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Paul Di Filippo reviews C.S.E. Cooney

Bone Swans, by C.S.E. Cooney (Mythic Delirium 978-0988912441, $15.95, 224pp, trade paperback) July 2015

First came issue one of Mythic Delirium magazine in 1998. Conceived and helmed by accomplished poet, fiction writer, and editor Mike Allen, the magazine is one of those rare long-term survivors of the small-press landscape, with a new issue denominated July-Sept 2015 recently out. Twentieth anniversary just around the bend!

But not content with all the duties and travails of publishing a magazine, Allen went on to found Mythic Delirium Books in—so ISFDB opines—the year 2006. Thus he contributes mightily to the health of our genre, publishing good books which the Big Five seem content to overlook.

The latest offering from Mythic Delirium Books is the first collection (five sizable stories) by C. S. E. Cooney, a writer whose work I had not previously sampled, though she began selling with a story, “Lorelei’s Little Deaths,” in 2007.

But I can certainly amend my ignorance now, and so can you, in a vastly entertaining fashion! This is a strong and enduring debut collection.

As might be predicated based on its name, the genre dubbed the “New Weird” has its roots in the Old Weird, and one tendril of those roots extends back to the Weird Tales crew. Thus it’s not too surprising that Cooney’s state-of-the-art New Weird tale “Life on the Sun” at times reads like something from the Robert E. Howard canon, with strange tribes, bizarre magics, desert-circled cities, and other nifty pulp tropes. But of course, since Cooney’s poetic, evocative prose is of a higher order of sophistication than Howard’s, the resulting tale is a thing apart. The city of Rok Moris is undergoing a simultaneous assault from without and rebellion from within. At the heart of both movements, it eventuates, is a young woman named Kantu. Her denied birthright contends with her chosen mature allegiances, and she must somehow reconcile them for the survival of her city and all its citizens.

Cooney invests Kantu with admirable depth of thoughts and emotions, and conjures up a strong supporting cast to set off her virtues. Likewise, her depiction of the cultures of her subcreation and the city of Rok Moris is rich and exciting, given the small compass of the story. The compressed timeframe of the tale—most if it takes place in a day—adds to the propulsive readability. Overall, if the byline had been stripped from this tale, one would not be surprised to hear it came from the pen of Tanith Lee.

Original to this volume, “The Bone Swans of Amandale” reads as if Patricia McKillip and Laird Barron decided jointly to rework the Redwall series. In a land where, among other wonders, a Fairy Mound rises “smooth as a bullfrog,” Maurice the Rat Man must come to the aid of the last Swan Princess, Dora Rose, whom he hopelessly loves and who has seen all her kindred slain, their precious bones turned into musical instruments by the evil ogre Mayor of Amandale, Ulia Gol, whose “florid face was as putridly pink as her wig.” With the help of Nicolas the Pied Piper, suitable reparations are exacted. To say this lively tale recaps its famous model legend is also to say that the Coen Bros.’s O Brother, Where Art Thou? is a straight-ahead rendition of the Labors of Hercules.

“Martyr’s Gem” is both a touching love story and a dire revenge drama. The humble fisherman named Shursta Sarth is inexplicably summoned by one of his land’s elite “blodestone” ladies, Hyrryai, to be her husband. It is a command he cannot refuse. But upon meeting his willy-nilly bride, he discovers that her schemes for him are strictly utilitarian, and do not involve love at all. How he comes to win her heart through many trials is the burden of the account. A Peter Beagle-ish atmosphere pleasantly pervades.

Again a fairy tale or folk legend, that of Rumplestiltskin this time, lays down the template for “How the Milkmaid Struck a Bargain with the Crooked One.” But the joy of the reading is how exotically Cooney embroiders on the basic pattern, offering up unexpected twists and turns and character revisionings. There’s a deep backstory and a large amount of world-building behind the basic plot, and Cooney’s inventiveness extends to her nomenclature too. “Feisty Wold” strikes my ears as a place name worthy of Jack Vance.

Lastly we come to “The Big Bah-Ha.” Tipped off by the back-cover copy that this tale is populated with clowns, you might come to it expecting something like Barry Longyear’s Circus World series. But instead we get the legend of Persephone as if retold by a team-up of Fritz Leiber, Robert Bloch and R.A. Lafferty. The wacked-out prose and characters are just that juicy and off-kilter, both droll and macabre at once. Simply having a personage named “Flabberghast” would be a coup, but there is so much more besides.

In his beguiling and affectionate introduction, Gene Wolfe nominates Cooney as a fully formed savant of fantastika at age eighteen. Having matured and honed her skills since then, as seen in this collection, she surely is embarked on a literary odyssey as rewarding and thrilling as any undergone by her bevy of unforgettable heroes and heroines.

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.

Colleen Mondor reviews Daniel José Older

Shadowshaper, Daniel José Older (Arthur A. Levine 9780545591614, $17.99, 304pp, hc) June 2015.

Behind the decidedly fierce cover of Daniel José Older’s Shadowshaper is the story of a young woman thrust into a fast-paced adventure that is heavy with magic and mystery. While grounded in the urban Brooklyn neighborhood of Bedford-Stuyvesant, there are elements of old world power threaded throughout the narrative and a deep respect for the past is a key part of the plot and character motivations.

Sierra Santiago is an artist and aspiring muralist with a deep affection for her family, friends and neighborhood. A bundle of classic teenage contradictions, wavering between bold assertiveness and nervous self-doubt, Sierra wants to be sure of who she is and how she fits into the world around her, but struggles with the same sort of uncertainties about her appearance that have plagued teenage girls for time immemorial. Unfortunately, she has little time to deal with this as big trouble is brewing and her family is at the heart of it.

The first problem is that her murals are disappearing. As Sierra paints on the side of a building, she notices that nearby murals seem to be fading at an alarming rate. Her curiosity takes a sharp turn when one of them appears to weep through the wall and then, before she can process that weirdness, her ailing grandfather charges her to finish her work as quickly as possible because ‘‘they’’ are ‘‘coming for the shadowshapers.’’

Now Sierra has two mysteries to solve and only one clue – her abuelo tells her to seek the help of a classmate named Robbie who is also a painter. Robbie will help her get the job done and also, she hopes, explain what is going on.

As Sierra sets out to discover what shadowshapers are and why they matter, she enlists the help of not only the very likable Robbie, but also her friends and an archivist with specialties in folklore and anthropology. Slowly, the group coalesces into an eclectic Scooby Gang that would make Buffy and company proud. Whether or not they will stop the Big Bad before the undead get them is not known, but they are committed to finding answers even if it means sneaking into a library, facing down monsters at Coney Island, or visiting a long abandoned church.

Older weaves the different characters in and out of the story, bringing members of multiple generations into the plot as Sierra seeks to understand how she, and more importantly her family, fit into a tradition of powerful spiritual communication. What can she do about the shadowshapers? What should she do? The answers lie in the past, which is the underlying theme of the book. The murals, the shadows, the monsters; everything is tied into the stories of where Sierra comes from, into the story of who she is.

As she casts about for answers, the topic of family history makes its way into conversations among her friends. Robbie vividly has his Haitian ancestry tattooed on his body, with images of Taino and African warriors and a French soldier on his chest and back. Through Sierra’s search for understanding, Older makes it clear that his characters are more than just names on the page; they are part of a vibrant and diverse neighborhood that is important not because of magic but rather because of the collective uniqueness of its residents. You have to know who you come from, Older insists throughout the narrative, if you want to know who you are going to be.

The past is thus full of ghosts who belong to the living, and the ancestors Sierra has rarely considered, she now comes to realize, are deeply tied to her future. Nothing is as it seems and to bring the full force of the shadowshapers back – to keep that power safe – she will have to embrace all the fears and beauty of the past. In the end, Sierra Santiago will have to set aside her insecurities and be fierce enough to save them all.

Shadowshaper is a unique young-adult fantasy that stands out not only for its diverse characters but the depth of its story. Older has given readers plenty of thrills and mystery to keep the pages turning, but his novel sings loudest when he explores the power of the past. We are all products of those who came before us; but rarely do authors make that so clearly part of the plot as Daniel José Older has done. Exciting, thoughtful and extremely compelling, Shadowshaper is a novel that invites readers to think deeply of their own family secrets and the lengths they will go to uncover the truth of who they are.

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

Paul Di Filippo reviews Wesley Chu

Time Salvager, by Wesley Chu (Tor 978-0-7653-7718-0, $25.99, 384pp, hardcover) July 2015

I was very impressed with Wesley Chu’s debut novel, The Lives of Tao, nominating it as an “overlooked book of 2013.” Whether my nomination had any good effect or not—really, any success was assuredly down to the author’s innate talents—Chu’s profile in the field has since assumed more prominence, and he completed the Tao trilogy to some acclaim.

Alas, as so often happens, the brutal exigencies of a reviewer’s life meant that I did not have time to read The Deaths of Tao and The Rebirths of Tao. But hovering on the sidelines, I nonetheless felt confident they would maintain the same high standards of craft and entertainment.

Now, with his fourth book, Chu moves into a different fictional realm, and I get to see how he handles himself outside his freshman franchise, itself a useful and potentially revelatory assessment.

In this new venture, Chu is working with one of the great “power chords” of SF. (That’s the phrase Rudy Rucker coined to reference the seminal core tropes and novums like aliens, galactic empires, androids, et al.) His premise is that in the year 2511 there will exist an agency of time travelers whose duty it is to visit the past and steal precious artifacts of all sorts—without altering the timestream more than minimally—in order to replenish and fuel a dying contemporary economy. For, you see, the colonized Solar System of the 26th century is running on fumes, with Earth itself a dead planet, its ecosystems overwhelmed by the Terravira bug.

Immediately, this move puts Chu in illustrious company: Kage Baker, Isaac Asimov, Poul Anderson, Robert Silverberg, Steven Utley, John Varley—and Terry Gilliam, with his Time Bandits. When you add in the similar trope of ripping off parallel timelines—see Keith Laumer and Charles Stross, for example—the lineage becomes stupendous.

So the question is, can Chu live up to his literary ancestors and extend the chain even further? And considering this book is dedicated to Chu’s familial ancestors, I expect he feels this burden explicitly already.

