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Paul Di Filippo reviews Scott Nicolay and Rhys Hughes

The big genre publishers have effectively abandoned producing short story collections, even for their best-selling authors. Just inspect that category in the annual Locus Recommended Reading Lists for 2013, 2012 and 2011 to verify that. True, Connie Willis was honored with a Best Of volume in 2013. But if you have to become a Grandmaster to achieve such a collection, there’s little hope for the average author, even if he or she sells well at longer lengths. This is a inexplicable and inexcusable historic default of genre support from publishers who rely on fantastika. Supposedly such decisions are strictly marketplace driven, but dubiously so, given the continuing high-profile attention paid to story collections by such slipstream authors as Karen Russell and Ben Marcus.

Thank goodness, then, that so many fine and bold small presses have stepped into the breach. They are performing a vital service to the field, and making all us short-story-philes very happy. They deserve our support.

Let’s look at two such volumes today.

Fedogan & Bremer was always one such press, until it went on hiatus, due to circumstances beyond the control of the caring and competent owners. But now they are back, and one of their lead titles is from a relative newcomer, Scott Nikolay. It’s a standout volume, on a par with Nathan Ballingrud’s North American Lake Monsters.

First mention of ancillary goodness goes to a sincere, appreciative and insightful introduction by Laird Barron. Second, to subtle yet evocative interior illustrations by David Verba. Third to a satisfying afterword by John Pelan. And fourth to the handsome physical qualities of this book. Well done, F&B!

We open with “alligators,” which finds our narrator stuck in a school counseling job that does not tax his wasted potentials. His family life is on the fritz, and he conceives of a visit to his New Jersey boyhood roots. But he really should have heeded a recurrent dream about the notorious “Watchung Pit of Sacrifice.”

A young boy narrates “The Bad Outer Space” in a highly seductive and convincing voice. He and his friend Sari learn how to see extradimensional beings. But seeing does not always mean avoiding.

The title story is a calm yet spooky novella, reminiscent of Lucius Shepard’s work, set on Easter Island. A six-member research expedition, rife with social dramas, finds itself encountering much strangeness, centering around one particular cave—and natives who come and go without being seen. Or is all this the stoner delusions of Max, who has already been on one fatality-plagued project in his life already?

“Eyes Exchange Bank” returns to a New Jersey setting, and reads like Springsteen-meets-M. R. James, as a group of longtime friends comes apart, leaving our hero, Ray, to navigate some local terrors all by himself.

“Phragmites” illustrates how Nicolay is just as concerned with naturalistic storytelling virtues as with horror per se. His vivid and tangible depiction of New Mexico—zeroing in on a mysterious part of the Navajo reservation, where our hapless protagonist Austin goes in search of anthropological mysteries—and Nicolay’s portraits of the residents, reveal his skills with replicating our consensus reality, but tinged with the weird, of course.

Young lust and rock ‘n’ roll fuel “The Soft Frogs,” in which a certain horndog named Jaycee meets odd swamp inhabitants and their human representative.

“Geschäfte” is remarkable as an example of building-centric terror, where infrastructure is as eerie as the living actors.

And finally, the unstoppable novella “Tuckahoe” seems to me to be Nicolay’s EC comics homage, full of sexy autopsy assistants, inbred locals and corrupt cops. Toss in a little Jim Thompson, and you’ve got a heady brew.

Nikolay’s writing is clean-limbed, not a shred of rococco excess on it. Poetry and the demotic mix well in his prose. He expertly delivers clues and foreshadowings and backstory tidbits attendant upon his enigmas and frights without hammering the reader over the head with gore or hyperbole. His characters are engrossing, if often repellant, his plotting assured, and his venues enticingly nasty. This book marks the start of a fine career, I am sure.

* * *

Journalistic integrity compels me to announce that I contributed the introduction to Rhys Hughes’s engaging new collection, The Just Not So Stories. I took no fee for the privilege, and make no profit from sales of the book. Rhys and I have exchanged maybe ten emails in ten years, and have never met in the flesh, so we aren’t best buddies. He’s just an excellent writer whom I admire, and I don’t imagine that my foreword to his book constitutes anything more than an advance draft of this review from some alternate timestream! That said, what’s Rhys Hughes all on about then?

Along with Don Webb and Steve Aylett, the fellow is one of the few true madcap surrealists working in the field these days. Enormously productive—last I heard, he had written and published over 700 stories, and was shooting for 1000—he’s always operated on a shoestring, appearing from numerous micro-presses. Despite an undeserved lack of monetary and fanboy support, he remains upbeat, incorrigible and always creative. A role model for the writer who values his art above commerce.

With some thirty stories compressed into a little over 200 pages, this collection offers a wealth of fecund invention and humor. I cannot possibly synopsize all thirty items here, so how about a sampling?

I compared Hughes to Webb and Aylett as living peers, but of course his literary ancestors are numerous and honored: Sheckley, Calvino, Barthelme, Breton, Seuss, Lafferty, Bayley (Barrington), Python (Monty) and Bunch (David). But Hughes bows to no ghost, and his stories reflect his own unique manic wit.

The book opens with “The Mistake,” which conflates the world of jazz with NASA, and rewrites history in the bargain. You would think you could anticipate the development and outcome of a story titled “The Great Bicycle Migration,” but you’d be wrong, as Hughes maneuvers his explorer protagonist into a most unseemly pickle. “The Mark of Cain, the Jeremy of Abel” finds our two Biblical Brothers trying to host a soiree without benefit of a large set of friends to draw from. Thank God for plenty of salted hazelnuts!

“The Leveller of Neptune” is one of the longer stories, and a definitive instance of the book’s nature. It reads like an episode out of Lem’s The Cyberiad, perhaps cast in graphic novel form by Fletcher Hanks and Mobius doing an art jam. Geber van Tockle specializes in rare animal theft, but he has to reach new heights of chicanery to attain a gigundo leveller. Delivery does not ensure happiness for his client.

“Message to Rosita” finds a habitual sender of bottled missives getting a rude comeuppance by a secret organization of anti-floating-epistle vigilantes. But watch for the happy ending! “The Underwear Shop” opens with typical drollness: “It was the year love came to town. But it wasn’t the town I lived in and it wasn’t the kind of love I liked. It was whipcracking sadomasochism with a side order of bestiality. I was glad I was in a different town.” From here, this becomes Hughes’s skewed episode of Futurama, where all the robots have taken up the custom of wearing underwear after mankind evolved beyond it.

And finally I’ll force myself to a conclusion by bringing up “Climbing the Tallest Tree in the World,” which burns with a fairytale like simplicity and punch.

Hughes employs a mind-blowing torrent of reversal/explosion of cliches, absurdity, and non sequiturs like a master. His stories read, to the naïve eye, almost like free-associating scat singing. But you can bet that every part is carefully selected to achieve certain effects. And while his stories are packed with satire and mockery, there’s never a trace of malice or ire in his approach. He loves these toys he’s juggling. He’s like the living personification (see his story titled “Personification”) of the website TV Tropes, which, while it mercilessly dissects overused commonalities, adores them as the building blocks of story. “Tropes Are Not Bad” is their motto, and Hughes’s, who turns dross into treasures.

Oh, by the way: did I mention the superb introduction to this volume? That Di Filippo can write!

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

Paul Di Filippo reviews Vintage Visions

We certainly live in a Golden Age for critical works on fantastika. Simply the sheer existence of the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction is almost sufficient proof of that utopia. When one looks back at such founding giants of SF scholarship as Knight, Blish, Merril, and Moskowitz, they appear as isolated beacons along a rather barren coastline, with the interior of the continent of fantastika all unexplored. But nowadays, savvy and respectful academics and journals abound, conventions like ICFA proliferate, and homegrown commentators such as John Clute, Samuel Delany, Adam Roberts and Graham Sleight operate at the highest levels of smart, sympathetic discourse. The whole field benefits, of course, from this insightful feedback on our primary texts.

Award-winning scholar Arthur B. Evans deserves much credit for his contributions to this splendid era, helming as he does the essential journal Science Fiction Studies (SFS) and editing the Wesleyan Early Classics of SF program, as well as specializing in all matters Vernean. Now he assembles a rich volume of essays that voyage back deep to the roots of modern SF, thereby illuminating contemporary productions from a foundational angle. I always recall Thomas Wolfe’s remark (which I cannot seem to source at the moment) about the era of our grandparents being strange and weird and fascinating in a way that the generation of our parents, with whom we as children are intimate and disdainful, was not. There’s lots of that esoteric appeal to be found here.

These sixteen essays all derive from SFS, and appeared from 1976 to 2010, but boast new afterwords. The books they cover date from 1657 (Cyrano de Bergerac) to 1937 (Olaf Stapledon). That’s a lot of rewardingly oddball grandparental material.

Sylvie Romanowski, in “Cyrano de Bergerac’s Epistemological Bodies: ‘Pregnant with a Thousand Definitions’,” surprises me with an account of an episode from de Bergerac that sounds like something out of Stranger in a Strange Land. She clearly shows us how Cyrano embraced both fresh heliocentric findings as well as an older hermetic philosophy.

I had never even heard of the book discussed in Paul K. Alkon’s “Samuel Madden’s Memoirs of the Twentieth Century,” which Alkon maintains is literally the first novel (1733) to acknowledge the future as a fit venue for narratives. Despite its obscurity, the book serves as illuminating instance of a quantum jump in expanding SF’s boundaries.

In William B. Fischer’s “German Theories of Science Fiction: Jean Paul, Kurd Lasswitz, and After,” one truly gets a picture of how early pioneers had to conceptualize from scratch and invent a vocabulary for themselves before they could even begin to concretize their theories. The insight into non-Anglo culture is fascinating as well.

In “Monstrosity, Suffering, Subjectivity, and Sympathetic Community in Frankenstein and ‘The Structure of Torture’,” Josh Bernatchez examines the carnality of Frankenstein’s Monster and how the creature shares a common experience with the victims of torture.

Evans himself distinguishes between two modes of early SF in “Science Fiction vs. Scientific Fiction in France: From Jules Verne to J.-H. Rosny Aîné.” I must say that he makes the more gonzo speculations of Robida and company look very appealing, compared to Verne’s somewhat more stodgy tomes.

I.F. Clarke is masterful and poetic in “Future-War Fiction: The First Main Phase, 1871–1900.” The once overwhelming dominance of this sub-genre is driven home brilliantly. I particularly enjoyed learning about the long-winded best-sellers by Commandat Driant, whose La Guerre de Demain ran to 2,827 pages!

Continuing the theme of carnality seen earlier, Allison de Fren blends filmic allusions with literary ones to consider “The Anatomical Gaze in Tomorrow’s Eve.” The book in question hails from 1886, but sounds as relevant as the Richard Calder ones to which de Fren links it.

The next two pieces venture into the southern hemisphere and come back with marvels. Andrea Bell gives us a look at “Desde Júpiter: Chile’s Earliest Science-Fiction Novel.” Her analysis of how the Jovians in the book are different from other early aliens who functioned mainly as human analogs is enlightening. Expanding her remit to three major early Latin American novels, Rachel Haywood Ferreira limns “The First Wave: Latin American Science Fiction Discovers Its Roots.” The variety of modes and approaches in this very early period show that SF was always a multipurpose tool.

But digging up rarities is not the only critical way to knowledge. Nicholas Ruddick casts fresh light on a classic with “Tell Us All About Rosebery”: Topicality and Temporality in H.G. Wells’s The Time Machine.” “The Time Machine is about the transformed post-Darwinian relationship between humanity and time.” That’s a radical observation you can use!

Likewise, Kamila Kinyon goes back to the original Czech text of R.U.R. to discern Karel Čapek’s true intentions and accomplishments. Hegel also comes into lively play in “The Phenomenology of Robots: Confrontations with Death in Karel Čapek’s R.U.R.

Zamyatin’s We is one of those classics that seem more honored than actually read. But by providing period context and analyzing the satire in the book, Patrick A. McCarthy’s “Zamyatin and the Nightmare of Technology” makes the reader keen on encountering the book face-to-face.

Without minimizing any of the man’s flaws, Gary Westfahl gives full props to Hugo Gernsback as a seminal figure in the formation of modern SF in his “’The Jules Verne, H.G. Wells, and Edgar Allan Poe Type of Story’: Hugo Gernsback’s History of Science Fiction.” Westfahl’s afterword regarding the hidden forces behind the composition of his essay is nearly as rewarding.

Forsaking a focus on one or two books in favor of a whole trope or theme, William J. Fanning, Jr. walks us brilliantly through “The Historical Death Ray and Science Fiction in the 1920s and 1930s.” This might be the essay with the highest amount of gonzo milestones revealed.

With admirable concision, Susan Gubar steps through almost the entire career of a pivotal woman SF writer in “C.L. Moore and the Conventions of Women’s Science Fiction.” It makes me want to go out and re-read all of Moore’s fabulous work immediately.

Finally we get to watch two titans engaged in an intellectual wrestling match, when Stanislaw Lem opines “On Stapledon’s Star Maker.” You can sense Lem straining to rewrite Stapledon’s opus to his own satisfaction. What a book that would have been!

All of these writers, while showing the greatest academic rigor, also conceal the hearts of fanboys and fangirls, from whence all true passion for the literature flows. That combo makes for great writing and great reading.

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

Paul Di Filippo reviews K.J. Parker

Never having sampled K. J. Parker’s many acclaimed novels, I relished the chance to encounter at least the author’s more rare shorter fiction as an introduction to Parker’s style and concerns. This volume from Subterranean—exhibiting the panache and sterling craftsmanship generally associated with that house—collects thirteen items. Given that the Internet Science Fiction Database lists exactly twelve stories total for Parker, only a couple of which do not show up here, being supplemented with three non-fiction pieces, this collection pretty much represents Parker’s entire short-story oeuvre to date.

I have not yet in this review, you might notice, employed a male or female pronoun to refer to Parker, since the writer’s true identity remains a stout, impenetrable mystery. Unlike many folks who chose a pen name that is an open secret meant to fool only the Bookscan sales-tracking algorithms, Parker seems genuinely to want privacy and anonymity, a Tiptree for the twenty-first century. So we will stick with the gender nonspecificity.

Before delving into the fiction, let me report that the three essays—”On Sieges,” “Cutting Edge Technology,” and “Rich Men’s Skins”—exhibit a fair measure of the erudition and charm of Robert Silverberg, L. Sprague de Camp and Avram Davidson, qualities of which authors extend to the fiction as well.

“A Small Price to Pay for Birdsong,” the opening story, won the World Fantasy Award, and it’s plain to see why. The elegance of its convolutions, the sharp conflict between archetypical characters, and the keenness of its moral ambiguities all consort to produce an exceptional tale. An older man, a music teacher and mediocre composer, finds his prize pupil about to be hung, with some measure of justice, for a rash murder. The genius lad escapes with the professor’s grudging help, but in leaving burdens the professor with a strange unhealthy measure of unearned success. Their relationship resumes after an interval, and becomes more twisted and complicated than ever. End of story.

The venue seems at first to be a somewhat off-the-shelf fantasy world which still has plenty of sharp, amusing details to give it solidity, but also a fairytale kind of generic broadness that helps the tale assume a certain wide application of fabulism. There’s no blood and thunder, just a rather precise and droll recounting of events. Parker is also fond of multiple mini-climaxes and lateral zigzags in the plotting.

