking the intercession of Chang’e because her white sister has been abducted and imprisoned by an enemy who happens to be Houyi’s enemy as well. Lots of complications and adventures ensue, along with some romance.

This material is clearly of great interest to the author, although I must say that the previous stories in the cycle haven’t been favorites of mine. This one, though, is different in a number of significant ways, most notably the contemporary setting, which gives it quite an altered tone. The figures of the archer and moon are no longer at the center of the story; they’re living in relative domestic bliss as respected members of the divine community, albeit with some loose ends still dangling. But essentially this story is an independent work. Julienne, the primary character, appears to be an independent creation of the author, a member of the mundane and mortal world, without, as far as I am aware, any direct counterpart in the original material. I would have to say that familiarity with the source material is the real prerequisite for following it, and this is particularly true when we find ourselves involved in the tale of the white and green serpents. I suspect that readers familiar with this material, in one or more of its variations, are going to light up with the pleasure of recognition and will be able to follow the complexities of the ensuing plot with greater ease than those who may have to look it up on The Wiki.

Still, there are a large number of neat bits here that any reader should find enjoyable. I especially like the discussions on the nature and place of gods and heavens, in dimensions not normally accessible to mortals, although immortals have made a place for themselves in the human city. As Xiaoqing tells Julienne:

“It’s not topographical, or don’t you think your astronauts and the like would’ve found Lady Seung Ngo, the woodsman, or the rabbit when they made lunar landings? The immortals’ realm is open to the pure, the divine.”

One thing that bothers me is the confusion of names. Julienne’s personal name, she tells us, comes from a current fashion in Hong Kong for trappings of colonialism, but if she has another, as I believe she must, the story doesn’t seem to reveal it. In these respects, she is unlike the other characters. Each of them has adopted alternate names more suitable, apparently, to their current surroundings. Thus Houyi the archer is known as Hau Ngai, and Xiaoqing the green serpent has the name Olivia Ching on her business cards—highly colonial. I suppose this is a convenience to the characters, not to announce themselves to the mundane world as divine figures, but the narrative flips back and forth between modes of address, which doesn’t make following the story much easier, especially for those readers not familiar with the language.

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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