Happily, I can report that this novel is worthy of its predecessors, stuffed with unforgettable action, packed with ethical conundrums, quivering with intellectual mindgames, all of these goodies conveyed to the reader in muscular yet balletic prose.

Chu’s first smart stroke lies in the creation of his alluringly flawed antihero, who is a true product of his debased age, the time of the Great Decay. Resembling one of Richard Morgan’s tough guys, James Griffin-Mars is a hardened, cynical chronman, part of an elite tasked by ChronoCom with making those smash-and-grab raids on the past. (And thanks to some nigh-magical technology known as “bands,” he is something of a posthuman as well.) After many years on the job, he is near the point of total burnout. Wouldn’t you be, after taking part in so many historical tragedies—the best venues for looting—and witnessing the deaths of so many unsavable souls? His friend and handler back at the base, Smitt, recognizes this, as does the martinet ChronoCom auditor, Levin Javier-Oberon. The bad dreams and hallucinations that are starting to plague James can’t be soothed even by his excessive drinking.

So when he is offered a big challenging assignment that might allow him to buy back his contract, he accepts. Plunging pastwards to the year 2097, he makes the mistake of falling in love with the bio-scientist Elise Kim. And when it comes time to jump back to 2511, he can’t just let her die, but instead violates the First Time Law and brings her with him.

Chu’s second good story-telling move is to divide his suspenseful narrative among James, Elise and Levin. Through Elise’s filter, we get an exterior perspective on the flaws and options of the year 2511 which the natives are blind to: almost a case of youth indicting age. And by riding the shoulders of Levin—whose full name, I think, is meant to echo that of Javert, the inspector from Les Misérables, thus making James our Jean Valjean—we experience the tragic nobility of a good man charged with upholding a bad system.

That precipitating event of James’s rebellion and transformation occurs roughly at the halfway point of the novel. What follows is a deadly cat-and-mouse game across time and space, centering around a “wasteland tribe” named the Elfreth, who live in the ruins of Boston. Not only is James’s life at stake, but also the lives of those he loves, and the fate of Earth itself. As one character opines, everything rests on “two scientists, an alcoholic…and a mud-wallowing tribe in the middle of a dystopian wasteland.”

In Chapter Thirty-three comes a major surprise, and the long extended climax is punctuated with plenty of enhanced superhuman battles like those we saw in Tao. The book ends on a satisfying note, but leaves itself open for sequels.

One intellectual toy common to this mode that Chu eschews is the time paradox. The book would not really benefit from such weird twists, and so Chu inserts a prohibition against revisiting over and over the same moment of time. But there is plenty of excitement without such enigmas.

I mentioned the high quality of the prose earlier, and I think that Chu has nailed a certain cinematic style (rich with good dialogue too) that does not avoid interior access to the hearts and minds of the characters. Consider the passage in Chapter Twelve when Elise is hanging from a collapsing structure, amid explosions, and James has to decide whether to rescue her or not. It’s all Michael Bay visuals, but with an underlying emotional resonance as well.

When you add up all the elements—great cast, high stakes, well-crafted language, new exfoliations of a classic premise—I think we can say with assurance that Chu is certainly on his way to a vibrant second stage of his career.

And so I think it’s only fitting, since Chu has, with this fine novel, come up to the high standards of past classics, that the Science Fiction Book Club tap Time Salvager as a selection-of-the-month, and advertise it with the same great line they once used long ago for Asimov’s The End of Eternity: “You Travelled Through Time to Taste FORBIDDEN LOVE…BUT NOW YOU MUST MURDER HER!”

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 2015

Here are three monthly and one quarterly e-publication, in which I find more dark fantasy than usual, as well as more science fiction. Critics sometimes say that such ezines are indistinguishable, but here readers can see some distinctive editorial voices developing.

Publications Reviewed



Lightspeed, August 2015

As often happens, while the ToC of this issue lists two of the new original stories as science fiction, I’m calling them all fantasy. Clearly, the editor and I have different notions as to the genre definitions. Aside from which, the fiction here is generally strong and satisfactorily varied, with my favorite the Chen Qiufan.

“The Smog Society” by Chen Qiufan, translated by Carmen Yiling Yan and Ken Liu

Lao Sun can remember days of blue sky and golden sun when he and his wife were young. Now, things have changed.

It was as if someone was standing above the city pouring dust down endlessly. The sky was darker than the ground, dirty and sticky. Even with the filter mask, you felt as if the smog could worm its way through everything, through dozens of layers of polymer nanomaterial filter membrane and into your nostrils, your pores, your alveoli, your blood vessels, and swim all over your body from there; stuff your chest full until you couldn’t breathe; and turn your brain into a drum of concrete too thick to stir or spin.

Afflicted with depression in his retirement, deserted by his wife, childless, Lao Sun now works a volunteer job measuring air quality for the Municipal Smog Research and Prevention Society. The popular wisdom is that the smog causes depression, but the Smog Society’s research points in the other direction, a direction the government doesn’t want to look.

Despite what appears to be a dire environmental catastrophe, the city’s people don’t quite seem to regard it as such, carrying on their daily routines, Lao Sun’s thoughts here are mostly personal, full of regret. But the conclusion turns out surprisingly optimistic, as he finds his own way to combat depression and, possibly, the smog.

–RECOMMENDED

“And We Were Left Darkling” by Sarah Pinsker

Jo is one of several hundred people who suddenly begin to have realistic dreams of having a baby. The baby is nameless and mutable, changing age and appearance with every dream, although it seems to be consistently a girl. The dreams are so realistic that when the dream baby is nursing, Jo’s waking breasts fill with milk. No one understands them but the others, who have the same dreams. Jo and her wife once planned for one of them to have a child of their own, but it never worked out; it’s not clear if this fact is related to the appearance of the dream baby, or if the others have had a similar experience. We don’t know if any of the dream parents have other children.

One day, the children all leave them. While Jo had never wanted to share experiences with the other dream parents, now it becomes clear that what they have in common overpowers all other relationships. When the babies all reappear off the California coast, in reality not dream, the dream parents congregate there, giving up their jobs and other ties for the sake of their children. Jo’s wife comes to California to urge her return home. “I don’t tell her I’ve already been fired. I know I should put an arm around her, but I don’t. I’m glad she’s here, but I wish she wasn’t.” Ouch!

The author provides no explanation for this phenomenon, which is deliberately left mysterious. Perhaps it’s a psychological experiment, or maybe aliens are messing with human minds. The obvious conclusion is that it illustrates the overpowering strength of mother love [although some of the dream parents appear to be men]. But I keep thinking of “The Glad Host” from the most recent Lackington’s, in which a woman is infected by an alien parasite that stimulates her hormones so that she loves and protects the alien spawn inside her. It’s as likely an explanation as any other.

“Given the Advantage of the Blade” by Genevieve Valentine

A meta-fairy tale. The 2nd person narrator is conducting an experiment, undoubtedly a virtual one, or maybe a game, using figures out of the tales, characters from stories, to test which are most likely to survive. Each is given a knife. There seem to be two teams: maidens on one side and witches/queens/mothers on the other, although in the end, it’s each for herself.

You’ve run this out a dozen times. Four dozen. A hundred.

What will never happen in the white room where you’ve locked them all in:

They line up and make chisels of their knives, and carve the wall away to nothing, and the birds and deer and swans flood the empty space they leave behind.

There’s interest here, of an abstract sort, keeping in mind that none of these characters are or ever were real; the issue seems to be, what do stories want from characters that fill a certain role? The maidens seem to be divided between those who wait for someone else to save them and those who know they must save themselves; the old women, on the other hand, seem all to be of the second set. I also note how very often in the stories the adversary of the maiden is the older woman; yet some of the characters here, such as Scheherazade and Clever Manka, were matched against a man in their original tale.

Still, it’s impossible not to reach the conclusion that the outcome here depends not on the personalities of real individuals but by their formulation by the experimenter, which gives only a self-fulfilling outcome. Another programmer, different results. What don’t know is what kind of results were intended, or why the experiment was conducted in the first place. An odd piece.

“The Ghosts of Home” by Sam J Miller

Set in the mortgage collapse of 2008, when Agnes is working for JP Morgan Chase, hired to appease the abandoned household spirits in the empty foreclosed houses. She gives them offerings of oranges. It’s a shit job that still leaves Agnes homeless and living out of her car, but it includes a gas card for the expense of driving to all the houses. There isn’t a card for the oranges. Agnes seems to be particularly sensitive to the presence of spirits, though it’s hard to tell in a world where they manifest regularly. Once, she wonders if the bank building has a spirit.

And something answered. Something impossibly big and distant, like a whale passing far beneath a lone swimmer. Something dark and sharp and cruel and cold.

But the spirit of 5775 Route 9 has the form of a friendly young man. His name is Micah. He wants Agnes to stay there with him. The spirits of houses need people to live in them, but now the foreclosed spirits are threatened with demolition, which is more cost-effective to the banks than trying to maintain the properties.

Agnes is an interesting but puzzling character whose life had taken a downward trajectory after a series of poor decisions. In the story, there seems to be nothing wrong with her reasoning abilities, yet she tells us that people always treat her as if she’s stupid. She turned in her own mother to the bank when she was still living in their foreclosed house. I’m not clear why she came to believe this was the right thing to do, but this job with the bank seems to have set her on the right track; clearly she has an aptitude for spirit management.

Recently, I’ve seen this author’s fiction take an interest in the personal costs of widespread economic disasters. This one is strongly anti-bank [perhaps a shark might have been a better choice for the bank spirit], but I think the author has mistaken the scale of such vast and sclerotic financial operations. I doubt that a local manager like Trask [badguy name] would have such independent authority to buy and sell properties.



Clarkesworld, August 2015

Here’s the science fiction, all four original stories, most of them involving virtual existence in some way.

“Today I am Paul” by Martin L Shoemaker

The narrator is a high-end android medical attendant serving an Alzheimer’s patient named Mildred. It has the capacity to emulate both the appearance and behavior of her family members, which sometimes creates conflicts. In this, it is quite humanly flawed.

I am torn between competing directives. My empathy subnet warns me not to agitate Mildred, but my emulation net is locked into Paul mode. Paul is argumentative. If he knows he is right, he will not let a matter drop. He forgets what that does to Mildred.