“A Rich, Full Week” finds a healing “wizard” on his rounds in a similar storybook realm, encountering as patients first a killer zombie and then a youngster in a coma. Employing psychical skills akin to those of Zelazny’s Dream Master, the wizard finds his two cases oddly intersecting. Told with the same laconic restraint as before, despite a greater number of action-packed scenes, Parker’s fiction begins to look rather mannerpunk in its chosen approaches.

“Amor Vincit Omnia” shares a continuity with the prior piece and with the one that follows. And this continuity enlarges Parker’s subcreation, with the arrival of many more inventive details about the land’s history and magical systems. Let’s call these stories the “Studium” cycle. Another wizard from that fabled college/guild of wizards, the Studium, must confront an untrained wild talent who possesses murderous instincts and an unprecedented talent. Cheating and collateral damage to civilians provides the morally dubious win.

“Let Maps to Others” is certainly be my favorite piece here. A ironic and blackly humorous account of the rediscovery of a Prester John-style kingdom lost to history involves scholarly rivalry and deceit and royal bull-headedness. It’s comic gold where, as in much comedy, the most vile deeds are the funniest.

Parker presents dual protagonists in “A Room With a View.” An older adept and a younger female student explore the mystical realm of the Rooms in a manner akin to a Matthew Hughes story. But who’s leading whom by the nose? “Illuminated” involves a similar duo, and concerns the dangerous powers and knowledge inherent in an ancient manuscript.

Both these latter two stories contain a few humorous comments from the male POV about the unsuitability of women for magic. Can we assume from these that Parker is male? Recalling Robert Silverberg’s famous gaffe when he insisted Tiptree had to be a man, based on the Tiptree voice, I am not inclined to go out on a similar ledge. Parker is plainly sophisticated enough to be pulling a double bluff on us with such asides.

“Purple and Black” is a full novella in the Studium cycle where realpolitik takes center stage, through an enlightening and amusing epistolary exchange between Emperor and his insurgency-battling underling. It goes on just a tad too long for my tastes, however.

But the next item, “The Sun and I,” my second-favorite piece, is a paradoxical miracle of compression and glorious over-stuffedness, just perfect in fact. In “Purple and Black” we saw that there existed a religion dubbed the Invincible Sun. Now we learn of its founding by a handful of young rogues and wastrels intent on mulcting the public with a scam. But their sham cult soon turns into a real one, metaphysics and all, and the joke is on them. The first-person narration is charmingly amoral, as the voice also is in the subsequent two allied tales. “One Little Room An Everywhere” concerns a forger of Invincible Sun icons, while “Blue & Gold” gives us the exploits of a rascally alchemist whose experiments start out by killing his wife and go downhill from there.

This final story crystallized for me an echo I had been hearing in Parker’s stories: the voice of Fritz Leiber. The same sophisticated worldliness, acceptance of cosmic indifference or perverseness, and amiable rascality as a mode of getting through life is here as well, nicely done. I might also mention that the use of the place name “Mezentia” divulges another possible influence: the elegant mannerism of E. R. Eddison, as in The Mezentian Gate.

K. J. Parker’s fiction, then, proves itself insouciant, mocking, wry, unpredictable and polished, without any of the cliches of High Fantasy. I can’t wait to try his—or her—novels.

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.

‘Carrying That Weight’: A Review of Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

by Gary Westfahl

The original series of Planet of the Apes films took on the character of a cycle, as apes from the first two films traveled back in time to instigate the events that were seemingly leading, in the fifth film, to the emergence of the world of the first film. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, properly characterized as the second film in the third series of Apes films, offers a cycle within a single film, as the filmmakers devote two hours of screen time to energetically taking their story back to its starting point. True, there are plenty of pyrotechnics to keep audiences entertained, but nothing is really done to advance the plot. That is, at the beginning of the film, humans and intelligent apes are poised to start fighting, they proceed to fight, and at the end of the film, their issues unresolved, they are poised to start fighting again, only with the promise of bigger and better battles in the next installment. As if director Matt Reeves wished to emphasize his film’s circular structure, its very first image, after an introductory montage, is an extreme close-up of the eyes of the apes’ leader Caesar (Andy Serkis), and its last image right before the credits is precisely the same. So, if you are interested in finding out the end result of the story that began in the previous film, Rise of the Planet of the Apes (review here), you can easily sleep in instead of confronting this Dawn, and you might skip the upcoming Morning, Afternoon, and Twilight of the Planet of the Apes as well, hoping that something meaningful might finally occur on the Night of the Planet of the Apes.

Instead of criticizing writers Mark Bomback, Rick Jaffa, and Amanda Silver, though, one should sympathize with them, as they were clearly instructed to construct a screenplay that would not only continue the saga of the previous film, but also lay the groundwork for an indefinite series of future films. (Reports indicate that Reeves and Bomback are already working on the next one.) To appreciate their achievement, one could reference James Blish’s old argument that there were two types of series in science fiction: “template series,” wherein each story is essentially the same, and “evolutionary series,” wherein a larger narrative unfolds and develops in each successive story. For film executives, template series are easier to execute and more likely to be profitable, as illustrated by the unending James Bond franchise: to come up with a new film, you simply create some horrid villain to threaten the world, you have Bond defeat him, and you take a break before crafting your next horrid villain. Evolutionary series, like the first five Apes films, are more complicated and less predictably popular, as devising ways to extend a larger story that should have ended long ago requires considerable ingenuity and may drive the franchise far away from its original character. In Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, Bomback, Jaffa, and Silver have efficiently transformed the Apes saga from an evolutionary series into a template series: it’s Apes Versus Humans, Round Two, and while the apes so far seem to be winning on points, you can’t count out those pesky humans, as like the Bond villains they seem likely to grow more crafty and resourceful in each upcoming round.

If there is something different about this film’s formula for success, it is that it lacks the moral clarity of traditional Hollywood melodramas, in which completely virtuous heroes face off against completely loathsome adversaries. Here, whereas the previous film conveyed that the apes were generally more admirable than the humans, the story emphasizes that both sides in this conflict have their heroes and villains. There are good humans, like Malcolm (Jason Clarke), his wife Ellie (Keri Russell), and son Alexander (Kodi Smit-McPhee), who want to get along with the apes, and there are bad humans, like Dreyfus (Gary Oldman), who want to kill them all because they unfairly blame them for the plague that devastated humanity. There are good apes, like Caesar, his wife Cornelia (Judy Greer), and son Blue Eyes (Nick Thurston), who wish to avoid a war with humans, and there are bad apes, like Koba (Toby Kebbell), who are happy to attack and kill the humans who once abused them. In case viewers miss the point, Caesar helpfully spells it out: “I always think ape better than human. I see now how much like them we are.” But since both apes and humans comprise a similar mixture of good and bad, the sympathies of the film’s audience are constantly shifting: whenever Caesar or Dreyfus dominates the scene, one roots for the apes against the humans, but when Koba or Malcolm comes to the forefront, one roots for the humans. Only in the end, after Caesar’s inevitable triumph over Koba, do the apes emerge as the film’s definitive heroes.

In one respect, however, the apes and humans remain significantly different, as the apes embody harmony with the natural world while humans represent artificial technology. Caesar’s cohorts are content to live in the forest and despise guns, destroying every one they find as they instead rely upon spears and bows and arrows to hunt and defend themselves. The humans have chosen to live in downtown San Francisco, are desperately seeking to sustain their electric power, and are eagerly planning to employ their huge stockpile of firearms against the apes. In most respects, the film clearly takes the apes’ side, as apes without guns are consistently able to defeat humans with guns, and one character remarks that because the apes “don’t need power,” “that makes them stronger.” Yes, the evil Koba at one point crosses the line and begins using guns to kill both human and ape opponents, but this ultimately leads to his downfall: for when Caesar seems about to kill Koba, the villain cleverly reminds the leader of one of the tribe’s cherished precepts: “ape not kill ape.” Yet after giving the matter a little thought, Caesar replies, “you are not ape,” and sends him falling to his death. If an ape picks up a gun, in other words, he is no longer truly an ape.

Yet there are clearly some advantages to advanced science, as when Cornelia gets very sick and Ellie cures her with antibiotics, and there are scenes where Alexander reads a book to the orangutan Maurice (Karin Konoval), and later gives him the book, indicating that at least some apes appreciate such material. Further, there is definite ambiguity in the scene after Malcolm finally gets a hydroelectric plant working, causing lights to turn on and a revolving sign to start revolving again. As the humans celebrate, audiences are also invited to celebrate this rebirth of technology. What I didn’t understand was why the Band’s classic song “The Weight” (1968) was chosen to be the first music played during this festive moment, since its enigmatic lyrics about a man’s visit to a small Southern town apparently bear little relationship to the film’s story. Perhaps it doesn’t mean anything – it was just one of the director’s favorite songs. Perhaps someone thought it would be nice to feature a song from the year – 1968 – when the Apes franchise was born. But just possibly, the writers were struck by the song’s theme of the “weight” that an individual must bear until it is passed on to somebody else. For certainly, anyone creating the eighth film in a series must feel that they are taking on the “weight” of carrying on a noteworthy tradition, responsible for replicating its best qualities, sustaining its success, and preparing for another installment. And Bomback, Jaffa, and Silver have visibly sought to relieve themselves of the burden of this franchise’s past by mostly ignoring it.

Thus, while Rise of the Planet of the Apes was filled with knowing references to earlier Apes films, there are few if any of them here. Only two things might be mentioned: the trite message that apes and humans should get along could be traced back to the fifth film, Battle for the Planet of the Apes (1973), and an anti-gun message briefly surfaced, in an almost joking matter, in Tim Burton’s Planet of the Apes (2001). More strikingly, the filmmakers have jettisoned the entire human cast of the previous film, although James Franco fleetingly appears in a video clip that Caesar watches when he revisits his old home. There may have been purely expedient reasons to not bring back certain performers, or this could represent a conscious strategy to foreground new characters in order to enliven an otherwise familiar story. Yet relying entirely on new humans, and making them uniformly one-dimensional, also conveys a message: that this is primarily a story about apes. Hence, the film does bring back several key apes to function as its true stars, though they are sometimes portrayed by different actors.

As I must confess, this focus on the apes may be one reason that I did not enjoy this film as much as its immediate predecessor, in which the humans were more prominent. One might speak of irrational prejudice, but a preference for looking at human faces is virtually hardwired into the human psyche, as experiments have demonstrated. Thus, audiences might find Roddy McDowall’s Caesar, who is visibly human despite his outlandish makeup, more appealing than Andy Serkis’s Caesar, who has been transformed by computers to look entirely like a genuine ape. As in the previous film, the apes also do not move like humans, as they effortlessly travel in three dimensions by skillfully using both their hands and their feet. Perhaps, despite Serkis’s excellent performance and a script that makes him thoroughly likable, we still might prefer to have someone who looks like James Franco as a viewpoint character.

As an additional problem, people may be unable to fully respect intelligent beings who do not resemble humans, especially ones who have long been regarded merely as animals. On one hand, the film makes fun of people who do not fully appreciate these apes’ abilities: in one scene, Koba confronts two men holding machine guns, and they could have easily shot him dead. But Koba cunningly begins acting like a circus animal, playfully cavorting and gibbering, so the men come to believe that he is entirely harmless. Later, however, he grabs a gun and kills them both. On the other hand, the screenwriters display precisely the same sort of inappropriate condescension in the dialogue that they write for Caesar and the other talking apes. We are informed repeatedly that Caesar is just as intelligent as a human being, and his vocal cords are capable of human speech. Yet he talks like a toddler, employing brief, simple sentences, one-syllable words, and ungrammatical constructions. How, then, can one admire Caesar’s vast intelligence when he says things like “ape not kill ape” and “I chose to trust him because he is ape”? One never questioned the acumen of the apes played by McDowall and Maurice Evans in the original Apes films precisely because they were very articulate, and if Serkis will indeed remain the leading actor in future films, he should be allowed to speak in his normal manner, showing off his English accent and properly conveying his human intellect. (I note, though, that the credits do identify one Michael Wilson as the film’s “ape vocal researcher,” presumably the Professor Michael Wilson of the University of Minnesota who has studied chimpanzee vocalizations, and it might be argued that Caesar’s speech accurately reflects the limitations of apes’ vocal cords. But if one can posit that apes can develop human intelligence, one can certainly imagine that their vocal cords might improve as well.)

If a sequel is inevitable, it would also be nice for it to have a setting other than San Francisco, which appears to be replacing New York City as the inevitable site of futuristic catastrophes; in fact, two of the last three films I have reviewed – Transcendence (review here) and Godzilla (review here) mostly took place in or near that California city. Thankfully, thirteen years after 9/11, filmmakers have finally realized that it is no longer clever or evocative to locate fictional disasters in New York City, and if New York represents the financial capital of the world, San Francisco, close to Silicon Valley, might be regarded as the technological capital of the world, and hence a fitting place for monsters and mutants to emerge. The difficulty filmmakers face is that they can never afford to actually film any scenes in San Francisco and instead, like the makers of this film and Godzilla, they more economically film their urban scenes in Vancouver, British Columbia. However, while it’s easy enough to put up “Market Street” and “California Street” signs in that Canadian metropolis, that uniformly flat city remains an unpersuasive substitute for the notoriously hilly San Francisco. Any viewer who has actually visited San Francisco, then, can immediately recognize that none of the actors in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes were actually in that city at any time.

One further worries that the next film, seeking to outdo its predecessor, will grow more and more violent, following the disturbing trend in this film. First, we only see the spears and arrows of the apes; then humans appear, bringing handguns and rifles. After the San Franciscans raid their armory, they and Koba come to rely entirely on machine guns; then, a human brings a tank into the fray, which is promptly commandeered by the apes. And at the end of the film, we are told that a human military force is advancing toward the city, probably equipped with grenades, rocket launchers, and drones to provide more excitement in upcoming battles. Surely, if the filmmakers are sincerely committed to offering the message that apes and humans should peacefully coexist, they should refrain from including scene after scene of apes and humans slaughtering each other. And one doesn’t need bullets and explosions to entertain audiences; if they want some genuine novelty in the next film, the writers might call a halt to the arms race and consider adding the one element from the original Apes film that the recent pair has entirely lacked: some gentle humor.

In looking over these comments, I recognize finally that contemporary Hollywood is entirely changing the way that people perceive films. Since virtually every major film, if successful, is certain to generate a sequel (and in many cases is already a sequel itself), audiences inevitably begin to view each film not as a complete narrative, but as one chapter in a larger story to be continued. And, instead of focusing entirely on the film itself, one begins speculating about its sequel: which threads in the plot will be picked up and continued, what characters will be doing to get themselves in the same predicament again, and what devices will be employed in the sequel to generate future sequels. In essence, every contemporary film now has an invisible companion – its forthcoming sequel – that inescapably becomes a part of its evaluation. So, consider this a review of both Dawn of the Planet of the Apes and the “Untitled Planet of the Apes Sequel” already scheduled to be released on July 29, 2016. And I must say that, based on the decline evidenced in the first two films, I am not looking forward to it.