This premise, the android caretaker for a patient with dementia, has become quite common, but this one is particularly well done and effective at showing the human complications of coping with this dread disease, against which we can’t ever win. The conclusion is a melancholy one.

“It was Educational” by J B Park

The narrator is called a reporter but seems in fact to be a reviewer, assessing a simulation of the 1980 Gwangju massacre in Korea. This seems to be a creation of a tourist board, a new version intended to “retool the attraction into an excitement-friendly version of events, where everything was supposedly more fun. This was what I was here to inspect.” At the same time, it seems to be meant in part at least for educational purposes, thus the narrator’s review suggests it shouldn’t be rated as suitable for viewers under eight. In any event, the narrator thinks it poorly done. A virtual student “has the kind of face composed by men who have no idea what normal human beings look like.” The narrator, also, is a virtual presence in the scenario, capable of speeding up the action through the tedious parts.

A very cynical look at the dissemination and corruption of history, whether it be for profit or propaganda, distorting the truth and capitalizing on the bleeding and suffering of real individuals by rendering them into virtual cartoons, like Disney, but with a lot more fake blood.

“Security Check” by Han Song, translated by Ken Liu

This one starts in a familiar dystopian future New York when freedoms have been sacrificed for the illusion of safety. In order to eliminate all possible threats, all people are forced to pass through daily security checks in which their possessions are supposedly scanned—but in fact, replaced with fabricated copies. Yearning to live in freedom with the wife he loves, our narrator Louis is turned in to the authorities by her. After his release from prison, he emigrates to China [people are free to leave America, just not to enter], where he gains a different perspective from which reality starts to look very weird indeed.

Gazing back from the other shore of the Pacific, I see a truly wondrous sight. The self-substituting America churns in constant transformation: one moment it’s like a wild flower—blossoming with a pop, collapsing, wilting, changing color from red to black, from yellow to white—and the next moment it’s like a dying star. Caught up in the changes are my compatriots. They are replaced and remade daily: from blood to muscle, from life to thought, becoming new people without knowing it themselves. From inside America, nothing is seen to change—every day people ride the subway to work like rats. But from China, the changes cannot be more obvious. I suppose this is a difference in frames of reference.

The weird, however, has only just begun.

This one is largely about difference in frames of reference. Readers will note that the story was originally written in China. In China, Louis learns that the Chinese have in large part been behind the transformation of America as an experiment and are now observing its mutation with great interest. We had two nations, each regarding itself as the center of the cosmos, but now America has disappeared itself into a black hole of solipsism. From a fairly mundane-seeming dystopia, the story has entered the universe of the surreal, to what end, Louis will never know.

The storyline is imaginative and creative, but the narrative is excessively talky; it’s a “tell” story, with none of the characters coming truly to life. Louis’s betrayal by his wife should be heartbreaking; he tells us his heart is broken, yet we can’t feel it.

“The Servant” by Emily Devenport

My name is Oichi Angelis, and I am a worm. I exist in the outer skin of the Generation Ship Olympia, and I spend most of my time squeezing through its utility tunnels, doing work for the Executives. I am partially deaf, dumb, and blind. That I am not entirely so is my greatest secret.

Now there’s an opening. Oichi is in fact a human servant whose senses are controlled by her masters through implants. Her secret is another set of implants installed by her father when he realized the ruling clans would never allow his child a chance for advancement. “Everyone else worked for just enough food to survive, just enough heat not to freeze.” This was before the rulers of the Olympia stripped all the resources from their sister ship Titania, then blew it up with the entire population. But Oichi was already on the other ship and is now in possession of secrets that could overthrow the oppressive power structure.

This is by far the longest and most skiffy story in the issue, and there’s plenty of action—plots, assassinations, and a regular use of the airlocks for venting the inconvenient among the population. Unfortunately, there’s excessive moral dichotomy among the characters, who are either Evil or saintly, either murderous conspirators or long-range planners for good. Can’t really take it seriously on that account.



The Dark, August 2015

Light dark fantasy, sometimes edging outside the fantasy boundaries altogether.

“Hani’s: Purveyor of Rusks, Biscuits, and Sweet Tea” by Sara Saab

In a village somewhere it’s hot, Hafeez has run a bakery and confectionary shop for a very long time; generations of children have enjoyed his bonbons, and some special children have had even more.

These he took by the hand during siesta hours and led into the kitchen in the back. The others knew by instinct not to wait about for their return, nor to give away their whereabouts when parents or tutors pressed. Anyway, the favoured children always returned the next day, smiles beatific and broad, teeth coated with toffee.

Now today, we would immediately think One Thing about this ominous practice, and the child welfare services would be paying Hafeez a visit. But no one in the village remarked about it until after Hafeez finally died and a grandson took over the shop without continuing the bonbon line. As it was during the school holidays, the children took up spying on Hani, and eventually they learned his secret.

A charmingly gruesome little tale, with an original and imaginative twist. Nicely told.

“A House of Anxious Spiders” by J Y Yang

Spider fights! I do love this premise, where people carry spiders in their mouths, channeling their oral aggression. When quarrels break out, so do the spiders; these fights tend to be to the death, and when a person’s spider is killed, it disables the tongue. In consequence, most people learn to control their tempers, or at least to pick their fights wisely. Sook Yee has avoided conflict with her older sister-in-law, Kathy, who had raised her husband John. This isn’t easy, since they’ve all been living together in the same cluttered house. But now the old woman, her mother-in-law, is dead, and the siblings are plotting contention over possession of the house. John wants Sook Yee to challenge his sister for it.

Someone, probably not Ben Franklin, once said, “Say not you know another entirely, till you have divided an inheritance with him.” At its heart, this is a story of family dynamics. While it opens with a spider fight between little boys, the real viciousness is in the women. John is a coward, and poor old Pa a peaceful, loving soul. Kathy, readers will probably say, deserves whatever she gets, but the story goes a lot further than that, into the pain of people’s lives.

–RECOMMENDED

“The Old Man in the Kitchen” by Patricia Russo

As children, the narrator and her sister were afraid of the old man in Grannie Luvan’s kitchen, and they hated to be taken there on visits.

The old man would sit in a spot near the stove, and though he had no use of his legs at all, he kept a stick with him always, and sometimes he’d be twisting the stick in his hands with a look on his face like that of somebody struggling through a storm. And often he’d be muttering to himself, or shouting, and more than once we saw him bite his own lip hard enough to make the blood spurt.

When the girls are grown and refuse to go, their mother rebukes them, as she says the old man has done much good for the people and suffered for his efforts. Then their mother grows ill and near death, until only one person might possibly be able to help her.

There’s little overt darkness in this tale, but shadowy hints from behind the scenes. We’ve read many times that attempting to bring a person back from death, or from its doorstep, are only made at great cost, with regret the likely outcome. But here, the outcome has not yet come to pass. It’s noteworthy that while the mother tells the girls the old man has done much good, she either doesn’t know or doesn’t want to tell the details. We can suspect how much it’s cost him, but only from the outside. For most of the story, he never really speaks, and his own point of view isn’t revealed.

“Mother of Giants” by Kirsty Logan

Meta fairy tale. As a girl, the narrator listened to the stories the villagers told, stories of the witch, appropriately horrific. The witch ate people.

She’ll boil up your eyes for sausages. She’ll feed your fingers to her chickens. She’s the only one who never starves. She can eat every single part of you because she’s got iron teeth that can crunch-munch up your bones . . .

The witch stories were for the good times, when there was food. But sometimes, famine came, and people starved. Then there was another story that the other women told to a woman who was having a new child, the tale of a woman who loved her child but couldn’t feed it. This tale was a lie they told themselves, an act of bad faith. When the narrator had become a mother herself, she knew there was no magic Mother of Giants who took the babies laid in the snow.

I find this overly self-righteous of the narrator, but I give her credit for being realistic and rejecting comforting myths. People do starve, and that’s not a fairy tale. Nor is this, nor fantasy.



Apex Magazine, August 2015

With this issue, the zine seems to be shifting more towards its horror roots, at least as far as dark fantasy. The predominant tone is the psychological. One of the year’s better issues.

“Brisé” by Mehitobel Wilson

The title refers both to a ballet step and something shattered, as a mirror in a ballet studio, reduced to shards. The story seems at first to be a fairly stereotypical account of a woman, Erin, confined by a controlling husband who has built a [too small] studio in their home where she can dance, observed by him alone. It’s a quite creepy image, with such touches as a lock on the door that only works from the outside [his side]. Yet as the story continues, we learn that Erin hasn’t been honest with herself about a lot of things, like her failure, like her crippling injury, until we start to wonder if anything she’s told us has been the truth.

This primary text is broken by sections addressing Erin in the second person.

Your face twisted with bitterness. Your movements grew ungraceful, then uncontrolled. You snapped your head this way and that, gaze jerking from mirrored wall to mirrored wall. You looked as if you might come utterly apart, fall into pieces of fog and flesh scattered across the floor. And then you became still, and you watched the glass.

These voices come from the reflections of Erin in the studio mirrors and in any other reflective surface, where she now looks for other selves that she might have become, in timelines spawned from different choices. This is a science-fictional notion, but here it’s metaphorical, the reflection of Erin’s failing hold on reality. Essentially, it’s a psychological study of an individual in fatal denial.

I note that the author has taken clever advantage of reader assumptions by opening the piece with Erin’s feelings of being under the control of an abuser, employing such details that strongly suggest the husband is the real problem. The hints that matters might actually be otherwise come later, and most of them in Erin’s own increasingly-unreliable voice, requiring some attentiveness from readers, and reassessment of original assumptions. Neatly done.

“Coming Undone” by Alexis A Hunter

Natasya was born incomplete, with one leg and arm not fully developed, yet she seems to have always thought, “it’s the full-length, ‘healthy’ limbs that make me wrong.” Her solution is robotics, becoming a cyborg.

While the science fiction element here must be taken literally, the heart of this very short story is psychological—in an empty way. Nothing lets us understand Natasya, why she chose the life that she did. The character’s pain is visible from the outside, but not felt from the inside.

“It is Healing, It is Never Whole” by Sunny Moraine

I often get irritated by stories in which the authors fail to give important characters a name, through which readers can know them. But sometimes namelessness is the only right thing, as it is here. The narrator doesn’t know who or what it is or was, can’t remember. It seems that it once was alive, with all these things pertaining to a life, but now works in the land of the dead, catching the souls of suicides and preparing them for their final [maybe] journey.

The soul of a suicide is not cold but gently warm, like the space in a chest where a heart used to nestle. It makes you want to cradle them, gather them close, and sing them songs to which you only know half the words. But we don’t hold the suicides like that, because it would show an inappropriate amount of favoritism. We catch them in our huge cloth nets and pull them into the separating trays, where we scoop them up in our hands and wash them in the cloudy water that jets out from the spigots before the trays, and we slide them, softly pulsing, into the collection jars.

Then one day, the narrator finds a soul with eyes, and “there was all the feeling in the world in those eyes, though there were no tears.”

I really like this premise, with a well-balanced mix of the unusual and familiar, such as the [hell-bound?] train into which the souls are loaded. The conclusion is both revealing and provocative, answering readers’ questions and posing more. Is this how it was meant to be? And what happens with the other soul-catchers, and the other souls? And where is the train headed?

–RECOMMENDED

“Not My Circus, Not My Monkeys: The Elephant’s Tale” by Damien Angelica Walters

The elephant tells us, “We are all captives in one way or another.” In this case, the remaining members of the derelict circus are captives of failure. Only a few of them remain in the decrepit former Big Top, held there by inertia more than anything else, the fear of change, although in the case of the elephant it might well be the gilded cage strapped to its back, and the undefined shadows inside it. The Ringmaster with his whip is as much a captive as the others whom he abuses. The elephant watches and observes them all, the ones who can’t summon the will to leave, yet can’t itself abandon them.

A surreal tone here, beginning with the story’s title, which derives from a saying that means, in essence, “It’s a mess, but it’s not my problem.” [You can find it on T-shirts.] The author has brought it to life and literalized it in this tale, yet for the elephant, the problems of all the circus denizens are its own problems as well. Except for the monkeys. Nobody cares about the monkeys.

Yet the story also reminds us that a circus, so often a symbol of fun and enjoyment, can be a dismal place behind the scenes, and based on abuse, as the elephant bears witness to:

the sharp pain of a cattle prod, the shouts, the forcing of my cumbersome body into positions it wasn’t meant to hold. And for what? The momentary pleasure of others, the applause, the indignity? All small cruelties of a life lived in captivity.

The Ringmaster’s whip is the relic of his prior career as a lion tamer, and he now uses it on the remaining denizens of the Big Top, although not, I note, the tiger. The elephant claims that the tiger doesn’t remember, but I suspect it remembers the whip quite well.

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.

The Fifty Years Later Affair: A Review of The Man from U.N.C.L.E.

by Gary Westfahl

If anyone is wondering why a science fiction film critic would be interested in reviewing a film version of the television series The Man from U.N.C.L.E. (1964-1968), it is important to recognize that when the series debuted in 1964, it represented one of the few opportunities for viewers to watch science fiction of any kind. The Outer Limits (1963-1965) was in the process of being killed off by the ABC network, which had exiled the series to early Saturday evening, and except for the near-future aquatic adventurers of Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea (1964-1968), the only other alternatives were inane comedies – My Favorite Martian (1963-1966) and My Living Doll (1964-1965) – and kids’ stuff – the animated series Jonny Quest (1964-1965). In a milieu of mundanity, even the mildly futuristic technology wielded by spies Napoleon Solo and Illya Kuryakin could be greatly appreciated.

Surely, the producers of this film were not primarily focused on the aging demographic of individuals who remember watching The Man from U.N.C.L.E. half a century ago, yet even as they strived to make its scenario appealing to millennials, they must have felt an obligation to respect the original series’ spirit and character; to some extent they succeeded, and to some extent they failed. Instead of transplanting its characters into the present, the film retains the mid-1960s setting of the series; the style and yellow color of the subtitles’ lettering resemble that of the series; the film further recalls the 1960s by actually beginning with several minutes of credits, in contrast to the current practice of withholding them all until the end; Henry Cavill and Armie Hammer are acceptable replacements for Robert Vaughn and David McCallum, and Hugh Grant is surprisingly good as Waverly; and its story line would have fit perfectly into the series: an ex-Nazi scientist, Udo Teller (Christian Berkel), has developed a superior way to produce uranium for nuclear weapons, and a sinister businesswoman plans to employ his findings to sell bombs on the black market – unless she can be stopped by Solo and Kuryakin. The film even replicates, surprisingly, another characteristic of the series – a virtually all-white cast – which one would not expect today, though this might appear justifiable in a film set entirely in the Berlin and Italy of the 1960s.

Yet the film is also very different from the original series in several ways. The basic goal of the screenplay’s four authors was to offer something that the series had never provided: an origin story, explaining how secret agents Solo and Kuryakin, and their boss Waverly, first got together and became part of something called the United Network Command for Law and Enforcement. Thus, one gets a glimpse of the functioning organization of the series only in a few documents shown during the closing credits, and fans must wait for the film’s sequel (if it is made) to see Cavill’s Solo and Hammer’s Kuryakin walk into the tailor shop that conceals U.N.C.L.E.’s high-tech headquarters and plan their next mission. In keeping with contemporary sensibilities, one supposes, the previously flawless Solo and Kuryakin are given a few skeletons in their closets: Solo is now a former art thief who agreed to work for the CIA to avoid a prison sentence, and a troubled upbringing brought Kuryakin severe psychological problems which he eventually overcame to become an admired KGB agent, though he still can display an explosive temper. As another bow to modernity, the end credits indicate that, in any future films, Solo and Kuryakin will be joined by the new female agent who was introduced in this film, a car mechanic turned spy named Gaby Teller (Alicia Vikander). And, needless to say, none of the film’s secret agents employ communicators disguised as packs of cigarettes.

More significantly, the film ignores one key priority of the series, which was to involve ordinary people in U.N.C.L.E.’s business: on the trail of some spy, Solo would regularly stumble into a hapless housewife or nerdy accountant and find himself obliged to rely upon their assistance. But this film’s only contact with the working class comes in its opening scene, when Solo meets Gaby while she is repairing a car; otherwise, Solo and Kuryakin exclusively experience the lifestyles of the rich and famous, as they stay in fancy hotels and attend lavish parties hosted by their fabulously wealthy opponent, Victoria Vinciguerra (Elizabeth Debicki). It is noteworthy that both Solo and Kuryakin, unlike their television counterparts, present themselves as experts on men’s and women’s fashion, as if to emphasize that they are accustomed to traveling only in very fashionable company.

There is also a problem with the overall tone of the film, which is hard to articulate but readily discernible to viewers who liked the series but find themselves disliking the film. The series consistently provided what might be termed light-hearted adventures: characters took their work seriously, and responded with appropriate concern and energy to every threat, but they could also appreciate the humor in some precarious moments and find ways to enjoy themselves in some unlikely situations. The film visibly endeavors to have the same ambience, but it doesn’t. The screenplay instructs actors to appear casual and relaxed at certain times, but with the exception of Grant’s Waverly (who only appears in a few scenes), Cavill and Hammer invariably project only tension and anxiety. The screenplay gives the actors jokes to deliver, but they usually intone them as if performing an onerous chore. All of the film’s attempts at humor, then, unsurprisingly fall flat, which is why it is so odd to see that the Internet Movie Database describes one of its genres as “comedy”; for the film never made me laugh, and I don’t recall anybody else in the theatre ever laughing.

The issue comes to the forefront in the film’s most bizarre scene: after Solo falls out of a boat in which he and Kuryakin have been fleeing from armed assailants in bigger boats, he reaches shore, gets into a truck, finds a bottle of wine and a sandwich sitting on the passenger seat, and proceeds to drink some wine and eat the sandwich as he calmly watches Kuryakin struggling to stay alive as his beleaguered boat catches on fire. Noting that Kuryakin has now fallen into the water and is undoubtedly drowning, Solo then puts down his sandwich with visible reluctance and sets out to rescue him by driving the truck onto an enemy boat and diving into the water to grab Kuryakin and pull him to the surface.

What, one wonders, was the point of this scene? One might interpret it as a modern version of the old Zen fable in which a man, clinging to a branch on a cliff and about to fall to the death, plucks a strawberry, eats it, and proclaims, “The strawberry is sweet.” Yes, even while being pursued by machine-gun-wielding fanatics, a man should always pause to appreciate some fine wine and hearty food. But Cavill’s Solo doesn’t seem to be enjoying his meal. Perhaps this is supposed to represent a key turning point in the film, as Solo ponders whether he should really rush to the rescue of an avowed enemy turned reluctant ally and realizes that he is really a friend who merits his assistance. Perhaps we are supposed to conclude that, in contrast to the good-hearted Kuryakin, Solo is actually something of a cad, coldly waiting until the last possible moment to save his dying partner. In any event, one has to imagine the filmmakers believed that the incongruity of Solo’s actions would somehow be amusing, but they aren’t; they are simply senseless and disturbing.

We are possibly observing an unintended effect of the high-stakes wagers that Hollywood is now accustomed to making. Back in the 1960s, it was easy for Vaughn and McCallum to approach their work in a laid-back manner: if their series succeeded, that would be great, but if it failed, they could readily support themselves by means of guest appearances in other series while realistically hoping for another opportunity. Today, it seems, every film represents a huge all-or-nothing gamble, and it may be inevitable that an air of nervousness permeates every production. Thus, if told that he needed to stop acting so uptight, Hammer might respond, “What? I’m making a film that probably represents my last chance to become a big star, with millions and millions of dollars on the line, and you’re telling me to relax?” In sum, filming casually humorous adventures may now be possible only for independent filmmakers with low budgets and little to lose.