Gary Westfahl’s 24 books include the Hugo-nominated Science Fiction Quotations: From the Inner Mind to the Outer Limits (2005) and the three-volume Greenwood Encyclopedia of Science Fiction and Fantasy (2005); samples from these and his other works are available at his World of Westfahl website. His recent books include two books on science fiction films, The Spacesuit Film: A History, 1918-1969 (2012) and A Sense-of-Wonderful Century: Explorations of Science Fiction and Fantasy Films (2012), and a contribution to the University of Illinois Press’s Modern Masters of Science Fiction series, William Gibson (2013).

Lois Tilton reviews Short Fiction, early July

This wasn’t the column I’d intended to write, but material for review doesn’t always come in according to my plans. So here are a couple of the regular periodical, a less-regular one, and a couple of new [at least to me] publications. My favorite is Unlikely Story.

Here is also a theme, inspired or perhaps incited by the recent issues of Clarkesworld analyzing in great detail the publication statistics of genre short fiction by the sex of the author. I’m not claiming any particular significance for the numbers I discover, nor do I plan to make a habit of it.

Publications Reviewed



Clarkesworld, July 2014

After taking note of the statistical articles, I observed that all three original stories here are by female authors, with female protagonists, which probably has nothing to do with the fact that this is a weak issue.

“The Contemporary Foxwife” by Yoon Ha Lee

This one is, for Lee, a simple and straightforward work, based on folklore that doesn’t seem to belong to any specific culture, but has a similar flavor to several that readers might recognize. Kanseun Ong is a music student who one day finds a foxwife at her door – a boy foxwife, as he calls himself, announcing that he is her foxwife. He is, in the manner of fox spirits, a shapechanger, and his role seems to be that of a housekeeper, not “wife” in the sense of a spouse. Kanseun can’t bear to turn him away. Eventually, as these stories usually go, her benevolence earns her the reward of help with a personal problem of her own. A piece with charm but conventional in form.

“Stone Hunger” by N K Jemisin

“Once there was a girl . . .” She has a name, but we never learn it. The girl lives in a world wracked by seismic disturbances, which may in part be natural but may also be the doing of entities with the ability to channel the power of the living stone into destruction. The girl is one such person. She breaks city walls so she can get inside to feed off the population. Her own city was once broken and killed by another such, whom she recognizes by his distinctive vinegar taste. Now she has come to a city that’s different in many ways.

There’s a lot in this premise that isn’t clear and even seems contradictory. We are told by the narrator that people like the girl can’t be permanent residents of cities, yet the girl with her family appears to have been permanently resident in her own city, “until the world broke.” It isn’t clear whether she had her powers from birth there, or if she acquired/learned them from necessity while out on her own roaming the broken world. “Once, she ate breakfast in the mornings”, but now she subsists in whole or part on the power in the stone – although this feeding leaves her still hungry and apparently in need of normal human food. Hunger is a constant with her; she eats normal food when she can get it, yet it isn’t clear how she feeds off the population, whether she just steals or goes further; some things in the text suggest she might be a sort of vampire. In the city [which probably also has a name, but again we never learn it] she finds that there are others of her kind, but also a very different, even more dangerous, kind. Their nature, their power, their hunger all remains unclear; all we know is that the girl’s kind fears them, yet one of them, at least, befriends the girl for reasons of its own, that we never learn.

There’s some striking imagery here, which is the best element of the piece.

—and it is easy—delicious!—to reach further down. To visualize herself opening her mouth and lapping at that sweet flow of natural force. She sighs and relaxes into the rarity of pleasure, unafraid for once, letting her guard down shamelessly and guiding the energy with only the merest brush of her will. A tickle, not a push. A lick.

The ending, after a nice vengeful scene, turns soft and conventional, which is dissatisfying. The girl, because of what she is, is an interesting character but not a sympathetic one. Although she regards herself more as a parasite [on cities] than a predator, parasites can kill; she habitually harms and kills others to assuage her own hunger. The text accurately calls her and her kind “monsters”, and for most of the story, it treats her with a cold and edged regard. When she takes her revenge, one of the others remarks that one day some new stranger is going to show up to take the same vengeance on her, and just as deservedly so. Then, suddenly, the edge softens and we are supposed to buy into a “awww, the poor widdle ting” conclusion, apparently for no other reason than this character being the protagonist chosen by the author. For such a conclusion to work, readers have to care about the character, and the story gives us no reason to.

I’m also dubious about the unnamed city’s sliding roof. Such an installation, as described, would seem to require close tolerances, which wouldn’t be possible when constant seismic disturbances are warping and collapsing its walls and foundations.

“Soul’s Bargain” by Juliette Wade

We begin with a reading from myth, its mythic language quite overdone, in which a goddess throws the souls of human heroes into the sky as a reward. Readers will assume that this will have Significance later on. The protagonist is Pelisma, now an old, blind woman but once acclaimed as a hero. What concerns her now are the floating sparks, wysps, that seem to be following her everywhere, ever since she began to lose her sight. Her people live underground for fear of these sparks and the fires they start on the surface, but they can appear even in the caves and tunnels where the people are building their cities. The author is coy; she doesn’t explicitly tell us in the beginning that Pelisma’s people are human colonists on an alien world, because, as soon as readers notice this, of course we know what the wysps must be. But making this clear upfront would render Pelisma’s entire quest moot, and there would be no story. Which would probably be for the best. I would particularly not regret the epiphanic conclusion, complete with violins and hosannahs of enlightenment.



Apex Magazine, July 2014

Tales of oppression and the efforts of the oppressed to resist.

Because I seem to be counting this time, there are two female authors and three female protagonists.

“The Food in the Basement” by Laura Davy

A familiar scenario: a vampire keeps a human locked up in the basement for the convenience of feeding. The fact that the vampire is male and the food female is likewise familiar; the thoughts this evokes cannot be ignored, and indeed, for many readers the associations with sexual predators may be primary. As we can recall from the news, such kidnap victims have often bided their time until they found an opportunity to escape.

The flat narrative voice is the most notable aspect of this one. The narrator keeps Sondra’s plans to herself and doesn’t let readers deeply into her thoughts. We have to wait to see what action she takes. Nothing surprising or novel here, but effectively done.

“Blessed are the Hungry” by Victor Fernando R Ocampo

An extreme religious dystopia set on a generation ship perhaps halfway to its destination. The colonists are crammed into tight quarters, forbidden birth control, and kept on starvation rations.

The only certain number was that each family had to maintain at least eight souls. This was the minimum at all times. I had always wondered how many people were already onboard our one–way trip to Gliese. The decks were forbidden to mix, although father said that hadn’t always been so. For all we knew, there were millions of people on the higher levels, multiplying like roaches behind our nano–plastic walls. That was probably why our rations got smaller every year–cycle, even when the mushroom harvests were good.

Birth defects have also risen among the population, and a few people can hear voices – a fact that they keep a strict secret, as heresies and deviancies of any sort are punished by expulsion through the airlock by the Domini Canes, the Bishop’s mechanical enforcers. The airlock gets a lot of use. At last the desperate denizens of Elsa’s deck decide to protest, whereupon she makes a fortuitous discovery.

There are two sides to this discovery. In the first, we learn the reasons behind the conditions on the ship, which make sense of the situation and explain how matters have reached such a low point. In the second, unfortunately, we discover the presence of a deus ex machina unexpected by Elsa or anyone else on her deck. Elsa is a character of strength and determination, but it isn’t these traits that allow her to prevail, it’s a factor from outside, supplied by the author. This makes the resolution less satisfactory.

“Insurrection in Silk” by Gillian Conahan

Following conquest, the silk merchants offer tribute to the Empress in exchange for their lives, and a merchant’s pampered daughter becomes the Imperial dressmaker, a life of stitching silk. By the time it is finished, hundreds of hours will be bound into the gown’s seams. “The stitches are a chronicle of her captivity, ticks of the clock like hatches on a cell wall.”

The strength of this piece is in the tension, the miasma of terror that pervades the Empress’s court. Readers can feel strongly how no one there is safe, even the dressmaker whose skill in creating the ruler’s silk gowns is without peer. Even better, we have no way to know if any single act of defiance will meet with success or punitive bloodshed. A well-done debut story.



Unlikely Story, June 2014

aka The Journal of Unlikely Cartography. This quirky little zine always manages to pull me in with its concepts, and this one delivers a couple of strong stories.

In the author sex count, we have five females and one lone male, with a lone male protagonist.

“How a Map Works” by Sarah Pinsker

Derona was a mapmaker before soldiers came, killed many of her people, and drove the rest far away to be imprisoned in caves. Her daughter Nomi was born there in the dark, has never seen the light. She asks questions, and Derona tries to answer, to teach her.

I know her face, though I have never seen it. I’ve learned to dress her cuts and bruises, to wash her, to treat coughs and fevers, all in the dark. Her hair would be thick and curly if it had proper care, like mine once was. I pick through its tangles strand by strand. I don’t know the color of her eyes.

There’s a very tight focus to this short piece. There’s no Why and little How to the current circumstances. A few people live in the dark. They sort rocks – whatever that means. There is a guard at the door [which implies a whole lot of guards if each one guards so few prisoners] who lets in food and sometimes takes away a prisoner, which seems to be a punitive act. But almost everything is Derona and Nomi, stacking rocks in the dark to make maps. Will this be always? Derona doesn’t want to answer, she doesn’t want to lie, unknowing. And readers know they don’t know, either.

The pieces in this zine tend to be on the light and absurd side. This one is not.

“How to Recover a Relative Lost During Transmatter Shipping, in Five Easy Steps” by Carrie Cuinn

An interview with Amrita Chakrabarty, whose smartass younger brother was screwing around with the transmatter shipping array, not intended for human use, and got himself lost in the system. Turns out, according to the other shipping clerks, he’d been doing this a lot, “not mentioning that he’d figured out a way to break himself into tiny pieces, a process that no one else has ever survived, and was shooting himself and you to parts unknown every time you three got bored on a Saturday night.” Only this time he didn’t come out on the other end.

Light and absurd. If readers were expected to take this scenario seriously, I doubt if anyone would credit that physicists could develop such a transmatter process without realizing it operated through wormholes, and that a bunch of bored shipping clerks would recognize the fact and not realize how it could be exploited for financial gain. The ending is odd, suggesting that the events continued after point where the narrative was broken off. Possibly the hint of a sequel?

“The Occluded” by Rhonda Eikamp

The other doctors, and definitely the cops, think Garland is a nutcase.

“Garland sees these patterns on the angiogram,” Baxton snorted. “In the lines of the arteries. They’re maps of cities, he says, or the patient’s house, and it shows him where things are lost or hidden. He helps people find things.”

When he assaults a patient under catheterization because he claims the heart map shows where he murdered Garland’s daughter, he goes way too far for the hospital administration. But Sonya Burmeister knows what it means to lose a young daughter, how it can mess up your life, your mind.

Definitely not light, involving the death of children, including serial murder. With regard to the mystery, I can’t help wishing the author had left the scene a bit more ambiguous, instead of pointing the finger of guilt. But that decision is the author’s privilege. The heart of the story, however, isn’t about guilt or innocence but loss and the damage it causes, the emotional myocardial infarction.

“All of Our Past Places” by Kat Howard

Miren’s friend Aoife has long been fascinated by St Patrick’s Purgatory, collecting maps of the place [which actually exists as an island near Ireland]. Now, having not heard from her, Miren discovers Aoife’s apartment deserted and the island’s location on the maps precisely burnt out.

The thing, of course, that’s supposed to happen in a situation like this is that you follow the other person to the Underworld. You bring them back. I mean, I’d been around Aoife long enough to be familiar with the stories. I knew the rules. Someone went to the Underworld, someone else came to get them, and then things didn’t work out. The end.

Still, someone has to try something.

A story of friendship and deep understanding of another person. Miren has known since childhood that Aoife’s maps were her ways of escaping her abusive home, and now her life’s pain. So while the first thing someone might think in this situation is suicide, Miren rejects it. Either way, however, there’s a great risk. Bringing a person back unwilling can be worse than leaving them there. Miren takes the chance in the belief that she knows Aoife well enough. Which is why this is Miren’s story, not Aoife’s, whom Miren knows but we do not.

“This Gray Rock, Standing Tall” by James Van Pelt

A story of fatherhood. In Robert’s childhood, his father Joel had been a man with an obsession, building a stone tower deep in the Olympic rainforest about a mile from his home. While young Robert was allowed to help him load the stone onto the ATV, he never saw the building; it was his father’s alone. After his death, Robert never saw the place again until now, when he returns with his son Pearce, who is just about the age he was when his own father died. He has found the map leading to the tower and wants to see it, wants his son to see it, wants to make a connection that hasn’t existed, since he and his ex had been divorced most of Pearce’s life, and the two of them are almost strangers. The trek is harder than he had expected, the trail harder to follow. But that is his own failure and the work of time, not the map maker or the builder.

My gaze had been resting on a fallen tree fifty feet away for several minutes before I realized that the middle had been cut from it, leaving a gap just big enough for an ATV. When we reached it, the trail was visible again, traversing the hillside, matching the left hand curve on the map. A few minutes later, and a hundred feet higher up the slope, a low wall reinforced the trail’s side, rising from the ground to three feet at the highest before sinking into the loam thirty feet later.

The forest setting is strongly evoked, but it’s a scene entirely of this world. The fantastic element is almost missing, and I wish it had been entirely, as it feels gratuitous and just a bit distasteful. As a mainstream work, it’s rich in mainstream values, the relationship between fathers and sons and the meaning of inheritance. Robert comes across as a man entirely estranged from life, from family, from purpose. Now he’s striving at last for connection, to discover his father and introduce his own son to him.

The story raises the issue of inheritance, which means more here than legal title to a piece of property. Joel was clearly a remarkable man, a man with an overriding vision, but for the most part, he shut his son out of it. Joel’s wife once called him a king, but Robert had no share in his kingdom. Joel didn’t seem to want him to. The kingdom was his because he created it, through his own work, not because he had inherited it. This makes me wonder what claim Robert has to it now, what claim he has to the allegiance of the kingdom’s subjects. What makes him a prince, if the king never did and he did nothing to earn the title but follow a map? This question bothers me perhaps more than it should, but it wouldn’t have been raised except by the story’s last lines.

“The Cartographer’s Requiem” by Shira Lipkin

A young singer, the lover of a famous cartographer now dead, has the honor of singing her long life. “This task — the singing — required someone who had known her mind.” Yet, once the song is over, we don’t, except for learning that she drew her maps in red.



Luna Station Quarterly, June 2014

It wasn’t exactly the best time for me to get Yet Another All-Female publication, in which we are told that women are angry because, presumably, they are being prevented from publishing. The evidence of the current batch of stories would argue otherwise, yet these sorts of zines keep springing up, causing cognitive dissonance.

So here we have eight short pieces of fiction [plus two reprints, although it's not clear that the editors know about one of these] by eight women, mostly with main female characters. Not so many are outstanding, but I did find one gem.

“The Sacrifice” by Robin L Martinez

A too-familiar scenario. Humans originally from Earth have left their own planet and decide to take someone else’s, exercising a lot of brutality in the process. T J, daughter of a prominent general, has deserted to join the opposition but is now a prisoner who has just been brutally interrogated. It seems she has turned herself in for a chance to meet with her father, for a particular reason.

An unoriginal scenario with stiffness in the dialogue.

“The Matron” by Sandra Wickham

The narrator and her little sister Callie’s are the products of a mad scientist father, recently taken away and killed by government forces. They’ve been living inside the secret passages in the house where he had his lab, but now strangers have come, apparently intending to buy the house. This could be a problem, but the girls have Powers.