I said before that The Man from U.N.C.L.E. is a science fiction film, but it belongs to a special category that critics would now describe as the “technothriller.” Such works differ from typical science fiction in at least three respects: they take place in the present or the very near future; they foreground only modest improvements in today’s technology; and while science fiction explores how new inventions and discoveries might change the world, the machinery of the technothriller is invariably dedicated to preserving the status quo at all costs. Since the innovations envisioned in technothrillers often seem quite revolutionary in their probable impact – here, a method for processing uranium that would make it possible for almost anyone to build a nuclear bomb – one might think that they would necessarily disturb society, but the technothriller addresses the issue by borrowing a common figure in popular culture, the mad scientist. Unlike actual scientists, mad scientists work entirely in isolation; they achieve amazing breakthroughs all by themselves, working in their basements; they are the only people in the entire world who possess, or could possibly possess, the information needed to create their new invention; and as long as one contrives to kill the scientists, and burns their notes, their potentially world-changing innovations will forever vanish from the scene. It is not really a “spoiler” to note that the story of this film’s mad scientist, Dr. Teller, precisely follows this formula; for the tragic fate of such characters and their work is as preordained as that of the characters in the original Star Trek (1966-1969) who wore red shirts. And unrealistically portraying scientists as lonely geniuses doomed to failure is reassuring to audiences who like the status quo and would hate to imagine scientific progress upsetting their apple carts.

Watching The Man from U.N.C.L.E. helped me recognize another aspect of the technothriller which in a way represents a welcome departure from most science fiction, at least the science fiction we are now accustomed to seeing in theatres. It is true that the stories always have easily identifiable heroes and villains, in the standard manner of melodrama, and manifestly evil plans that must be thwarted. But there is also an aura of moral equivalence, a sense that the adversaries are actually similar people with similar proclivities. Thus, one might imagine that the numerous spy thrillers of the 1960s would always portray the Americans as good guys and the Russians as bad guys; instead, as in this film, they regularly suggested that the Americans and the Russians were actually pretty much the same. Here, for example, Solo’s American boss and Kuryakin’s Russian boss both give their agents the same odious instructions – to kill their partner if it becomes necessary to achieve their objectives. And while the Americans and Russians come together to oppose the schemes of the despicable Victoria, she is shown to be an admirably capable and intelligent adversary, like Kuryakin in the opening sequence, and one could envision an altered plot wherein a slightly less sinister Victoria eventually joins forces with Solo and Kuryakin to battle against an even more reprehensible foe. A film featuring enemies who might evolve into friends, arguably, is more plausible than redundant sagas of perpetually virtuous heroes fighting against perpetually evil villains.

Also, since the participants in the action might change sides at any time, this means that the typical technothriller presents its conflict not as a war, but as a game – another reason why the relentless grimness of Cavill and (especially) Hammer seems so inappropriate. The film even includes several references to games: Solo is described as a skilled gambler; Kuryakin is shown obsessively playing chess with himself in one scene, and his dossier identifies him as a champion chess player; after Gaby disrupts his playing with loud music and dancing, the two engage in a wrestling match; Kuryakin and Gaby are shown visiting Rome’s Colosseum, site of the famed gladiatorial games; and Victoria’s husband Alexander (Luca Calvani) is shown in one scene to be a car racing enthusiast, driving around a track and recalling the film’s two extended car chases. Later, when Victoria sees through the duplicity of two associates, she aptly tells them, “Let’s stop playing games.” Further, the film’s official website allows visitors to downplay and play an online game, The Man from U.N.C.L.E.: Mission Berlin, presumably based on Solo’s initial assignment to help Gaby escape from East Berlin.

Spy stories also share one feature with the works of Philip K. Dick, in that they are fables about the unreliability of human perceptions. In the world of secret agents, the film demonstrates, an agent you employ may actually be working for your enemy; a shipping magnate might actually be the head of British Naval Intelligence; any bottle of Scotch might contain a dangerous drug; a kind of safe that never includes an alarm might suddenly blast out an alarm; and everything in your possession, ranging from an alarm clock to a ring, might conceal a bugging device. Spies are never defeated because they lost a fair fight, but because they trusted someone they shouldn’t have trusted or failed to suspect a danger lurking within an innocent guise. In order to survive, then, spies have to become paranoid, never assuming that anything in their purview is actually as it seems. One comes to understand why movies based on Dick stories like Blade Runner (1982), Minority Report (2002 – review here) and The Adjustment Bureau (2010 – review here) resemble technothrillers set somewhat farther in the future.

However, as a man with a restless imagination, Philip K. Dick never concluded a story by laying the groundwork for a sequel, as he was happy to imagine worlds that experienced tremendous changes and never wanted to revisit a scenario he had already explored. Genuine technothrillers, in contrast, naturally lend themselves to sequels, as their stories end precisely where they began, with larger-than-life heroes ready to embark upon another adventure, and The Man from U.N.C.L.E., as already intimated, concludes by effectively announcing a planned sequel. However, while it is entertaining enough, The Man from U.N.C.L.E. is not a film that anyone will want to watch a second time, and few people will leave the theatre yearning for another installment. Like attending a high school reunion, perhaps, revisiting the world of 1960s television is enjoyable as a rare diversion, but not as a regular activity. Still, understanding the attitudes that now govern Hollywood, the best one can hope for is that the film’s talented creators will decide to abandon the United Network Command for Law and Enforcement to instead try something “new” – like a reboot of Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea.

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

Paul Di Filippo reviews Pamela Sargent

Puss in D.C. and Other Stories, by Pamela Sargent (Wildside Press 978-1-4794-0614-2, $13.99, 176pp, trade paperback) June 19, 2015

This year marks the forty-fifth anniversary of Pamela Sargent’s first short story sale (“Landed Minority,” F&SF, 1970), and she’s still at the top of her game, as the ten polymorphous and polychromatic entries in this newest collection attest. Like a select few in her cohort, she has endured and flourished through all the stages of an archetypical authorial career, from tyro to journeywoman to sage mistress of the field. But although she is well known for her novels, and for her editorial efforts on the Women of Wonder series of anthologies, her short fiction seems sometimes to take a back seat to these other efforts. With luck, this new assemblage will draw audience attention in this direction.

Certainly the empathetic and insightful introduction by Eleanor Arnason makes a good case for the high stature of these stories. But let’s look for ourselves.

The title piece comes first. Appearing initially in a Marty Greenberg theme anthology, it necessarily follows the dictates of that project and recapitulates a famous folktale—”Puss in Boots”—in modern terms. But the story does not rely overmuch on familiarity with the myth, although the Easter Eggs for the cognoscenti are in place. Sargent lays out the premise neatly and intelligibly, then chooses to deviate from the template when the narrative demands. The voice of Angleton the cat—who sounds “just like Jeremy Irons”—is convincingly both human and feline, breezy yet showing gravitas, and the topical elements of the tale consort well with the legendary Machiavellian abilities of Puss.

“Strawberry Birdies” reminds me of the facility with which Henry Kuttner wrote of strange kids, as well as resonating with Ellison’s “Jeffty is Five.” Into the Almstead household comes a weird young woman named Maerleen Loegins. Helping to take care of the children, among whom is the bright and suspicious young girl named Addie, Maerleen seems to focus on the disabled brother Cyril. And indeed, the relationship between adult and child has the potential to divert world events.

“After I Stopped Screaming” strikes me as almost a Howard Waldrop story, riffing as it does on the King Kong mythos. We learn from Ann Darrow just what was behind the big ape’s quest, and the revelations prove to overturn all the clichés that have accumulated around this modern fairytale.

Like the first story, “The Rotator” features plenty of astringent commentary on current politics, but wraps it up in the kind of hall-of-mirrors mind-game that William Tenn excelled in.

Partnered for decades in her personal life with George Zebrowski, Sargent has deliberately chosen to avoid excessive literary collaboration with her mate. But together they produced “The Falling,” and achieved a kind of metaphysical story of cosmic estrangement that might have been featured in the pages of New Worlds, or seen more recently in a Greg Egan collection. Our heroine, Elaine, becomes instrumental in learning about a strange malaise infecting all of humanity. But the limits of such knowledge have never been clearer.

“Strip-Runner” is the longest tale here, being an homage to the works of Isaac Asimov, specifically the R. Daneel Olivaw books. Sargent delivers the most assured recreation of Asimovian voice that I have ever seen, in her tale of Amy, teenage rebel in the caves of steel. And she manages to tease out hidden implications from Asimov’s own premises.

“Reifying a metaphor” is the descriptive label I slap on certain stories of my own and others, and it’s a particularly strong technique among SF writers. Take a whimsical simile or fanciful analogy and assume it becomes concrete. In the case of Sargent’s stimulating “A Smaller Government,” we get a literal shrinkage of Washingtonian monuments and bureaucracies.

“Not Alone” is a condensed piece of flash fiction that still packs a wallop, dealing as it does with the existential quandaries of its protagonist.

Like Stephen King’s writings about writers and their fans, “The Drowned Father” skims along the surface tension between creepiness and mundanity, in a Strangers on a Train mode, as we overhear the chance conversation between a failed author and the daughter of a successful dead one. Any likenesses to Kilgore Trout or Philip K. Dick are strictly intentional.

Finally comes “The True Darkness,” a story akin to “The Falling,” in that it investigates cosmological quirks that border on the supernatural. It strikes me that younger authors of apocalypses, such as Ben Marcus (The Flame Alphabet) or Alena Graedon (The Word Exchange), are carrying forward this mode that Sargent helped to establish.

Sargent’s prose is always distinctively hers, yet molded professionally to the imperatives of the story, whether those urges are tonal or character-driven. Not a rococo stylist, nor a writer given to flashy experimental story-telling techniques, she believes in delivering her mind-movies in the most direct and impactful manner possible. Her stories always seem utterly vital and imperative, not factitious or arbitrary. They are built to convey solid truths in lasting forms.

I would be remiss if I did not finally mention that Sargent provides charming and informative afterwords to all these stories, contributing anecdotal data to what Barry Malzberg calls “The True and Secret History of Science Fiction.” Just as Jack Williamson and Andre Norton once served as the living connection to the earliest days of our genre, so too does Sargent stand nowadays as one of the repositories of our past, while still facing firmly forward into her fascinating futures.

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.

Karen Burnham reviews Carolyn Ives Gilman

Dark Orbit, Carolyn Ives Gilman (Tor 978-0-7653-3629-3, $25.99, 304pp, hc) July 2015.

Dark Orbit is the most recent entry in Carolyn Ives Gilman’s Twenty Planets setting, which also hosted her Nebula Award-nominated novellas ‘‘Arkfall’’ and ‘‘The Ice Owl’’. In this future people can choose to send themselves to distant planets by beaming their information at light speed around the galaxy, then being reconstituted teleporter-style on the other side. Slower than light robotic probes fan out across space to search for interesting planets, although most of these seem to have been colonized by humans in an earlier diaspora that has been lost to our knowledge. When the probes find something interesting, a team of people can beam themselves aboard the spaceship and investigate more closely. After waking up on Capella Two and discovering that she has suffered quite a reversal of fortune during her five year light-speed transit, Sara is asked by her old mentor to join such an expedition 58 light-years away. Sara is already comfortable being out-of-synch with other, planet-bound humans (travelers deride them as Plants), but this mission has political overtones that make her wary.

Sara finds herself orbiting the planet Iris, which has fascinating gravitational anomalies, in a spaceship that seems to have been designed by MC Escher. Her official role is to observe the dynamics of the corporate-sponsored research team, and her real agenda is to observe her mentor’s young relative, Thora Lassiter, who suffered a mental breakdown during a previous diplomatic mission and has probably been sent to Iris to get her out of the way. We also get Thora’s perspective on things from entries in her audio journal, and her sections have a beautifully different voice which reminds us that Gilman knows her craft, as well as how to tell stories.

All of the careful machinations Sara expects get quickly thrown out the window, first by an apparent murder on board, and next when it turns out that Iris has possibly non-human-origin life on it, and finally when it turns out that there are human inhabitants living underground in lightless and mysterious circumstances. Thora goes missing, and Sara has to work with some of her fellow travelers and around the more useless and paranoid corporate agents to try to wrest something positive out of this wholly unexpected and rocky first-contact scenario. In Thora’s sections we see her interact with the Irisians, and watch her try to adapt to their circumstances while also dealing with memories dredged up about her previous breakdown.

Dark Orbit raises many, many more interesting questions than it has time to interrogate and resolve. In many ways it ends just as things are really getting complicated, although all the immediate plot crises are neatly wrapped up in the final pages. It leaves itself almost demanding a sequel, as the things learned by Sara and the corporate team have the potential to shake up everything about their galactic society as it has developed to this point. There are questions about gravity, consciousness, observation, first contact, colonialism, and informed consent that all beg for deeper discussion.

In many ways this feels like a very old-fashioned kind of SF story. While the characters can beam themselves as information streams across light years of space and use quantum entanglement to instantaneously communicate with other worlds, they don’t appear to have e-mail, cell phones, or GPS even on the developed worlds. When the ship goes into lockdown during the murder investigation, communication is by loudspeaker, and the characters stuck in different parts of the ship seem to have no way to communicate with each other until lockdown is lifted. However, that pre-Internet mindset is more than offset by the big questions raised by the narrative. Gilman is sophisticated in her development of both the sociological and physical implications and complications raised by the contact between the research team and the planet’s humans, echoed and complicated by the unfolding story of how Thora’s previous diplomatic mission went wrong. How Gilman will handle the rippling consequences of these discoveries and interactions remains to be seen.

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Faren Miller reviews Natasha Pulley

The Watchmaker of Filigree Street, Natasha Pulley (Bloomsbury 978-1-62040-833-9, $26.00, 322pp, hc) July 2015.

The Watchmaker of Filigree Street is a remarkably assured first novel that makes the most of Natasha Pulley’s varied influences, from studies in English lit. and creative writing to her current life in Tokyo. Though there’s plenty of dust in her Victorian London by the end of Chapter Three, it’s debris from bombs detonated by Irish rebels (who manage to destroy Scotland Yard and exile the Home Office to new quarters in a basement), rather than the fustiness of olden times. Much of this city is already moving forward, without a need for steampunk’s elaborate retro-futurism to lead the way, but it’s vast enough to move at many paces: from wagon wheels jolting against cobblestone to express trains packed with hordes of commuters.

In November 1883, Nathaniel Steepleton is one of many telegraph operators at the Home Office. His own home’s a grungy flat just like those of his neighbors, ‘‘all members of the crowd of black coats and black hats that swamped London for half an hour every morning and evening.’’ The first of this book’s multiple mysteries is a break-in where nothing’s taken but someone has washed his dishes and left behind a velvet box containing a pocket watch ‘‘made of a rosy gold he hadn’t seen before’’ and superbly crafted (‘‘The chain slithered gently after it, the links all smoothed flawless, without the slightest hairline space or ripple of solder to show where they had been joined’’). Though it feels warm enough to be alive, the thing won’t truly function until the following May, when the bombs go off.

Explosions can be triggered by mechanical devices much like the workings of a pocket watch. A combination of personal curiosity and his bosses’ new suspicion of any advance in time-keeping leads Nathaniel to take a short trip by Underground to find the watchmaker: K. Mori, 27 Filigree Street, Knightsbridge. It’s an obscure byway, ‘‘a medieval row of houses whose upper stories leaned toward each other,’’ but at ground level (where the shops are) one place stands out: ‘‘In the window, a single lamp illuminated a clockwork model of a city that grew new towers and bridges until it became London.’’

When he enters through an unlocked door, electric lights hum on – startling him. He sees a sign beside the door: Room to let. He’ll end up taking it, hoping to learn more about the frumpy Japanese man with dyed blond hair who crafted this:

Across the wall beside him was a tall pendulum clock, its movement regulated by the jointed wings of a golden locust. A mechanical model of the solar system spun in midair, floating on magnets, and up two steps in the tiered floor, little bronze birds sat perched on the edge of the desk. One of them hopped onto the microscope and tapped its beak hopefully on the brass fittings. Things glimmered and clicked everywhere.

By now, we’ve also encountered Grace, a woman with her own Mori watch. At Oxford, this ugly-duckling spinster is an apprentice scholar, specializing in highly technical investigation into a field as speculative as dark matter in modern astronomy. First proposed by ancients but potentially linked to the workings of the human mind, it’s ether (AKA aether).

Other plot threads involve Japanese politics – conspiracy, diplomacy and modernization amidst castles and samurai; a form of weather manipulation that can resemble alchemy; Grace’s maddening relationship with her family; plus further mysteries that won’t be solved by feats of Holmesian brilliance. Somehow, Natasha Pulley turns this wild mix into a tale as elegant as one of the master watchmaker’s creations, for a debut that’s fast-paced, suspenseful, and curiously convincing. Near the dawn of the 20th century, both the mythic past and the far future feel within reach – close enough to touch.

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 2015

After a surfeit of fantasy last time, I had hopes of finding some actual science fiction in the digests, from which the most sciencey is the Nevala-Lee in Analog. In fantasy, I preferred a lot of the weird stuff in Lackington’s.

Publications Reviewed



Asimov’s, September 2015

Mostly softer SF, set in various futures, near and far, without a lot of science emphasis.

“The Molenstraat Music Festival” by Sean Monaghan

Clancy is settling in relative contentment into old age after arthritis forced his retirement from music; he’s so far refused implants, which his doctor has suggested. One day a couple of rude women show up at his house, barge inside, and one of them, uninvited, takes up his long-untouched cello. Eleanor is so talented he can’t bring himself to object, but he’s sure he has nothing to teach her; her problem is medical, brain damage after a fall that impairs her concentration, and she also refuses implants. He reluctantly agrees to coach her for the upcoming festival and comes to sympathize with her position; the risk of implants altering her genius is too great.

Clancy felt furious. Who was this country doctor to go meddling with what Eleanor wanted and needed? Clancy had thought of Symond as a friend. Over the years they’d spent enough time together socially, as well as professionally. At Clancy’s age it paid to have a good doctor, but Clancy was beginning to revise his opinion.

In fact, this has lots of elements of a love story. I can’t work up the great fondness for Eleanor and definitely not for her pushy stage mother, both of them suffering from an excess of entitlement. “Of course she’d been special and revered when she was younger, of course she would have some prima donna in her.” Otherwise, everything else here is pleasing on a low key—fine descriptions of an idyllic far future setting on an unspoiled world, a well-realized character in Clancy, and Clancy’s very hospitable house on a lake that’s home to swans and seals. I do find it rather interesting that at age eighty-seven, Clancy is subject to the infirmities that we expect today of old age; in such an advanced future, we might have expected more out of life, even without implants.

“Biology at the End of the World” by Brenda Cooper

Paulette is a novice inspector for the Bureau of Diversity Protection, an organization with a lofty motto: We resisted the temptation to change the world via genetic engineering, we remembered the mistakes humans made in the past, we respected life in its natural form. We were the barrier between greed and life, between hunger for profit and love of nature, between destruction and salvation. Their rules mandate the destruction of any ecosystem containing any artificial lifeforms, recalling natural disasters that biohackers have caused in the past. Paulette’s superior Sumot is ruthless in her righteousness, but Paulette still feels a reluctance to destroy some particularly attractive creatures.

The parrots. I had become fixated on the parrots and on wanting to save them, even though I hadn’t opened my mouth about it and told her. She would merely laugh at me and tell me to toughen up.

“We know there is bioengineering here. We don’t need more time.” She looked totally resolved, totally sure of herself.

At which, readers will begin to expect Sumot’s certainty to be brought low. And it comes to pass that most of the text is taken up with arguments on both sides, between Sumot’s position and that of the biohackers who want just as fervently to save the world by their own means. Pretty talky stuff, and while there’s talk about bioscience, it’s mainly as fodder for the political.

“The God Year” by Jim Grimsley

Oh-oh—a quaint rustic village named “Muglet-on-Stumpings”. To which my immediate reaction is that no good can come of such, and indeed it doesn’t. The village discovers that it will have the honor of hosting a god-in-residence for a year. With which our narrator Rufous agrees, that “a god year is more of a curse than a blessing.” While we wait for the god, the villagers pass the time in rustic revoltingness, making it clear than any curse will fall on a likely set of objects. I’m not amused.

“Searching for Commander Parsec” by Peter Wood

Not humor. Laura’s husband has run off with a younger woman and left her with their young son, who is obsessed with an old radio show broadcast on a station that hasn’t existed in decades. These two factors become connected. Heartwarming pulpy sci-fi stuff ensues. A very old trope.