The title is odd. The story has little to do with the Matron, a thing in a tank from which the mad scientist has bred his daughters. The Powers they have are the usual sort, but it’s Callie’s weakness that makes her human and gives the story some heart.

“Tunbi” by Chikodili Emelumadu

When Tunbi asks, “What do you want to happen?”, it happens. The narrator says Tunbi’s mother was a fixer, and it seems she must be a fixer, too. Thus she is highly respected, even by people who originally scorned her as an obese, ignorant village girl. She’s always willing to help, and people always tell her their troubles.

Tunbi brought out a bottle and collected the woman’s tears and some snot from her nose and went away. It only took a week. A week before the Arab who had thrown Mrs Adegoke’s son from the top of a skyscraper was a splotch on the curb, in the exact same spot her son had landed.

Here’s a really memorable character! The narrative rests on a lot of vivid descriptions, often of high physicality. Tunbi’s method tends to use bodily secretions, tears and snot being far from the most gross. There’s also a strong erotic component; aside from revenge, Tunbi would seem to practice a lot of sex magic. It’s noteworthy that most of her activity seems to be on behalf of women, and practiced on men. There’s a strong women’s society here, in which the opinion of other women is critical.

They came to her with their ailments. Their husbands behaved. Their children thrived in school. She brushed off all the attention, much in the same way she had brushed off their outrage over her arrival.

Tunbi rules, but she rules well, where a woman less wise might turn tyrannical.

[I notice in reading so many of these works that female characters sometimes seem only nominally women; change the gender of pronouns from "she" to "he" and there would be little real difference. Not so with Tunbi. Her womanness would be evident without any pronouns to signify it; she could not be mistaken for anything but a woman.]

–RECOMMENDED

“Tourist Attraction” by Nina Shepardson

Based on a real attraction, the metal, fire-breathing Kahokia dragon. It mostly serves here as a symbol of liberation, as the protagonist frees herself from the clinging apron strings after her son leaves for college.

“Revision” by Penelope Schenk

Academic entanglements. John gets a plum anthropology assignment from his influential advisor, to study consequences of the recently-concluded war on Delfinio as it affected a small dissident group called the Editors. He has been given a partner, a woman named Julie who once had an affair, which ended badly, with his advisor. The research goes well.

The text also includes snippets from a manual of the Editors, which prove to be very interesting indeed; they are claiming to be able to edit reality and history.

STET
This exercise is useful when you’ve made a big decision and then realise that you’ve made the wrong choice. It requires nothing more than intense concentration on the moment just before the action you now regret. Some insist that the use of STET to remove controversial amendments to the Delfinio constitution sparked the recent Civil War, but his has been consistently denied by the Editors.

I very much like the notion of the Editors, the formulation of their techniques, and the story’s conclusion. I wish the background of Julie’s relationship with India had been better-integrated. [We have here a male narrator, but John is a nominal male; I see no difference that would have been made by switching gender of the pronouns. All the other characters we see are female.]

“Place of Plentiful Water” by Molly N Moss and Shereen Marie Jensen

Which is heaven, according to the Holy Qur’an. Shaista, having been stoned to death by the Taliban for being raped, knows that she isn’t there.

Instead she sees only Najeed Rawdah, the village where she lived and died. Patches of mud, made of her own blood mixed with the parched soil, stain the village courtyard. A village well stands in front of the stone-walled mosque, an oasis in a desert of ash-white dust.

Unfortunately, there’s not much more to this very brief piece. I can’t quite see how it took two people to write it.

“Forget about Me, I Am No One” by Megan Neumann

Channeling Odysseus, the collective calling itself NO ONE establishes control over society, with the rumored ability to read everyone’s mind. It selects the brilliant deviants for inclusion, and Dana’s friend Calvin receives the invitation no one can refuse. He claims to be proud, but they are both frightened.

That would be the last time I’d touch his fingers. Or any part of him. No one knew what happened to the body after joining the collective. The general consensus was the body was destroyed. To the collective, only the mind mattered.

A discouraging dystopia, not particularly original.

“Gretel” by Nancy O’Toole

A contemporary setting for the fairy tale. Not too contemporary, though; there are video games but no cell phones.



James Gunn’s Ad Astra, Issue 3, 2014

With this annual issue, the trend shifts, as two of the three original stories are by male authors, although one of these has a female protagonist. The issue doesn’t make a good case for male superiority.

“Winds that Stir Vermillion Sands” by David Bowles

Colonizing Mars has resulted in hard times for the refugees who fled to its growing slums, ruled by crime gangs. Rodrigo’s father is a feckless scavenger who one day finds an alien device useful as both weapon and tool. But one day the old man makes the unfortunate decision to sell it to a yakuza boss, despite Rodrigo’s warning. The parallel thread reveals Rodrigo’s gradual disillusion with religion; the God of his fathers having been no help, he resolves to help himself. A very basic, amateurish piece, with the religious thread clumsily integrated.

“The Chiseler’s Wife” by Hunter Liguore

Which is to say, a stonecutter, not a cheat, who carves headstones both for the local humans and for the faeries. One day a young man ordered a headstone for his deceased mother, but when he came to pick it up, he fell in love with the stonecutter’s wife, and they ran off together in such haste that their wagon strikes and kills a faery on the road [although they probably couldn't see her]. The stonecutter makes her a fine headstone, and in exchange she offers him a spell to retrieve his wife in a manner that will prevent her running back to her lover. Complications, however, ensue.

Rather too many complications in this fairy tale, in fact. The defining premise is that the chiseler has a special gift for seeing across the veil to commune with the faery spirits.

. . . he listened and spoke with the faery ghosts that walked the barren hills in search of their stories. Afterward, he would get to work on the front-piece, always starting with an image of the faery, and then beneath it he inscribed an epitaph that read like poetry, to sum up the life the faery once lived.

It contradicts this premise when the chiseler would, for no reason, twists and distorts the life story of a randomly-deceased faery, just to give her a reason to want revenge on him. Too bad, it had been a promising tale.

“Mars Bomb Bound for Titan” by Sean Monaghan

Carmen is a zealot. Along with her accomplice Richard Walker, she conspired to send an illicit terraforming bomb to Mars. Walker got cold feet at the last minute, Mars got an alien ecosystem that can’t be eradicated, and Carmen got ten years, later reduced to eight and finally parole after three. But on her release, she finds associates of Walker waiting for her, wanting her expertise to bomb Titan.

She remembered the whole period when she’d wrecked Mars. Ecological terrorism, they’d called it. What responsible scientist would even consider running that kind of experiment without any kind of control? But there was no spare Mars to use as a control. It had been an idea that had been around for a few generations. Seed Mars with tolerant genetically modified organisms and see what they did.

There’s a fundamental divide in the SF community, between those like Carmen who feel “a responsibility to spread out through the system”, which is to say, having laid waste the homeworld, to ruin other innocent worlds – and those who, like me, would have attempted to stop her by any means. It’s noteworthy that while Carmen understands intellectually the hubris and enormity of her crime, she would do it again if she could. And the author apparently admires her for it. Even if this had been a good story, I would have strongly disapproved of it, so I figure it’s just as well that it isn’t. And if this is heresy to the pro-space legions, so be it.



“Wait Your Turn” and “The Stability of Large Systems” by Peter Grandbois

Last, the debut offering from a micropress: The Wordcraft Series of Fabulist Novellas – a promising concept, although strictly speaking this initial piece isn’t a novella. The title page calls it a Double Feature, referencing the subject matter, which is monster movies. The two parts, taken together, do add up to what is generally considered the novella length, and readers can certainly think of it as a whole – in fact, the same story twice-told. Both times, we have a movie monster, a man-monster. We have his wife and their flawed marital relationship. We have his son and their estrangement. We have a whole lot of angst.

The first features the star of an alternate Creature from the Black Lagoon. The story calls him Gill, because once he was an abandoned gill boy left by his father in a lake – although amphibians don’t have gills, our star does, along with green skin and webbed appendages, as well as awesome pecs that attract girls on the beach, where he’s spotted by a talent scout. He falls in love with his co-star, despite a certain amount of cross-species sexual incompatibility. They marry, they have a kid. Rather than making him happy, this produces angst, and he ends up in a sideshow to nurture it.

The second version follows The Fly, as our mad scientist narrator develops angst while overthinking the Observer Effect, since his wife has looked at him and thus he isn’t the same man. As in the first version, there’s a great deal of talking here, mostly the narrators talking at great length to themselves. The central question of both would seem to be whether a monster can find/deserve love, and since everyone is a monster in some way, they address a universal problem. But not all of us monsters are as self-destructive as these characters, and as neither has any universal appeal, as the original characters in the films did, all we’re left with is the absurdity.

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

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

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

Lois Tilton reviews Short Fiction, late June

Trying to catch up here after losing some time to an emergency. This column features a Hard SF anthology.



Reach for Infinity, edited by Jonathan Strahan

Another in the editor’s fine “Infinity” series of Hard SF anthologies on the subject of human expansion into space. This one, according to the introduction, focuses on the human striving for space, although I don’t really see this as a predominant theme in the stories here. Indeed, if there is a repeated theme, it would rather be yearning for homes left behind rather than striving to leave them.

Anthologies like this one are essential for our field, which gets so little these days of the pure science fiction without admixture of the fantastic. There are fourteen pieces from a good assortment of authors, with an Australian tilt, which we often get from editor Strahan. Most take place in our own solar system, hewing pretty closely to known scientific knowledge. I particularly like the McDonald and the Schroeder.

“Break My Fall” by Greg Egan

Migration to Mars, via a series of hops between orbit-tethered asteroids.

The Baza had performed a U-turn around the Stone, but with respect to the Earth, rather than reversing its motion it had just gained an extra hundred metres a second. Over the next hour the Stone would give a similar boost to every ship in the convoy – and then it would be free to spend a couple of years harvesting sunlight, replenishing its spin and tweaking its orbit until it was back in position to reprise its role for another group of travellers. It had taken three decades to nudge this rock and its companions out of the Amor group and into their tailored orbits, but the foresight of the pioneers who’d begun the process had paid off for the generation that followed. The Baza was not so much a spacecraft in its own right as a life support capsule being tossed from Stone to Stone, but this choreographed relay race would deliver it to Mars in just four and a half months.

The passenger ships are small, carrying fewer than a dozen colonists, and they travel in convoys, all following the same route. For Heng, the Baza‘s captain and sole crewmember, it’s normally a routine job, but this time a solar flare erupts, forcing the convoy to shelter at the nearest Stone – greatly prolonging their journey. The docking, too, should be routine, although a less usual one, until one of the ships ahead of him breaks its hold on the mooring spoke, dropping away into space and perturbing the Stone’s rotation. Heng decides to move on to the fallback position of the next stone, but their emergency docking is anything but routine.

In some respects, an excellent example of what Hard SF should be, centered on a Neat Idea, its engineering strongly displaying the physics behind it. Unfortunately, it also displays all the signs of being an excerpt from a longer work; the ending, in particular, is entirely inconclusive. Nor am I convinced, despite the text’s claim, that the cost of setting the Stones in their orbits could in fact have been paid off by this slow, incremental process of migration, droplet by droplet of colonists. The actual story involves the interaction between Heng, to whom it is all just a job, and a bright child colonist who has clearly learned her physics lessons to propose a plan to rescue the adrift ship. But the characters are flat, and the situation fails to raise the readerly pulse – which is just as well, given that the author never lets us know if their efforts succeed. Not the most auspicious opening to the book.

“The Dust Queen” by Aliette de Bodard

Inevitably, as the oceans of Earth rose, its coasts were submerged, making refugees of the inhabitants, including those of the Mekong Delta. Perhaps as a solution to their plight [the text is not clear on this point] the longterm project of terraforming Mars has begun, but the refugees are not allowed to set foot there until the process is complete; they dwell instead on the orbital platform called Fire Watch, looking down on their untouchable promised land. As a diversion from their [despair, frustration?], the authorities have allowed the presentation of shows on the Martian surface, dancing clouds of dust animated by bots controlled remotely from orbit. The master of these bots is Bao Lan, known and revered as the Dust Queen.

Back on Earth, however, people have begun to restore the drowned territories and recreate the landscape that was washed away. Many refugees have left Fire Watch to volunteer for this work, now largely complete. Bao Lan, growing old, wants to return to her childhood home, but there is a problem: long ago, she had her mind rewired to expunge all emotional attachment to her childhood memories. She doesn’t want to go home in that condition; she wants to reverse her rewiring. For this, she has summoned Quyhn Ha, a young woman whose reverence for the Dust Queen is profound. Reluctantly, she agrees to attempt the process.

“Rewiring is… like deadening. You can’t completely suppress the emotions involved, or the person will go mad. There’ll be one, or several cracks somewhere; tiny remnants of the original emotions. All I have to do is find one and amplify it – I can’t give you the original back, but it will be something much like it.”

This scenario raises a number of questions. Bao Lan says she has chosen Quyhn Ha for two reasons: that she is the best rewirer on Fire Watch, which doesn’t go in for the practice a lot, and that she is a fellow Viet, who can understand her. But is there a difference? Is the entire population of Fire Watch refugees from drowned Vietnam? Is the entire prospective population of Mars? There is much in the text to suggest that this might be so. Bao Lan is the Dust Queen, and her shows are apparently based entirely on Viet folklore, presented on a major Viet festival. There is no suggestion of, say, Bangladeshi festivals celebrated in this way, although refugees from the Ganges would certainly far outnumber those from the Mekong. There are other humans in space, among the asteroids, but we see only one orbital habitat, Fire Watch. And more, we have only one Mars; it seems strange to terraform the planet for the sole benefit of one refugee ethnic group, yet nothing in the text suggests otherwise.

The rewiring premise, as detailed here, is rather over contrived, which has the effect, ironically, of robbing the story of its emotional impact. The heart of it should be Quyhn Ha’s emotional reactions to the dust shows, particularly those of her childhood, but although the author describes the shows and the folklore they are drawn from, the viewer’s presence isn’t strong. We are supposed to feel that she has given up something precious to her, but the feeling doesn’t come through. Bao Lan, at the end, is clearly not who she had been, but Quyhn Ha seems much the same. I can’t help thinking the story took the wrong point of view.

“The Fifth Dragon” by Ian McDonald

Adriana and Achi meet in transit to the moon, become friends because zero-gee sex is highly overrated. The work is good, friendship is good. Then Achi gets the word that her latest bone scan gives her only four more weeks.

All this I did, the endless hours riding the train like a moon-hobo, the hypothermia and being sling-shotted in a can of my own barf, because I knew that if Achi had four weeks, I could not be far behind.

Once your bones erode past that point, you can’t safely go back to Earth. You either have to leave before it’s too late or remain on the moon for life. Now Adriana and Achi, finally lovers as well as friends, have to decide. Achi wants to go back. But for Adriana, the moon is the place where a woman can put on wings and fly. It’s the place where the right idea, properly leveraged, can build her a dynasty, the fifth big corporation, one of the dragons.

Here, now, is story. A compelling central character, a fascinating world, an entertaining narrative. It’s Hard SF, for sure, with its depiction of a ruthlessly capitalistic lunar socioeconomy, where the charge for a breath can change from inhale to exhale, where the marginally useful are culled and the visionaries can find opportunity. Adriana loves Achi, but she loves that moon more.