“Calved” by Sam J Miller

Father and son story in a near future when the Arctic melting and the rise of the oceans has led to a flood of refugees; North Americans are generally unwelcome, and Dom is relatively fortunate to have found a place on a floating city and grunt work on iceboats. The only good thing in his life has been the son whom he can only see when he gets back from three-month work shifts on the boats, but now, looking at Thede, he sees a stranger who seems to hate him. Desperate to win him back, Dom gives Thede his only cherished possession. But I love you more.

He wasn’t having a good time. When he was twelve he had begged me to bring him. I had pretended to like it, back then, for his sake. Now he pretended for mine. We were both acting out what we thought the other wanted, and that thought should have troubled me. But that’s how it had been with my dad. That’s what I thought being a man meant.

Dom has never fit into this society, and Thede won’t confide in him, leading to a heartbreaking tragedy.

This scenario is the most science-fictional in the issue, realistically depicting likely consequences of global climate change. The story is Dom’s, a story of a failed life. Fatherhood is the one positive thing in his life, yet he failed even at this when he left Thede’s mother to raise him on her own. Yet Thede also has to bear some responsibility for what happens here. His visible contempt for Dom and his failure to confide in him led to an outcome that never should have happened and harmed everyone involved. Thede has it a lot better than Dom did at the same age, and seems to take his privilege for granted. But one thing that these futures show us is that good fortune can be washed away in an instant, as happened to Dom.

“Duller’s Peace” by Jason Sanford

A totalitarian regime has taken over an unnamed nation by creating nano motes that infiltrate everywhere, including people’s bodies. This enables the nation to detect subversive thoughts and eliminate dissenters.

In fact, the motes are likely surrounding Serija even now. The air she breathes is filled with their technology. Her blood is flowing to their systems as they monitor her every thought. If she isn’t careful, she’ll think a wrong thought, and the motes will kill her grandfather for doing nothing more than sitting beside her.

Serija believes that her own bad thoughts have caused the deaths of her family, but this was due to their own resistance activity; her grandfather too was once a leader of the resistance. But Serija now spends every waking hour repeating in her mind, I love the nation. It seems to be working.

Here is the surveillance state perfected, and doesn’t seem a lot different further along than today. Resistance is futile.



F&SF, September/October 2015

Featuring a fantasy novella from the abiding Cowdrey and a lot of stuff that I’d call future fantasy, of which Dennis Etchison gives us the best and darkest.

“The Lord of Ragnarök” by Albert E Cowdrey

Historical fantasy, not historical fiction for two reasons: first, the unambiguous fantastic element that pays a small but important role in the story’s events; secondly, because this isn’t quite the same history we know. The setting appears to be Mount St Michel, but it isn’t given that French name and, more significantly, there is no monastery or other religious institution on the island, only a single chaplain to the ruling count. In fact, despite there having recently been a crusade, the church appears to be all but absent from this landscape, with witchcraft and paganism practiced openly. The time would seem to be in the feudal period of the early 12th century, following the First Crusade; indications that it might be a couple of centuries later may be anachronisms or markers of an alternate history. Likewise, while the region seems to be under the rule of the Dukes of Normandy, there is a stronger connection to the Norselands of their origin, as the title suggests.

The story centers on Richard, a muddy peasant boy who rises to the rank of knight by means of muscular determination, common sense, and a lot of luck, beginning when he guides a returning crusader knight to the island with a message from its dead count to his widow. This knight, Sir Drangø of the Hidden Isles, claims to be the son of the Master of the Tides, and his appearance is as suggestive as his name: “The green eyes gazing from the man’s leathery face looked somehow odd, and his black beard bristled like spines. The backs of his hands were rough and scaly like the skin of a garfish, and the boy thought, Bon Dieu, in the East he caught leprosy, just like in the Bible!” The knight marries the widowed countess, and Richard rises with him, from man-at-arms to knight, the right-hand man of the lord. Eventually, the secret of the Hidden Isles, also called Ragnarök, is revealed.

The story is best read as a generic medieval fantasy adventure, without linking it to known specifics of history or myth. In particular, I can find no trace of the elements in the Norse myths to which the title alludes. The Old Man of the Sea/Master of the Tides figure seems to derive more from the Leviathan of the Bible, which is also an allusion here, and the island called Ragnarök just seems out of place. The same is true of most possible anachronisms in the history; they could either be errors or AH markers. But I’m not buying the functionally illiterate Richard coming up with the anagram on the name Drangø. And such terms such as “bull session” are clearly out of place.

“We’re Very Sorry for Your Recent Tragic Loss” by Nick Wolven

In a near future with universal electronic connection, Meg wakes one morning expecting the weather report and receives a message of condolence for some tragic loss that the system can’t specify. The message goes, appropriately, viral, inescapable.

On the walk to the bus, store displays and ads and hawkers and vendors all fall somber as Meg goes by. The mannequins in department store windows drop their sexy poses and hang their heads. The sidewalk tiles flash ads for insta-therapy, funeral services, chocolate laced with methaqualone “for when you just need to forget.” A promotional drone shaped like a Basset hound comes waddling out of an alley with a box of sample facial tissues hanging around its neck, slobbering, “Need a good cry, Megan DeWal? When I get dow-wow-wown, I do my boo-hoo-hooing with a Wintex tissue!”

The more artificial sympathy she receives, the less actual connection with real human beings she’s able to make, while her life slowly disintegrates around her.

Absurd humor that it’s not possible to take very seriously, when Meg isn’t able to locate the exact nature of the loss she’s supposed to have suffered. Mostly, it’s satirizing some of the absurdities of online life today, and there, quite a few of the hits on target.

“Monsieur” by David Gerrold

Vampire metafiction. Gerrold’s fiction is often self-referential, and here we find a frame in which the first-person narrator is a writer bringing his vampire manuscript to a critique group [about which, he makes some pointed comments]. One member of the group engages him later in discussion: “What do you know about vampires?”

“You know nothing. Because until a vampire sits down and writes a memoir — a real vampire, a real memoir, not a work of fiction — you know nothing. No one knows anything. It’s all make-believe.”

Of course by that time, everyone knows quite well what Jacob is, and he soon takes over the narrative with his memoir of encountering the vampire who became his mentor.

My own history has made me highly dubious of the sort of vampire fiction that prevails in these benighted times, and it seems that Gerrold may share this view, as he appears to be returning to the rationalist approach in which authors attempted to make some sense, even scientific sense, out of the accretion of legends that make up the vampiric figure as now received—which, examined with even the slightest rigorous glance, makes no sense. I must say that the theories he advances here are less than original, but we can’t know exactly where they are going as, the editorial blurb informing us, this piece is the opening of a longer one. That it works as an independent story is owing to the frame device, which provides satisfactory closure.

[It’s a bit disconnecting to be reading this advance copy at the end of July and learning that the author was GOH at Sasquan, three weeks in the future. Good thing I’m used to time travel as well as vampires.]

“Rascal Saturday” by Richard Bowes

The editorial blurb informs us that this piece is set in the same future as the author’s fine “Sleep Walking, Now and Then”, although I doubt if I would have known it from the text alone. Here we have the Dineen family, possessed of certain occult powers that the narrative associates with “predictive art, New England cults, and migration”, but actually seems to be derived primarily from dance. By these means, they have opened a gate to an alternate world and a city called Naxos, inhabited by a humanoid species with green-tinged skin. The first generation of Dineens has taken over this place by means of technology and magic, and has since ruled in megalomaniac splendor. But Janina has other plans for the place, in collaboration with her friend Sandy, the founder of an organization for helping persons displaced by rising sea levels and retreating government.

A lot of the story is set in Janina’s childhood, when her half-sister Aurora was kept in a glass room to maximize her powers—just one example of the deranged ways of the Dineens. Janina’s father, who has taken over the role of godking in Naxos after burning his own father out, has plans to breed from his own daughters and orders his cops to shoot Janina when she declines this honor. There’s also a lot of stuff about the predictive paintings, that I find a digression, and somewhat more interesting stuff about putting brains into a box.

But the main issue here is conquest and imperialism. The text leaves little doubt that the Dineens are unworthy usurpers, crazed with power, but it scants the more fundamental problem that they have no business in the place at all, let alone ruling it. Janina’s grandmother, pretending benevolence, pretends that the rule of Dineens has been for the good of the natives while at the same time declaring how they’ve plundered the place for their own benefit. And I see no great difference between them and Janina and Sandy, marching in with their own militia to wrest control from the older generation of usurpers and taking over so they can settle their own displaced population in someone else’s world. To hell with all of them.

“Ten Stamps Viewed Under Water” by Marissa Lingen

People driven mad under quarantine for an endless plague. We have the narrator and her sister, a novice sorcerer, confined to their home while the senior sorcerers try and fail to stop the contagion. They’ve even beheaded the queen, who ended up on a stamp.

“Of course they’ll try again. What are queens for? And then,” she said thoughtfully, “they’ll have another new stamp. That’ll be nice.”

The mail brings letters from all over the world, often from friends and relatives who are now dead, and the narrator’s sister has obsessively begun to save the stamps, while lamenting her inability to do anything to help, largely because she’s running out of magical ingredients. Frustration takes its toll.

The absurd here overwhelms the tragic but lets it come through as a minor note.

“A Hot Day’s Night” by Paolo Bacigalupi

The Master of the Apocalypse takes on the drought, and we follow Lucy as she compromises her journalistic ethics, going out with a scavenger to liberate solar panels from the deserted subdivisions of Phoenix.

A dire future so near it looks like the headlines from this morning.

“A House of Her Own” by Bo Balder

A human colony on a distant world has entered into a symbiotic relationship with a native species of trees that spawn motile forms which eventually grow into hice [plural of house, neat term] for the women they bond with. A girl becomes an adult when her house is large enough to hold her. Aoife caught her own house at age eleven. “It was no bigger than a strawberry, all soft and furry and yellow. Even in the gloom of the giant, bad-tempered trees, it shone like a candle flame.” It’s grown too large for her to carry around when something crashes to the ground and strange women emerge—including women with beards—who declare their intention to establish a government, levy taxes, build roads, and get rid of the alien parasites. Naturally, the women and hice fight back.