–RECOMMENDED

“Kheldyu” by Karl Schroeder

Entrepreneur Achille Marceau had a bright idea: build solar updraft towers that will generate electricity while taking the CO2 out of the atmosphere. Unfortunately, the market for carbon crashed, and he had to shut down. Also unfortunately, the environmental consequences for the area surrounding the prototype tower were dire, as Gennady the troubleshooter discovers when he reaches the site.

The trees were draped in what looked like the fake cobwebs kids hung over everything for American Halloween. Great swathes of the stuff cocooned whole trunks and stretched between them like long, sickening flags. He glanced back and saw that an ominous white cloud was beginning to curl around the truck – billions of spores kicked up by his wheels.

While Gennady gets the tower’s turbine running again, he has a surprising encounter: Achille’s sister Nadine, a fellow UN arms inspector who seems to regard the installation as if it were a rogue nuke instead of a device with the potential to reverse global warming, as Achille has touted it.

This is part of the author’s series featuring arms inspector Gennady Malianov, who has had a previous appearance in this anthology series. This one is full of action, thwarting a truly dastardly plot [How To Profit From The Coming Mass Extinction] at an acrophobia-inducing height that makes me cringe to contemplate. As added interest, we have the Permian extinction and a remarkable physical setting in the Siberian “valley of death” alluded to by the story’s title.

–RECOMMENDED

“Report Concerning the Presence of Seahorses on Mars” by Pat Cadigan

Cognitive dissonance between the residents of Mars and some officious authorities back on Earth. Rose has been assigned to meet with remote robotic units hosting a US Special Envoy who claims “unauthorized and even criminal activity” by Mars residents.

I wasn’t sure what boggled me more – an outsider telling me how to pronounce Feenixity or the fact that an authority powerful enough to force an underground visit by mobi didn’t seem to know better than to speak before getting a response to their previous communication. It was the equivalent of talking over someone while they were trying to answer you in a normal conversation – not a felony but something a child would do.

There’s a lot about the society on Mars that Earth doesn’t understand, and a lot that Mars doesn’t want Earth to understand, like there being no actual official Governor’s office for them to go to, only a virtual construct. They do, however, want to keep receiving Earth subsidies, which have, up to now, been conditioned on population restriction, prohibiting natural [or semi-natural] reproduction. But people on Mars want kids. As Rose says, “A society without children isn’t the real thing – it’s weird, it’s unnatural, and it’s unhealthy.” So it didn’t take them long to decide that if the women were prohibited by law from becoming pregnant, the men would do it.

After a rather indirect opening, the author uses a pretty clever device to make the level of infodumpfery more palatable to readers: the narrative is framed as a report from Rose to people on Earth, “edited and annotated” with an occasional query, “How much do I have to explain to Earth people?” I like the colonial society and its unique way of operating. I particularly like the cultural differences between the two worlds. What I find questionable is the part of the premise whereby governments on Earth, despite financial straits, have set up the colonies on Mars as a sort of reality show, beaming the accounts of Martian fun and games down to entertain the homeworld. As the envoys states, “We didn’t send them there to lead normal lives.” The colonies weren’t expected to survive. But does that make sense, for a world so short on financial resources to expend them to set up a colony doomed to failure, just for the entertainment value? In the event of colony failure, would they have been willing to stand the very considerable expense of evacuating the entire population of Mars, if necessary, or just sit back and watch everyone slowly die? I don’t really think so.

“Hiraeth: A Tragedy in Four Acts” by Karen Lord

Hireath can be thought of as a human illness caused by loss or distance from home; in the case of pace, the greater the distance from the homeworld, the stronger the malady when it strikes. As a child on the Moon, Janik had a freak accident, falling and injuring his eyes, which his doctor, a fanatic on the subject, replaced with cyborg models. Later, working in the asteroid belt where he suffered from the most extreme version of hiraeth, Janik is convinced by the same doctor that the more augmentations, the greater the resistance to the illness, and he allows the installation of a prototype brain implant. The augmentation is successful, but it leads to a split within humanity. As unmodified Earthborn abandon space and return to the homeworld, the spaceborn and augmented move outward. But Janik retains a small seed of hiraeth, closed off so it can no longer affect him; its presence reminds him of his humanity as he lives, more and more, among the cyborgs.

The hiraeth is an interesting premise, raising the issue whether a psychological attachment to the human homeworld might cause any drive towards space colonization to abort. Oddly, though, the hiraeth seems to be unfelt in the story. Janik’s story is poignant and we strongly feel his suffering, but it seems to be caused, not for a longing for a world where he wasn’t born, but from simple loneliness. A unique prototype among the cyborgs, he clings more and more to the lost remnant of his humanity.

The storyline also seems incomplete when it comes to the pilot Lee, an unaugmented human entirely without hiraeth. The implications of this are tantalizing; we can’t be sure whether she’s an anomaly or represents a trend that will result in the posthumans we see at the story’s end. The question of her fate, left hanging, is quite frustrating.

“Amicae Aeternum” by Ellen Klages

Which is to translate: BFF. A young girl named Corry is saying goodbye to her friend Anna and to Earth. Her parents are taking her off to space on a generation ship, never to return, and these will be her last vision of the places she loves.

Golden light pierced the spaces between the trunks of the trees, casting long thin shadows across the grass. They leaned against each other and watched as the sky brightened to its familiar blue, and color returned: green leaves, pink bicycles, yellow shorts. Behind them lights began to come on in houses and a dog barked.

The strength of this piece is in the description of such quotidian moments, cherished by Corry as her last. Which would be just about as emotion-laden if she actually wanted to go. Rather sentimentally so, however.

“Trademark Bugs: A Legal history” by Adam Roberts

I have to wonder why the title isn’t trademarked bugs, as the other wording evokes the notion of glitches that invalidate trademarks. Regardless, this is a neat faux legal document [complete with footnotes and bibliography] concerning the history and status of proprietary pathogens, concerning which there has been an extensive set of lawsuits and rulings. As one advocate argued:

People are getting sick with genetically tagged flu viruses for which the only cure is manufactured by these same corporations! People are being forced into the position where they have to purchase medication, manufactured by the same corporations that made them sick, in order to bring them back to the baseline position of health. This practice is profoundly inhumane, unethical, and monopolistic. This practice is wicked.

So it would seem! But the lawyers for the Pharma corporations had much deeper pockets to draw from. Indeed, it wasn’t long until they were waging war on each other in fact, rather than just in the courts, although that continued as well.

‘Killing and maiming is one thing,’ said Bayer vice-chairman Hester Lu. ‘Wars have entailed that for thousands of years. But violating commercial copyrights and trademarks is quite another, and such behaviour will not be tolerated, in peace or in war’.

An exception in this volume, being concerned with something other than space colonization. But this brand of satire is well in the SFnal mainstream – a clear case of If This Goes On. When one of the paper’s authors states, “Democracy has, broadly, shifted from a flat-rate one-person-one-vote model to a corporate, buy-as-many-votes-as-you-like model”, we know we’re not looking at the future, but a well-established fact of our present. And the proposition that the bugs have made the world a better place is audacious irony. I think the late Fred Pohl would have appreciated this one.

“Attitude” by Linda Nagata

On the orbiting Stage One, with the motto “Our Only Export is Entertainment”, Juliet Alo is a semi-pro Attitude player in a zero-G spectator sport that rewards her intuitive grasp of trajectories. In one championship game, just as she is about to score, something inexplicable happens:

Her momentum reversed so quickly it was as if a digital record skipped in time. All my calculations were thrown off by at least three-tenths of a second as she darted to intercept me, and before I could twist to protect the ball it was gone from my hands. She passed the ball on the fly, hurling it to a teammate waiting halfway to blue. Our backfield was left playing catch-up as Team August relayed the ball past fins and static drums. Then they blocked our lone defender before a player took the ball through the goal ring for an easy score.

Juliet knows what happened; the opposition player was enhanced beyond the limit allowed by regulations, thus threatening the integrity of the game, on which the orbital’s entire economy is based, the income going to habitat construction. The League decides to cover it up, which is never a good idea, as countless politicians have learned. But there’s more going on than simple cheating.

This sort of sports story has been done often enough that it needs something beyond the ordinary; here we don’t have it, just some action and a bit of predictability.

“Invisible Planets” by Hannu Rajaniemi

Subtitled “with apologies to Italo Calvino”, a reference to the masterpiece Invisible Cities – an audacious choice for a model. It serves to inform us that this is not just any kind of galactic travelogue. In place of the vastness of Central Asia, we have the galaxy-studded universe, through which the darkship has long been journeying.

During the millennia of its journey, the darkship’s mind has expanded, until it has become something that has to be explored and mapped. The treasures it contains can only be described in metaphors, fragile and misleading and elegant, like Japanese street numbers. And so, more and more, amongst all the agents in its sprawling society of mind, the darkship finds itself listening to the voice of a tiny sub-mind, so insignificant that she is barely more than a wanderer lost in a desert, coming from reaches of the ship’s mind so distant that she might as well be a traveller from another country that has stumbled upon an ancient and exotic kingdom on the other side of the world, and now finds herself serving a quizzical, omnipotent emperor.

As in the original, the planets are sorted by theme [Death, Money, Gravity, Eyes, Words], although there is only one example of each; the work’s length ensures this will only be a miniature, simplified version. As in the original, we suspect that these planets are all imaginary, reflecting a single reality, despite knowing that the traveler has indeed visited many wondrous and exotic locations, for each planet exemplifies only a single aspect of existence, each one a monoculture.

Nirgal itself has become a graveyard. It is populated only by travellers who visit from other worlds, arriving in ephemeral ships, visible only as transparent shapes in swirling red dust. Wearing exoskeletons to support their fragile bodies, the visitors explore the endless caves that glitter with the living technology of the Oyans, and explore the crisscrossing tracery of rover tracks and footsteps in Nirgal’s sands, careful to instruct their utility fog cloaks to replace each iron oxide particle exactly where it was, to preserve each imprint of an Oyan foot forever.

While the conclusion seems to echo Calvino’s original, there is, as there ought to be, one significant difference. For while the Khan and Polo are two distinct individuals with quite dissimilar personal histories, the sub-mind narrating here is and has always been part of the whole to whom she is reciting, and thus must be seen as a function of memory as well as insight, not relating what is new but casting what is already known in a different light.

The piece is another exception to the anthology’s general rule, as this is not Hard SF, nor concerned with colonizing the Sol system.

“Wilder Still, the Stars” by Kathleen Anne Goonan

As children, May and her friend Irene dreamed of building starships. They form a company, develop an innovate ship, lose funding, separate. Fast-forward a century, and May runs into an Artificial Person in a lunchroom; she feels guilty because her research in neuroscience might have contributed to their development:

blank adult humanoids – fully functioning but comatose humans – are infused with virus-borne agents that initiate and accelerate neural development a millionfold. The pre-AP is stimulated with the language of choice, and certain parts of individual brains are more
intensely oxygenated, depending on the use to which the AP is committed. Content organizes the brain. Sessions of intensive, finely targeted fine and large motor control exercises give them a developmental kick.

This is an expensive process, yet for some reason APs are doing scutwork and hanging out on the streets, their abilities unutilized. May takes a few home and realizes their superhuman potential, but zombie-hating hordes gather and menace. Re-enter Irene, with a present for May.

A long life can lead to a long story, which thus runs the risk of being somewhat dull. This one is disjointed, with only the beginning and end. The connection between the space-striving story and the AP story is tenuous. What bothers me most is the APs, about whom we know too little to be able to tell if they really make sense. Like, where do these “blank adult humanoids come from, in the first place? Why, if so expensive to produce, are they not being utilized according to their abilities? Why, if useful, do their users not defend them from prejudice or at least protect them? And why has this prejudice developed, so quickly, so strongly?

The story tends to the sentimental. With the exception of the mob-sorts, all the characters glow with goodwill; the APs are all savants and geniuses, all tributes to their type, leading me to wonder again why these sterling qualities seem a surprise to everyone but May. What no one seems to address is whether they’re fertile or could breed true, but since, in May’s small community, there is only one AP female, the possibility seems essentially moot. On the other hand, they may be effectively immortal – another question the story doesn’t raise.

“The Entire Immense Superstructure: An Installation” by Ken MacLeod

While working on an artistic grant in Antarctica, Verrall’s mind cracked, if it hadn’t before, and after he left the rehab clinic, he entered the ubiquitous halls of the WikiThing and ends up in Equatorial Guinea, where he grows his installation. A space habitat, or satellite, doesn’t quite seem like an art project, but definitions are plastic whoever gave him his grant seems to have gotten their money’s worth.

An absurd work without an obvious point.

“In Babelsburg” by Alastair Reynolds

Vincent is a robot and a space probe, going out where humans cannot. As such, he’s a sort of celebrity, and his public appearances are popular. But the thing that captures the human imagination at the moment are the dead colonists that Vincent recently found on Titan, killed after their lander had failed. It’s a good story, but to Vincent’s surprise, another robotic explorer claims to have a different version of those events, an account not to Vincent’s credit. From a celebrity, Vincent has suddenly become an embarrassment.

I may not be provably culpable, but I am certainly perceived to have been the instrument of a wrongdoing. My agency, I think, would be best pleased if I were to simply disappear. They could make that happen, certainly, but then they would open themselves to difficult questions concerning the destruction of incriminating evidence.

A lot of questions raised here, more than the story answers. Vincent is established as a being of human-equivalent intelligence, a sentient individual capable of appreciating art, and apparently of some free will. He deprecates the sentience of another robotic probe as inferior to his own. He is definitely a being to whom motive can be ascribed. Yet whatever the motive for his actions and inactions near Titan, the text makes no conjecture. In this account, which is as close as we get to a confession, he evades the issue – as if on the advice of legal counsel. What he feels now is regret, not for anything he has done, but for losing the stars.

A well-done quasi-mystery. I only wish the talk show hosts hadn’t been conceived as such grotesques. It detracts from the genuine potential pathos of the situation.

“Hotshot” by Peter Watts

Another story of free will. Yet Again, humanity has messed up its own world and now plans to establish a backup on some innocent planet far away, instantaneously through a wormhole that has to first be established on the other side. Sunday has been born . . . built . . . bred for this mission, for a life spent in coldsleep as the backup to an automated system, but the authorities keep insisting she’s free to say no, to back out, instead. Still, they don’t really expect it. Sunday is rebellious. She wants to go, but she resents being made to want to go. Still, she doesn’t say no, doesn’t walk away, no matter how often they give the speech. She does, however, say, “I’ll get back to you” when she needs to meet with the only person she can really talk to, the person at the receiving end of all her rebellion while she was growing up.

I’m scared, Kai, is what I want to say. I’m scared by the thought of a life lived in such thin slices, each one lightyears further from home, each one centuries closer to heat death. I do want it, I want it as much as you do but it frightens me, and what frightens me even more is that I can feel this way at all. Didn’t they build me better than this? Aren’t I supposed to be immune to doubt?

The psychological heart of the story, the tension in Sunday between freedom and destiny, is quite clear and effective. Less clear, however, is a trip to the sun, in which Sunday experiences not only true freedom but also preternatural vision in a manner that feels a whole lot like magic. This may well be the sufficiently advanced technology, but I’m not seeing the point of it, the reason the pioneers [not just Sunday] undergo this experience, what results it’s supposed to have – particularly when the insights are only temporary. Nice imagery, though.