The narrative shifts rapidly from a fairytale tone to the science-fictional, reminding me a bit of Joanna Russ territory, which would be misleading. The human colony might be considered a gynocracy, but in reality, the hice are the primary partners in the arrangement. They also retain a breeding population of human males. Nor is there any reason to suppose that the females from Earth are any less determined than their males to impose their rule on these colonists. This is cultural imperialism more than sexual politics.

“Don’t Move” by Dennis Etchison

Dark, nightmarish fantasy in a Kafkaesque setting. A young man gets off the bus at a derelict stop, from which he walks to a city. He claims he has to do this, but we see that he doesn’t know why, except that he’s a kind of fugitive. A strange young woman gets off the bus with him; she describes herself as “nothing. Nothing at all.” She insists that he’s following her, while he believes it’s the other way around. Things get stranger and more ominous, until we eventually get an explanation, but this only raises more questions. An effectively disturbing vision.

–RECOMMENDED

“Bone War” by Elizabeth Bear

Set in the author’s fantasy series featuring Bijou the Artificer, who is presented with the job of animating the fossilized bones of a dinosaur, a creature not generally known in her world. Readers familiar with such works as Jurassic Park may now be forgiven for thinking, Run Away! But the danger facing Bijou here is of a very different sort, as she is insufficiently aware of the ways of embattled natural philosophers.

For a moment, she thought of asking the Trustees, or the natural philosophers, what she should name the thing. Then she considered doing something much more sensible, such as putting her head in a vise.

I am amused. I also note that while the story and series setting are fantasy, this one partakes in great part of the nature of science fiction in its portrayal of academic disputes. It’s interesting to see a society just discovering paleontology in such a different context.



Analog, October 2015

Still continuing the serial, leaving room for one longer story and a handful of shorts, which occupy various human futures. No silly aliens.

“Stonebrood” by Alec Nevala-Lee

Marius is a firefighter with a slow-moving disaster on his hands—an underground coal fire that has been burning for at least fifty years, until officials were galvanized into action by a sinkhole that collapsed a highway and killed eight people. The problem: no way to tell how large the fire is and how many miles it has spread. The solution: tiny drones, resembling bees, that can be lowered down boreholes into the mine to map the fire. From there, attempts to extinguish it can begin.

Half of the boreholes had been equipped with huge fracturing tanks, cumbersome but effective, with a capacity of twenty thousand gallons. The remaining boreholes had a system that Marius had developed, with a mixing chamber installed right at the injection point.

As soon as I started to read this, I thought my wishes had been fulfilled at last: actual science fiction. But shortly afterwards, an unwelcome note of fantasy seemed to be creeping in, as Marius flashes back to troubles in his youth and his bee-keeping grandmother. It appears that the “bees” are sending psychic messages from inside the cave, perhaps from the dead. Happily, a more rational explanation is discovered. Science fiction after all.

“The Daughters of John Demetrius” by Joe Pitkin

A thinly-developed far-future setting where we have posthumans and “naturals” who, at least in Mexico, subsist at a very low standard of development. Mendel comes to a village where most of the population suffers from pellagra, but one young girl has the healthy green skin of a “god”. Mendel wants to take her to a school where she can learn to develop her talents, but his task is complicated by several factors, including the god/man he has just killed for reasons unrevealed in the text. The setting is the key here, and from what little we see of it there is potential interest, but it’s mostly unfulfilled. If it’s appeared in some previous work from the author, I don’t recall seeing it.

“Butterflies on Barbed Wire” by Marie Vibbert

An unsettling image, that. Damien’s lover Aubery put the butterfly tattoo on his arm. She added the barbed wire at the insistence of Damien’s thug of a father, who hates his son’s feminine side. Now Aubery is dead, and it doesn’t take much of a push for Damien to realize there’s no real tie to his family of brutish men. Faintly science-fictional on account of a new tattoo technology.

“The Philistine” by Ted White

Because actual art doesn’t pay, Harry has taken a job making 3-D duplications of old masterpieces, an occupation that doesn’t make him popular with the art-loving public because the original is destroyed in the process. Harry isn’t that happy with it, either. He’s a pretty reprehensible character nonetheless, and the shrewish wife is a caricature.

“My Father’s Crab” by Bruce McAllister

A short version of the author’s semi-autobiographical series about his boyhood with a father whom the navy sent around the world to do secret stuff during the Cold War. This time, they encountered a beach full of crabs, and his father picked one up to look at it more closely.

The crab was still flailing, trying to pinch, but all I could do was stare at its shell. The surface was bumpy in a too-perfect way, and that made it look like a toy, too. And the color patterns, green on gray, weren’t very natural-looking either. They looked like a commando’s camouflage.

And then the crab got in a good pinch that pierced his father’s skin, and it turns out it wasn’t a natural crab, after all.

Kind of sketchy, without the well-realized settings and characters that these stories have generally had in the past.



Lackington’s, Summer 2015

This issue’s theme is Skins, which the authors here have used in interestingly fantastic ways, sometimes involving shapechanging or other forms of transformation. There’s a wide variety of setting and story, and the quality of the prose is generally high. An enjoyable issue.

“The Skinner of the Sky” by M Bennardo

Lessig, ruler of a coastal realm, has decided to draw ships and trade to his shores by constructing a towering lighthouse, and to this end he has engaged supernatural aid. But the price is now more than he can stand to pay.

There, along the side of the tower—those long dark limbs! Those pencil-thin shadows, like the legs of a harvestman, draping the side of the lighthouse, stretching storey after storey, hundreds of feet long if they were a yard.

And, at the top, one arm lightly looped around the skeleton of the spire—the other arm lost in the blackness of the night, but raised—certainly raised, Lessig knew!—up overhead, with the sickle-shaped skinning knife clutched in the hand, rasping across the vault of the sky with that horrible sound—

Scrape— Scrape—

A weird tale, dark supernatural fantasy, an imaginative variation on the deal with the devil. All chilling sensation.

“Kin, Painted” by Penny Stirling

The narrator is the youngest member of an indulgent family in the service of a highly indulgent duchess, their duties consisting mostly in exhibiting their painted bodies at her court. Each member of the family has chosen a unique way of expression—some in magic paint, some allergic to it, some who actually work for a living. Now the narrator is feeling pressure—not that her family would pressure her, not that—to find her own mode of expression.

What we have here is a metaphor for the acceptance of personal choices, with a profusion of different pronouns suggesting the sort of choices the author has in mind. I have to say that most of these people seem awfully useless, if perhaps ornamental, but I can’t help being reminded of Velázquez’s court paintings.

“Facing the Wind” by Matt Joiner

On Zephrence the winds rule, and the beings called the Skirl own them; humans are only permitted the land and sea. Shirrem loved the winds and came to this world with her kites for them; Talizander followed her and lost her to them. He sets up wind harps on the beach in hope of hearing her voice.

A love story, romantic stuff. I like this prose:

The wind comes from every compass point. The tent billows and creaks. He goes out, the fox in his arms sniffing at his meat-stained shirt, and looks down the beach. Braids whip across his dark face. Sand smokes off the dunes, eddies against a dim sky: twists.

“The Glad Hosts” by Rebecca Campbell

Have to call this one SF. Mai, having migrated to Shanti, has been infected with a parasite native to the world.

It happened on an afternoon she didn’t notice, walking barefoot near the river, maybe, or staring up into Shanti’s aurora. Some dormant wisp breached her body on an in-breath among billions of other in-breaths. Her hand rose to scratch the inside of her elbow and through the abraded skin slid the spore. Something kindled, something single-celled, a bubble suited only to drift, rudderless, with each heartbeat until it rose through the permutations of its lifecycle from spore to something larval, or like a nematode, and then some terminal, adult shape she could not imagine.

This one is only tenuously connected to the skin theme, but definitely a transformation. Mai, ante-parasite, was a selfish and inconsiderate daughter; now she has become awash in welcoming hormones and thus a better person, although her primary tie is to “the dear creatures of the air”. From a not-Mai point of view, her metamorphosis would probably be considered horror. What I’m not buying, though, is the way the human colony on Shanti let her run around loose instead of locked into quarantine.

“She Shines Like a Moon” by Pear Nuallak

2nd-person narrator is a krasue of Thai folklore, a vampiric flying head with trailing entrails, now resident in London, where she roams Hampstead Heath and falls in love with the witch who lives in the Hollow Oak. The End. A poor excuse for a story, no more than the author’s favorite stuff [the fox thing again] and bugbears thrown onto the page.

“Sometimes Heron” by Mari Ness

The narrator is a shapechanger because it’s boring being stuck in an invalid’s bed. She loves being various forms of animal, especially the aquatic sort, but not fish. [Also foxes]

When she is a girl, she does not actually like animals very much. They never do the things she wants them to do. She has a cat, who does not come when he is called and never does tricks the way Amy’s does, and three fish swimming in a 50 gallon aquarium, looking rather lonely. She is never the fish in that aquarium or the cat in the house.

Almost a children’s story, but too cynical for it.

“Sang Rimau and the Medicine Woman” by Nin Harris

In the Malaysian rainforest is the realm of the bunian, ruled by their Empress. Long ago, a young woman encountered a man of the bunian who offered to marry her if she could transform him into a human. This she accomplished, in a manner that will remind some readers of the ballad Tam Lin. But the Empress was displeased and placed a curse on her and her line.

No mother wants to tell her daughter about a curse. No mother wants to dwell on the nature of a debt about to be collected. The first mother, that intrepid girl who laughed at a phantom courtier, and who defied the Empress, would never have told her children of the debt, had it not been for the were-tigers that pawed the trees surrounding their house at night, and roared the children to fretful sleep with their oddly soporific promises of retribution.

Her descendants, with their bunian blood, have become powerful medicine women, but the Empress hasn’t forgotten their debt to her. When Cempaka was a girl, the Empress appeared to her and gave her an enchanted mango; Cempaka ate it and planted the seed, which her mother deplored as unwise, but the damage was done. The night it first bloomed, twenty years later, she met Sang Rimau the were-tiger for the first time. The story had begun long ago, but it wasn’t finished yet, even though Cempaka knows it will end with her. Unless it doesn’t.

Neat mix of folklore, fairy tale, and magic, with side notes of history that ground the narrative in place and time. The storyline is a bit difficult to follow, jumping around in time.

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

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

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

Russell Letson reviews Alastair Reynolds

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

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

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

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

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

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