Not just a sea: an endless seething expanse, the incandescent floor of all creation. Plasma fractals iterate everywhere I look, endlessly replenished by upwells from way down in the convection zone. Glowing tapestries, bigger than worlds, morph into laughing demon faces with blazing mouths and eyes. Coronal hoops, endless arcades of plasma waver and leapfrog across that roiling surface to an unimaginably distant horizon.



Beneath Ceaseless Skies #149-150, June 2014

The publisher celebrates the 150 milestone with a double issue. These are becoming pretty frequent as this ezine continues its success. #149 gives us horrific tarry nastiness and evil father-figures; #150, far the better issue, is full of immortal powers.

#149

“Ink of My Bones, Blood of My Hands” by Vylar Kaftan

The narrator is the son and unwilling apprentice of the evil necromancer Ghraik, serving him, complicit in his crimes, to protect his mother, whom Ghraik holds hostage under a spell of immortality.

All of this I did because he trusted me, and I dared not cause him to question that. For I was the only soul that could free the island of Surthenon from his brutal grip, suffered these two hundred years. Only I, so close to his blackened heart, could find and exploit his weakness.

A day finally comes when his master is perturbed by a threat and subjects him to a rite of immersion in the tar pit that is the source of his power. The pit, with its awful secrets, claims him.

How to regard a work with lines like, “Vile fiend!”? The initial readerly impulse in these days, in a venue like this one that claims to be literary, and with such a title, is to suspect irony, some subversion of the traditional tropes of dark Sword and Sorcery. But no, this is traditional dark Sword and Sorcery; the author is playing the tropes straight, and piling them high, with a tar pit full of tortured and dismembered children to let us know just how dark and satanic this sorcerer is. The plot, such as it is, centers around the narrator’s quest to learn the nature of the bond among him, the necromancer, and the tar pit, so that he can seize his master’s power and destroy him. It’s a dated and unoriginal conceit, and the author brings nothing fresh or new to it.

“Silver and Seaweed” by Greg Linklater

The father-monster here has suffered accidents that turned him into a tentacled part-shark and forces him to remain underwater, where he is raising a girl he calls his daughter and transmuting her into something like himself, or what he used to be, in order to gather treasure from the deep seafloor that he can no longer reach.

She swallowed the contents in one gulp. It slid thickly down her windpipe and she gagged. He massaged her back gently, taking care around the budding fins and tender patches of scale. The essence grabbed her from the inside, pulled open her veins and raced to her brain. She could feel the transmutation always now, a dull ache in her bones, as the essence turned her on a wheel away from what she had been toward what he wanted her to become.

The contrast between these two stories is interesting. Although the girl protagonist in the Linklater story is not the narrator, we come to know her far more intimately than we do the narrator in the Kaftan story, we can sympathize with her situation, admire her determination, and appreciate her plan to free herself. There is a real, twisted relationship between the two characters here, and at its heart is the protagonist’s uncertainty about his true feelings for her, his real intentions. There is also originality in the premise.

#150

“The Manor of Lost Time” by Richard Parks

The demon, summoned, tells the tale of Driana to his interlocutor. It begins when he was trapped in the workroom of a sorcerer named Ledanthos, who noticed one day that a witch had infiltrated his sanctuary. He bound and summoned her there, where she saw the demon in his true form, not the statue into which he had been bound – not by Ledanthos, who wasn’t up to such tricks and didn’t possess such sight. The two made a bargain for their mutual freedom, and Driana entered his prison to open the door that was closed to him.

Humans and demonkin alike generate a nearly infinite cache of lost possibility for every path not taken. This is the place where all the ‘might have beens’ reside. That is what you’re experiencing now. The potential was there, but it was thwarted, for better or worse. What you’re seeing and feeling now, and knowing now, did not happen. You’re right—it’s not an illusion, but it’s also not real, and never can be real.

Nicely done fantasy with a light, ironic tone, but also brief. By which I mean not so much short as sketched, the condensed form of a potentially much larger, more colorful tale, involving the history of two legendary beings without the legends. It hints of so much more.

“The Black Waters of Lethe” by Oliver Buckram

Life, or something like it, on the riverbank, where starlings fall from the sky and people sometimes wash up. So far, we have the greybeard, obsessed with reaching the other side of the river, the prince [who probably isn't] and the warrior. Now a boat with a new castaway has washed up.

Lying inside is a dead man wearing a blue robe. Perhaps his heart forgot to beat. The river sometimes kills men this way. For others, drinking the black water, or breathing its vapors, leaves body unscathed but mind empty. When the prince first arrived, he drooled and babbled for days before regaining the power of speech.

Brevity here, too, and a great deal left unexplained. It isn’t at all clear where we are, except that this is the river of forgetting in the Underworld, or whether these characters are alive or dead or in some intermediate state. It would seem that some are more dead than others, however, and they are capable of becoming more dead than they presently are. While these lacunae are intriguing, they are not compelling as in the Parks piece; the state of readerly unknowing feels acceptable, and there is no real urgency to know who these people were, how they came to the riverbank, and what will happen to them next. It is what it is, and probably will remain so, but the details are for forgetting.

“The Inked Many” by Adam Callaway

Another in the author’s uncommon series set in the paper city Lacuna, where the Inked Man finds that his city is dying, his words impotent. The Lacunans had long since pulped every tree on the continent, even digging up the dead roots, and now the place is being overtaken by sand. In his long lifetime, the Inked Man has seen it all come and go.

Over the centuries, he had learned dozens of languages—real and fake, futuristic and historic, ancient, extinct, imagined, fabricated—the Inked Man collected languages in the same way some used to collect rare coins.

At the same time, on a mundane level, poverty has driven Chernyl to take a job in the mine, joining the exploited, who promptly name him Inky Britches.

This one links the past and future of the paper city through its archetypical founder. I don’t believe that any reader not already familiar with this setting will appreciate the nuanced appeal. The Lacuna that fascinates in those earlier pieces is no longer here, only its desiccated bones; it’s a dying city like any other, and like many others, a victim of its own past excess – that we no longer see. But Lacuna-that-was was a dystopia, charming perhaps in a few ways, but mainly for what we see as its oddness; living there was more a form of industrial slavery to the monstrous demands of paper. This being the case, the Inked Man’s quest to bring the place back, to recreate it, must likewise be seen as monstrous; what could have seemed a good idea in the first place has been revealed as a path to perdition.

What this piece also does is to rationalize the paper city, to explain it in more-or-less naturalistic terms. And this is a dreadful mistake. The attraction of the paper city in earlier tales was precisely in its inexplicable uniqueness. Stripping away the fantastic wrapping to expose the pathogen behind it robs the place of its wonder.

Readers previously unfamiliar with this wonder are unlikely to care much, and will be taking the present story on its own merits. In which the story of Chernyl gives us a strong protagonist, knowingly trapped in a sort of postindustrial hell. If he knows about his city’s wondrous past, he doesn’t seem to care much; his concern is with his own future, to which he optimistically clings as it erodes beneath his feet. To this, the parallel tale of the Inked Man on his quest for that past seems oddly detached and pointless, when it ought to evoke wonder. But the time for that wonder is gone.

“The Unborn God” by Stephen Case

A new god is coming into being and power, and it promises to be a tyrannical one. A boy comes to the wizard for refuge from its cruel priests, and the wizard trains him in his craft, explaining that the god’s growing power has begun to warp time and causality. Every time the boy recalls his father’s fate, what he remembers is more brutal

“Because the god is growing,” he answered. “Because it is growing toward omniscience, perhaps omnipotence, and its influence is reaching backward and forward in time. When you came here the priests were bands of clerics who had succeeded in bringing the god to root in the city but were still flailing in their newfound power.”

Now, as the god’s forces seek to destroy them and the alterations to the past continue to grow with the god’s growing potency, the wizard and his new apprentice race to confront it in its seat of influence.

While the general template here is an old one, it’s well-done and fitted with fantastic stuff, particularly the treatment of time, which makes it more original, but also the magical teaching scrolls, the wizard’s flying house, the scenery, and the jealous embodied wind who serves the wizard, hoping to earn his love.

–RECOMMENDED



Strange Horizons, June 2014

A theme of friendship for this issue.

“Tomorrow We’ll Go Yak Herding” by Michelle Ann King

Despite the plague of unexplained displacements that turn bungalows into shopping malls and hotels into petting zoos into tea shops, Jessica is on her way to Edinburgh, to Sera’s house. Hoping it will still be there when she arrives.

“‘It doesn’t matter,” Jessica says. “Because you’re right. We’ll learn how to make cider, or surf, or whatever else it is we need to do. And if we get yaks, Siberian or otherwise, we’ll herd them.”

Except that it actually does matter, because time is becoming displaced as well, and while the slippage doesn’t seem to be so bad wherever Sera is, on the road, things are different.

A short piece that starts out as lite absurdity but grows darker towards the end, when the purpose of their daily phone calls changes. [I wonder where Jessica is charging her phone.] At its heart, a story of comfort between friends.

“Rib” by Yukimi Ogawa

The narrator is a skeleton woman, a sort of succubus who likes to stroll outside at twilight when humans are less likely to notice what she is. A small boy named Kiichi, however, mistakes her for his mother – not so unreasonable as she is wearing his dead mother’s kimono, which creates a bond between them. It turns out that foul play was involved in the mother’s death, and the narrator decides to help him. “This is a boat I’ve put one foot onto; I’ll row to the end.”

A good deed and a grateful recipient, more than friendship. This is nice use of the folklore, but I’m afraid I find the faint hints of incest a bit disturbing.

“Storytelling for the Night Clerk” by JY Yang

An interesting narrative structure here. Our protagonist is a sort of cyborg, who works as the night watchman for the National Archives of selected downloaded individuals, jacked in as an extension of the building’s sensory network, and as such, a composite individual, part building-think, part human. It’s her human judgment that matters over the network’s logging of consistencies. As a composite, she is “you” in this narrative, who notices the anomaly of an old man haunting the vicinity of the archive’s second floor control room. “Machine sees no issue with this; there has been no breach. Your human mind sees the dots and sees premeditation.” The old man turns out to be a blacklisted individual who wants recognition for his late son, attainted by the father’s deeds. He has developed a scheme to have the young man illicitly archived; intercepted by Night Clerk, he begs her to enter him into the database. Night Clerk makes the official response: “If we archived people just based on the fact that they were loved, this building would cover the surface of the Earth.” But when she removes her exoskeleton and jacks out of the network, she is Wei En, a fully-human woman with a sick partner whom she deeply loves.

In that moment Wei En could have listened to her speak of a lifetime of banalities, a never-ending parade of gritty details that could be picked at over and over in memory until they slipped away like fish in a tide. She wanted to live in a world without time, without money, without death, so she could stop grasping at the sound of her lover’s tongue and just listen to it curling around the hard realities of life, on and on and ever after.

That is a moving and beautiful description of love, the simple joy that Wei En has in her lover’s presence, and the author happily refrains from drawing an explicit lesson, comparing her love to that of the old man for his son, delivering a didactic epiphany or a consequent change of heart, as would be the case in many such stories. It is left for the readers to make of the situation what we will.

–RECOMMENDED



Tor.com, June 2014

The site is short on the original, independent fiction this month, but that’s OK when it includes an excellent story by Yoon Ha Lee, worth several lesser works.

“Chapter Six” by Stephen Graham Jones

Zombies. Really. Shambling and rotting and devouring in hordes. While civilization falls apart, Crain and his dissertation advisor in anthropology, Dr Ormon, natter on matters abstract and theoretical.

“Herd mentality,” Dr. Ormon said, handing the binoculars back. “Herd suggests a lack of intelligence, of conscious thought, while horde brings with it aggressiveness. Or, at the very least, a danger to the society naming those invaders.”

Ormon has decided that all their research is going to prove relevant in the coming days of tooth and claw, after all – specifically Crain’s dissertation on evolution. Thus they are now out in the field, following the horde, cracking discarded bones for their marrow, and debating points of evolutionary theory, specifically whether humans evolved as scavengers or hunters.

Pretty silly dark comedy with a fairly high grue factor. Essentially it’s a parody of actual field research and mockery of the academic mentality.

“Combustion Hour” by Yoon Ha Lee

“The eschatology of shadow puppets.” That’s what it says, and readers will immediately be wondering what it might mean. The easy part: the end of the universe, when the last stars go out, not to be reignited, leaving all in the darkness and cold. Here there are shadow people in a shadow world of two dimensions, an artificial construct illuminated from the three-dimensional universe of dying stars, here called “lanterns”. This is a world of metaphor, where reality is masked by evasive names – reality, which the people here most assiduously avoid seeing. Yet it is explicitly said: “people are shadows, and shadows are souls.” In some way, or more likely in many ways, they have fled the dying universe into a two-dimensional shadow world, a population of shadows, of apparently disembodied souls, all of them puppets whose strings are held by the queen.

The queen with her scepter is one exception. Not only does she touch people with it, she also commands them. It is not entirely accurate to call it a scepter. Rather, it is a rod of puppet-strings, condensed to hungry facets. You have never seen your string, but you can feel it like a flickering ember even when you are far from the queen’s presence. Doubtless her other subjects experience something similar.

The protagonist is the queen’s knight, the queen’s hand, but rather than manipulating the puppets, it is a puppet itself, its string controlled like all the rest by the queen’s scepter. But the knight has a unique weapon that gives it the power to sever its own string; from the beginning it’s clear that the knight freely chooses to carry out her commands for the good of all, or at least it’s supposed to be. Ultimately, this is a story of autonomy, of responsibility. Whether there is a point at which the knight will say “no” and take on itself the responsibility for the consequences, which are ultimate indeed, as is everything at this ultimate point in the universe.

The two-dimensionality of the shadows tempts us to think that they are less real than the [former] people of the three-dimensional world from which they originally came, that their suffering may count for less. Certainly this is the attitude of the queen, who turns worlds to ash to extend or preserve her realm. The knight and a defeated king calmly discuss the king’s impending death in a manner that would lead us to assume it doesn’t much matter, even to him. But perhaps this assumption is incorrect, for the point of the knight’s moral rebellion rests on the belief that there is some level of suffering [and I have to think here of the eternal suffering of the souls of the damned, burning in hell, although we also have to assume these particular souls are innocent] that is too much to accept, even if it means losing the universe itself.

The shadows are not only puppets but paper puppets, ie combustible. Which is clearly metaphorical, a metaphor of fragility and vulnerability: paper, so easy to tear, to disintegrate in wet, to set on fire. And paper, burning, emits light. The knight itself was cut by the queen from the paper of a dying star, or so we are told, and its weapon is combustion, the force not only of destruction but of reignition. And combustion is impossible without fuel.

This author is known for combining elegant prose with topics in math and physics, and several asides in the text speak with literal clarity of the processes of star-death. But there is no way to place mathematical weight on a soul or measure its light upon combustion [although apparently some theorists are trying], and when the queen says the souls will burn forever, the question has shifted from the cosmological into the theological. We have to realize that the souls here may well not be human. Yet I can’t help imagining, with the help of hints in the text, of the current sciencefictional conceit of translating personas into electronic form, usually for downloading into some digital storage. Of course, if this is what’s going on here at the universe’s end, we’re way past digital storage in some material medium; we seem to be past matter itself, as the stars run out of fuel. At least, this is one way to think of the two-dimensionality of the world inhabited by souls, as immateriality. If we think of these souls as something like electronic shadows of once-material persons, this can be a way of understanding what it means for them to be combustible, transmutable into light.

–RECOMMENDED

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

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

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

Adrienne Martini reviews Tim Pratt

Tim Pratt’s writing just keeps getting better and better. In Heirs of Grace, his voice feels dialed in. The writing is tight and sassy without wasting one word – and he makes it seem easy.

Of course, it helps that his protagonist, Bekah, a fresh college graduate/visual artist who has been willed a house by an unknown relation in North Carolina, is her own smart force to be reckoned with. Even when stuff in the house gets weird – self-healing doors are only the beginning of the strange – Bekah is cool but not frozen. She is an active (and smart-assed) agent in her own story, which is a refreshing change.

All of the characters are drawn as finely, too, from Bekah’s best friend Charlie to her potential love interest Trey to the antagonist Firstborn, who starts the book as an evil cartoon but blooms into something much more interesting.

Heirs of Grace does more, however, than tell a story about a woman discovering who she is while she negotiates with fantasy elements; it also gets meta about being a book as well as taking on the nature and purpose of art. ‘‘But taking something that exists only in the mind and turning it into something other people can see, can touch, can take in and be changed by – that’s always felt like the greatest possible magic to me,’’ Bekah says. She’s talking about her paintings, but the idea applies to nearly any creative endeavor. And Heirs of Grace performs this magic well.

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 Green Planets

Were there ever two things better suited for each other than nature and science fiction? The essential, irreplaceable, complex and fascinating biosphere that shelters humanity and every other living organism is not only the mother of all creatures and the background against which all terrestrial dramas play, but also a laboratory for human intervention—for good or ill, intentional or accidental—and a source of spirituality and sheer sense of wonder. As well, the baseline biosphere of Earth offers the only standard we have or can currently know for extrapolating inventively to other worlds. If a city can become a character of sorts in fiction, then how much larger and important a protagonist would a whole landscape or planet be? Gaia as the ultimate heroine!

But despite this perfect affinity between subject and genre, the majority of SF—and to be fair, the majority of mimetic fiction as well—pays slight attention to the environment. Writers of fantastika who exhibit a sensitivity to nature, like Clifford Simak or George Stewart or Peter Watts or Paolo Bacigalupi, are few and far between. And yet in this era of climate change, when the very fate of the biosphere—and consequently the fate of our species— is up for debate, it’s more important than ever that SF exert its intelligence on the ecologies we inhabit.

One step toward fostering more such SF is to erect a perceptive and insightful and appreciative critical apparatus that can offer a taxonomy of such fiction and a catalog of the virtues, defects, technics and themes of eco-SF. This is precisely the intention and accomplishment of Green Planets, another of the typically outstanding genre-connected critical works from Wesleyan University Press, an institution which continues to uphold its role as one of the paramount academic friends of fantastika.

In this volume, we will get great fresh takes on the classics as well as handy approaches to bright new works; broad, sweeping assessments across many linked works as well as intensive spotlights on single authors and single books; and a catholic attention paid to both print and cinematic media. And all of the prose, while stringent in its logic and parsing and research, is eminently readable, nothing fusty or deliberately obscure or hermetic.

First comes Gerry Canavan with a far-ranging introduction titled “If This Goes On.” He engagingly surveys the history of environmentally conscious SF, its origins and impacts, and deploys several terms that will become the section headings of the rest of the book. After this useful springboard, we are off into Section 1, which is headed “Acadias and New Jerusalems,” indicating the pastoral-versus-urban dynamic.

Christina Alt gives us “Extinction, Extermination, and the Ecological Optimism of H. G. Wells.” She centers her essay around the very useful tactic of comparing early Wells—The War of the Worlds—with late-period Wells, Men Like Gods, to graph the changes in Wells’s beliefs and approaches. Bringing in the cultural and scientific shifts that bridged the two novels, she concludes that “the early twentieth century’s growing understanding of the interrelationships between organisms and their environment produced a new sense of power over nature…”

Next up is “Evolution and Apocalypse in the Golden Age,” by Michael Page, which examines “four exemplary works of ecological SF from that golden age” of Campbell & Co. I particularly enjoyed Page’s dissection of Simak’s City, one of the core books in my own pantheon. Following Page is Gib Prettyman, with “Daoism, Ecology, and World Reduction in Ursula K. Le Guin’s Utopian Fiction.” Here is a counter-tactic to Page’s broad reach, wherein a single author is subject to intense scrutiny from her earliest works to some of her most recent.

In Rob Latham’s “Biotic Invasions: Ecological Imperialism in New Wave Science Fiction” we return to a smorgasbord of authors, from Disch to Ballard to Le Guin. I was very much taken with Latham’s wise thoughts on Disch, a writer who, since his death, seems otherwise to have sadly faded from the communal consciousness of the field.

Section 2, “Brave New Worlds and Lands of the Flies,” focuses on dystopias. “‘The Real Problem of a Spaceship Is Its People’” by Sabine Höhler is a stimulating example of bringing to light almost totally lost works of relevant, important art, in this case the 1971 film ZPG and the hybrid book by Garrett Hardin titled Exploring New Ethics for Survival: The Voyage of the Spaceship Beagle. In “The Sea and Eternal Summer: An Australian Apocalypse,” Andrew Milner shifts the focus again to a single author and a s single novel, George Turner and his small masterpiece, Drowning Towers. Adeline Johns-Putra develops a lot of fascinating material on the intersection of traditional female roles and the environment as she examines Maggie Gee’s The Ice People in her piece “Care, Gender, and the Climate-Changed Future.”

Elzette Steenkamp puts her focus on South African productions in “Future Ecologies, Current Crisis,” with some excellent analysis of the film District 9, as well as some prose works. “Ordinary Catastrophes” by Christopher Palmer unearths some intriguing congruities among three writers not conventionally linked: Margaret Atwood, Douglas Coupland and China Miéville.

Section 3 carries the poetic title of “Quiet Earths, Junk Cities, and the Cultures of the Afternoon.” We kick off with “‘The Rain Feels New,’” by Eric C. Otto, who plumbs the depths of that standard-bearer for this type of writing, Paolo Bacigalupi. Brent Bellamy and Imre Szeman devote “Life After People” to the “science faction” bestseller by Alan Weisman, The World Without Us. Timothy Morton gives us a close and sharp analysis of Avatar in “Pandora’s Box.” And the closing essay by Melody Jue, “Churning Up the Depths,” profitably and convincingly links two authors I have never juxtaposed in my own mind, Stanislaw Lem and Greg Egan.

But almost the best part of the book remains: a dialogue between the two editors. Of course, Stan Robinson and his oeuvre alone could have filled out an entire book of this size and on this theme, and KSR’s assertions, questions and perceptions as they emerge in conversation here are endlessly stimulating.

Perhaps I am impermissibly enlarging the remit of this volume, but I was disappointed in only one area: no discussion of science fiction where humanity remakes itself to fit a new or altered environment, a trope I thought would have been integral to eco-SF. No discussion of Man Plus by Pohl, Schismatrix by Sterling, or The Seedling Stars by Blish.

Perhaps Wesleyan will bring out The Big Book of Biopunk next!

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-June

Here are a bunch of the usual monthly zines.

Publications Reviewed



Asimov’s, August 2014

The issue is anchored by a novella from Jay O’Connell; I can’t say any of these pieces enthuse me greatly.

“Of All Possible Worlds” by Jay O’Connell

In 1997, Costas, an unemployed youngish man with multiple useless degrees [Nonviolent Studies] is living with his fiancée Mary Ann in an apartment owned by a ninety-five year old curmudgeon commonly known as the Old Man, but named Galen Hieronymous – a sure hint that this is no ordinary fellow. Costas meets him the night he almost set the building on fire. It turns out that Galen needs an apprentice and Costas needs employment. The Old Man’s apartment is a packrat nest centered around a computer the likes of which Costas has never seen, and filled in with stacks of newspapers documenting life in a number of different twentieth-century timelines. “Every stack ending in one of two ways: cometary impact or nuclear war, both leading to projected global famine.” None of these outcomes, however, compared in horror to the Long Night of cannibalism that Galen had lived through, and which he has dedicated his life to retroactively preventing. It turns out that Galen is a timeline wizard, altering pasts in an attempt to create a line in which the Earth escapes holocaust. But now he is old, running out of time, and yet another comet has been discovered on a trajectory to Earth. The torch and the task finally pass to Costas, who knows he isn’t yet ready. But he has to be, if he is to save Mary Ann and their unborn child, the only remaining constants in his life.

This one is a nostalgic fannish delight, revisiting the sensawunda of the golden Astounding age with Orgone boxes, Dean Drives, and John W Campbell, a personal friend/rival of Galen’s. The plot is a full-stuffed sausage, bursting its casing with skiffy references, alternate timelines, aliens, and red-herring gizmos. Galen has a secret warehouse where he’s attempting to refit a submarine with a Dean Drive to transform it into a spacecraft capable of intercepting a comet. But in all the entertainment, the story’s heart is in the contrast between Galen and Costas, between the old man who has lived through the worst, over and over, and the young idealist who has suffered minimal personal adversity and makes it a condition of their relationship that he will never lose Mary Ann to the shifts of time.

“Placebo” by Nick Wolven

Paul works as the manager of a group home for seriously ill children who find an ad for a GenPet, a cute cuddly cybercritter. Naturally, they want one, and he’s talked into it despite knowing it to be a scam designed to sell more services, accessories, and upgrades when little Placebo, named by the children, malfunctions. As it does, to the consternation of his charges. Paul expresses his dissatisfaction to the company.

“This thing was designed to break down. You know it and I know it. It was designed to fail and fall apart in eight thousand warranty-busting ways. It was designed—you know that?—it was designed to suffer, to visibly hurt and suffer, to wring every last penny out of the hearts of gullible children. I think you know exactly what you’re doing.”

The story’s essence is in Paul’s relationship with the children. He has always kept his emotional distance, describing his primary responsibility as the maintenance of the machinery that keeps the kids alive. The author effectively shows the warming of his heart, nicely done without being cloying.

“Writer’s Block” by Nancy Kress

“It was a dark and stormy night, but it shouldn’t have been.” So Rob opens his story – or rather, several possible stories he can’t decide to write, or perhaps a single story in multiple genres “to, you know, get my feet wet.”

Truth was, he had had these four openings for six months, which was the last time he’d written anything. But now he was going to get moving again. He was! He had a secret weapon: a book titled Writing that Best Seller You Know You Have Somewhere inside You.

Unfortunately for Rob, art begins to become life, his life.

Obviously, a writer story. Like most such, this one is humorous, as the writer gets trapped in his block and has to try to write his way out. I don’t know the appeal of these things to readers who aren’t wannabe writers, if such exist.

“Mountain Screamers” by Doug C Souza

Which is to say, cougars. William’s grandmother is teaching him how a Relocator works, tranquillizing wild animals for transport to preserves. Once William has tranked the creature, he strokes its ears.

I pinched the velvet material, marveling at how delicate they felt. Grandma pulled her sIdekIck from its holster and ran it under the animal’s chest. The datapad brought up various specs across the main screen.

The animals are going to a sanctuary planet, a complete ecosystem established for wildlife, that Grandma has dedicated her life to. But she has plans of her own that aren’t on the official prospectus.

The details of the project, encountering the animals in the wild, are interesting. But the moral climate is too unsubtly black and white, with good and bad characters too easily identified as whoever bonds with or opposes Grandma. Here, as in many other stories, the villain is too clearly identified as an ass in every respect.

“Wet Fur” by Jeremiah Tolbert

Christina’s father apparently created the reapers, nanoclouds that, as the name implies, gather the souls of those about to die. But it was Christina who programmed them to search for dying dogs, to gather them into herself, because she didn’t want to let her own dog die. Now she’s a multitude, with a canine sensorium that can catch the odor of fear on people when they see the cloud hovering, wondering if it’s come for their own pet. People react to her with revulsion, particularly the dog owners, and travel in the confines of an aircraft is a torment.

You sniff and look at the cloud again. The nanites of the cloud flash and sparkle, catching bits of light as the plane banks and the setting sun shines through the windows. Then you see the couple whispering and gesturing your way across the aisle, their sneers, and you look away.

On this journey, however, she meets a man who actually understands.

A bit confusing, this one, because of the highly unlikely scenario. The interest is in observing the narrator’s canine perception of the world and other people, and the multiplicity she bears with her.

“The Low Hum of Her” by Sarah Pinsker

When Tania’s Bubbe died, her father made a golemish robotic substitute, which Tatania calls “it”, at first. But as they have to flee to American from a pogrom, she finds that this Bubbe is her remaining tie to home. “I whispered one of Bubbe’s songs under my breath, to show the memories they could come with us.”

A very short and heartwarming piece.



Analog, September 2014

Here, it’s a Lerner novella that’s featured, but alas, it proves to be part of a serial. I prefer several of the shorter pieces.

“Championship B’tok” by Edward M Lerner

Part of the author’s series in which an interstellar trading community has been established, although relationships among the members don’t always go smoothly. The member species include humans and Hunters, also known as Snakes. These species have previously been at war, and a rogue Hunter clan, Arblen Ems, now lives as a colony on the Uranian moon Ariel, under supervision of the human United Planets organization. Carl Rowland is the UP liaison, i.e. the supervisor, one of whose tasks is keeping advanced technology out of the hands of the Hunters. Their clan Foremost is Glithwah, whose current ostensible concern is a series of apparently inexplicable industrial accidents at Hunter facilities, but her long-range goals are far more ambitious, involving a secret military base. The entire situation reminds Carl of a game of b’tok.

For starters, b’tok was four-dimensional and could only be played virtually. The offensive and defensive capabilities of a b’tok game icon depended on its 3- D coordinates, the time spent at that location, and interactions with nearby pieces both friendly and rival. Also unlike chess, with its unchanging board of sixty-four squares, the b’tok domain of play evolved. It developed turn by turn, and the view differed by side. A player saw only as far as his pieces had explored.

Plenty of action-adventure here, with plots and spies and assassinations, as well as evidence of an overrace that has been directing the fates of all the UP species for millennia. But readers without a previous familiarity with the background events here will miss a lot of the impact of the current story, despite the heavy load of infodump, and the cliffhanger ending will also suffer, as well as lacking closure. I have to conclude that this piece is partial of a larger serialized work and doesn’t really stand independently.

“Plastic Thingy” by Mark Niemann-Ross

Roger is clerking at Hankins Hardware when the strange girl comes in asking for a plastic thingy, of which she doesn’t know the name, but it has to come in red. It’s pretty clear to readers, if not Roger, that Sara Ferrous is not of this time or place. It turns out that she’s part of the crew on a spaceship with a plantlike alien engineer who needs a spare part, and who considers humans too feebleminded to understand the mysterious ways of his craft.

Ficus explains (dances? mimes?) about how fluid enters the puck. When it leaves, it’s power—like electricity but different. Whatever flows through the puck changes state—fluid—power—fluid. This widget isn’t working because the fluid whatsit isn’t staying away from the power goo. They mix at the wrong time, and apparently mixed drinks don’t make spaceships fly right.

So Roger does his best to prove Ficus wrong about his species’ ingenuity.

Humor, featuring a displaced hippie who finds it bitchin’ to visit Earth again, where they have bubble gum and tater tots. Lighthearted and in fact ingenious.

“Release” by Jacob A Boyd

Military SF. The 2nd-person narrator [essentially, "I"], is a newly fledged fighter pilot as humans are facing a parasitic race called the Tivhari. The enemy’s biological imperatives make peace an impossibility. His pilot training involves a torturous procedure that implants a synaptic interface into the flyers’ arms. There is also, in his ship, an emergency button that creates a “zero bubble”, i.e. a stasis field. On his first mission, the fighter wing encounters a Tivhari seed fleet, and the battle is on, until the narrator comes face to face with an enemy pilot intent on ramming him. He pushes the button, trapping them both in the bubble.

The Tivhari’s mouth fingers part. Her cockpit glass fogs. She is screaming at you, a warning. If you do not release the bubble soon, best case scenario, when you do the atmosphere will tear at you. If you manage to remain intact and right yourself, you’ll have to dodge volcanic flares to escape. Your orbit won’t last four days. You are a good pilot, but if you wait it out, you will pay for your stubbornness with your life.

This one has the Right Stuff. Plenty of high-test action, a fascinating alien enemy. But the heart of the story is the way humanity has responded to the biological imperatives of this war by altering its own species, by making them in many ways no longer quite human.

–RECOMMENDED

“Vladimir Chong Chooses to Die” by Lavie Tidhar

A Central Station story. Vlad is afflicted by a hereditary curse of excessive memory, an error made by his father a long time ago and passed on to afflict all his descendants. He’s filled not only with his own memories but those of every member of his family, and the burden has become too much for him to bear.

He’d been sitting in his flat when it happened. A moment of clarity. It felt like emerging out of a cold bright sea. When he was submerged in the sea he could see each individual drop of water, and each one was a disconnected memory, and it was drowning him.

Happily, in this future, the right to end one’s own life is assured, even when members of his family try to talk him out of it.

An effective, affecting piece. There’s one beautiful moment when Vlad, who could remember everything about his late, beloved wife except, inexplicably, her name, recalls it at the last moment: Aliyah. Which, in Hebrew, means to ascend. Nice touch, given the means that Vlad has chosen to die. I can only wish that the author, once again, had not succumbed to the irritating compulsion to sprinkle the text with the names of characters from other stories in this series, whose appearance means little here, and particularly to readers unfamiliar with them.

“Artifice” by Naomi Kritzer

A future when most people don’t work and most tasks are performed by robots. When Mandy breaks up with her latest boyfriend, he took the housekeeping robot with him, so Mandy upgraded, to the consternation of her friend, our narrator Izzy.

“You couldn’t have gotten by with a standard housekeeping model and, oh, a really nice vibrator? Because I’m sure that would’ve been cheaper.”

But Mandy, tired of biological men, intends him as her replacement boyfriend; her companions are at first consternated when she not only brings Joe along to their game night but demands that he be included in the play. Which is annoying. At first.

A surprisingly moving piece. I only wish, here, that the author hadn’t felt the need to inform readers about details so basic to this society that anyone Izzy could be addressing would surely not need to be told, and which readers in ours could easily figure out on their own.

“Calm” by Marissa Lingen and Alec Austin

Humanity has recently been uplifted into the Unification, and now Marjan is a Counselor, assisting in the uplift of newer races, overseen by one of the officious and condescending Sophonts.

“The Unification seeks nothing more than to foster understanding and to help its member species overcome artifacts of their biological evolution, whether those are a tendency to startle and flee when exposed to subsonic vibrations, or a tendency to decide first and examine evidence later.”

Humans like Marjan and her fellow Counselors have Proctors implanted that register their stress hormones and nag them about irrational tendencies. The new aspirant species, however, is subject to occasional murderous rages, yet refuses the notion of a Proctor that would eliminate the tendency, to which they attach great value. It turns out to need another “supposedly semisapient race” to solve the problem.

There’s always humor in puncturing pomposity.



Clarkesworld, June 2014

Some unusual points of view.

“wHole” by Robert Reed

Particularly strange piece. The point of view here belongs to a car, its AI, in a world where passengers rarely do any driving. So the man’s behavior perplexes it.

A man sits up front, sits before a wheel that he holds with both hands while his foot presses against a pedal. It is a strange arrangement, hands and wheel, foot and pedal.

The old man talks and talks to himself as he drives, even if no one seems to be listening, although the front seat also holds a silent woman – large, passive, near comatose – and in the darkness of the back, perhaps a very large number of other unseen persons. Driving manually, the man takes the car off-road, off the grid, until it is really distressed, “lost, useless and pathetic and lost.”

The man and woman have brought the car with them, besides transportation, to be a witness. Upon arrival at an empty spot that seems to have meaning to him, the man begins to dig a hole while reciting the story of his life’s ambition, since a very young boy, to create a way for humanity to spread across the stars. Exploring and discarding one idea after the next, he created nanoworlds the size of dust motes, full of miniscule persons, whose mass could be transported vast interstellar distances with minimal energy cost. When his story is complete, the woman suddenly seems to come alive and tells of her own seconds-long existence on her dustmote of a world, working to solve the same problem of interstellar travel. In some way, the two managed to become collaborative colleagues.

It’s an unusual device, placing a car as an auditor on the scene in order to present information to readers. From the combined accounts of the man and woman, we can piece together what’s gone on, as the car does, although it’s incredulous. “Loudly, with stubborn joy, it says, “This is crazy. I’m dreaming, or I’m trapped in someone else’s dream.” But the car is more than a plot device, it’s the most fully developed character here, caught in a distressing situation, the only person present who didn’t volunteer for it.

–RECOMMENDED

“Pepe” by Tang Fei, translated by John Chu

Several generations ago, a madman created a large number of cyborg children, then drove them out into the world, compelled to tell stories, unable to speak in any other way. For some reason, people hated and feared the storytelling children, hunted them down to kill them. The boy narrator saved a girl named Pepe, thus making him responsible for her. They only survived because he stopped himself, and her, from telling stories, but the untold tales backed up in Pepe’s mind and turned her mad. He has by now, much later when they are perhaps the only survivors of their kind, come to hate her. Every time she opens her mouth, she endangers both of them. The narrator, on the other hand, has learned how to survive.

When they asked me questions, I was certainly telling them stories. I treated everything that happened as a story to tell. You see, survival was just that simple. None of this is the truth. All of this is a story. As long as you think this, you can recount events in the way humans speak because you’re telling a story. This isn’t anything unusual. Those who are like us are unusual. I, myself, am also a little unusual.

Survival and responsibility for others are the moral themes here, asking how much the narrator owes to his friend, just because he once saved her. But there’s also a heavy freight of symbolism regarding love. Each cyborg was made with a spring, slowly unwinding, unspooling its stories. Each spring has a key/heart, but the narrator can’t find his key and will soon wind down, lifeless, heartless.

Indeed, this is clearly a symbolic, not a realistic piece. We have no idea why the inventor created the storytelling cyborgs, why he then tried to destroy them. We have no idea why the people so strongly hated the idea of storytellers. We can suppose, although it’s not clear, that this is a society unable to tell its own stories, that perhaps they have never heard a story and don’t recognize what a story is. Perhaps the cyborg children were created to do it for them. But if so, it’s also unclear what meaning these stories – Pepe’s stories – have for them, as well as the more general question: why do human beings tell stories at all?

“Communion” by Mary Anne Mohanraj

Chaurin belongs to a saurian species that lives mostly underground on their own homeworld, but his brother Gaurav had moved to an interspecies world, where he was killed in a terrorist attack. Now Chaurin has come to return the remains home for the important ritual in which relatives and friends consume the flesh. He arrives resenting, even hating humans, whom he holds responsible for his brother’s loss, but instead he discovers Gaurav’s friendship with some of them, notably Amara and Narita, who make a very unusual request.

“Some believe that his knowledge will be passed down, and Gaurav has more knowledge of humans than most of my people. Many of my people have half given up already, have begun long tunnelings, planning to sleep through the next few decades, in the hopes that the battles will pass them by. But some do not wish to sleep; if we are to survive this war, we may need to know what Gaurav knew.”

A straightforward, warmhearted story of tolerance and acceptance – even love. Somewhere in this world there is bad will and malevolence, but we don’t meet in here in these characters.



Apex Magazine, June 2014

I like this issue quite well, all the stories.

“Cape to Cairo” by Eden Roberts

Alice is a tourist in Africa, traveling the road backwards, from Cairo to Cape Town, looking for something she can’t articulate. She is alone on her trek, lying to herself in her journal, not setting down her disappointment. She leaves, moves on, but has started to realize she is running out of continent. Then she overhears a group of younger foreign tourists talking about some experience as very profound, although inexplicably so. Cutting short her trip, she heads for Cape Town and the Time Bungee.

Despite that name, the experience has a very old vibe, reminding me a great deal of the ancient world’s oracles, especially the Delphic, who dwelt in the darkness of a cave. This wonder is also a woman, one with the ability to send people into the far future, to the end of the world – “the only new thing left to discover.” Alice’s resulting epiphany isn’t in the form of a prophecy or lesson learned, but a shift in attitude. At last, she has seen something that excites her, something she desires. Very neat touch of that in the ending, with its childlike joy.

“Soul of Soup Bones” by Crystal Lynn Hilbert

Necromancer-on-necromancer. Adrienne has used the centuries-old journals of necromancer Jacoben Stoyan in an attempt to bind him to her service and learn his accumulated secrets.

Adrienne found his bones; butcher-bare, pristine.

And still warm after five hundred years.

But once she has him home in her apartment, Jacoben won’t speak to her or respond at all to her questions; he will only, obsessively, frustratingly, cook.

I like this one. The tone is light, the situation is novel, the food is appetizing, the solution is fitting. I especially like the reference to Thor’s goats, who can be eaten then returned to life.

–RECOMMENDED

“The Salt Path” by Marissa Lingen

A small band of soldiers has deserted their war and are now looking, with no real plan, for a refuge. Among them, Ilahi is the outsider, the only one of them who has never killed. Along the coast, they come on a comfortable house where some provisions are stored, and a substantial dock is built. Inadvertently, Ilahi sets off a signal that calls the users of the house – the apparently-alien crew of a submersible. Inadvertently, when confronted by them, he kills one of the crew.

The author is deliberately uninformative about the setting. We have no real reason to believe any of these characters are human, and indeed some of the characters refer to the soldiers as having been “made”, without specifying what this might mean. The theme is one of belonging. Ilahi has never entirely belonged to this squad of soldiers. The submersible crew knows where they belong, and perhaps some of the soldiers might come to belong among them, but probably not; they are not the same kind, and most likely the most they could find would be refuge, not belonging. Ilahi, having killed one of them, doesn’t seem to have this option; we think he may be fated to belong to no one. As the story’s central figure, he is a sympathetic one, and it’s easy to feel his fear of isolation, losing whatever belonging he now has.

I have to say that these are very uncommon soldiers. History doesn’t lead us to expect that roaming bands of deserters in war are so likely to worry about messing the beds of the homes they occupy or paying for the food they eat. One might think that if these people are so socially evolved, why are they still fighting wars and killing?

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

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

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

Paul Di Filippo reviews Laline Paull

Everything old is new again. Or maybe that’s just the feeling one gets when one has been a reader of science fiction contiuously for the past fifty years, as I have. (First adult SF book encountered: Raymond Jones’s The Year When Stardust Fell in 1964.) Old themes, tropes, riffs and plots recirculate in endless cycles, accreting new bits and sophistications, but always revealing their essential lineaments through whatever new clothes they may don. Oh, sure, once in a blue moon some radical new conceit arises, such as the Singularity, and for a time the field is refreshed, before settling back to the familiar churn. But the essential recycling and retrofitting and reverse engineering continues generally unabated.

Now, this is not to say that there is no pleasure in the new avatars of old concepts, the reimaginings of what was once previously imagined, the fresh couture over old bones. That would be like saying that no newborn infant has any potential to amuse or enlighten, simply because there have already been born X billions of people on the planet. Yet just as every child is unique, so is every child also categorizable into broad predictible patterns of character and behavior. No shame there, just human combinatorial realities. The space of human behaviors is not infinite.

All of this preface by way of approaching Laline Paull’s debut novel, The Bees, which imagines a sentient insect society.

In 1951 appeared L. Sprague de Camp’s Rogue Queen, the groundbreaking story of humanoid aliens whose culture and patterns of behavior resembled those of terrestrial bees. A little over twenty years later, in 1973, Frank Herbert gave us Hellstrom’s Hive, about actual humans engineering themselves along similar lines. (I’m shamelessly omitting from this lineage 1959′s cinematic marvel, The Wasp Woman.) Till now, these two excellent books seemed to have the notion pretty well covered, almost precluding further genre investigation of the topic. But I doubt that Paull, with her non-genre background, has ever heard of these novels, and so she’s felt unburdened in her foray into the theme. Good for her!

Paull’s lateral masterstroke consists in this: instead of imagining humans as insects, she’s chosen to contemplate insects as humans. Set inside a typical bee hive, her book, in the taxonomy of The Encyclopedia of Fantasy, is an “Animal Fantasy,” a la Watership Down. “A pure AF is a tale which features sentient animals who almost certainly talk to one another and to other animal species, though not to humans, and who are described in terms which emphasize both their animal nature and the characteristic nature of the species to which they belong. A pure AF will almost certainly be set in the real world, and will usually teach its readers some natural history…”

After a short prologue where two humans stop to chat by a bee hive, we are dropped—invisible miniaturized observers as it were—into that hive, to witness the messy birth of Flora 717, destined by her genes to be a simple sanitation worker, but also possessing some variant attributes—size, strength, smarts—that seem to hint at a larger scope of existence. Ushered into the hive corridors by Sister Sage, one of the elite bees, Flora is given some anomalous nursery tasks for a while. But when she fails a certain test she is mindwiped and sent down to the sanitation corps. Exhibiting courage in battle against Wasps, she is for a short glorious time sent to attend the Queen Herself. Following this, she is allowed the rare privilege for her caste of becoming a Forager. All the while she nurses strange dreams, emotions and ambitions. (While Flora is unique and unusual, she is no destined savior or secret princess in her own right, but has a different, equally vital role to play; this lack of personal, self-aggrandizing High Destiny is refreshing.)

Paull’s accomplishments here are truly myriad and impressive. In no particular order, I would enumerate them thus.

She perfectly walks the line between alienness and humanity. Her bees are at once truly the creatures that they are, and yet also full of familiar human emotions and capabilities. One minute Flora will be on a blossom, unrolling her tongue and storing up pollen in anatomical fidelity to her nature. The next she will be “reading” the scent-stories that are the literary and mythic heritage of the hive and experiencing numinous aesthetic epiphanies. Such a blending of human and non-human attributes might appear parodic or silly in lesser hands, but Paull brings it off brilliantly.

Her prose is a marvel of precision and grace and poetry as well, and above all, sensual. “Her mouth was dry and the base of her tongue felt tight. She wanted a shining drop of water from the cool green groove of a leaf. She wanted the soft velvet slide of petals on her body…” The Falstaffian dialogue of the Drones is just perfect, and in fact the whole drama has a Shakespearean air about it, right down to the fate of the Queen. Paull’s descriptions of nature are vivid and Thoreauvian, or perhaps cousin to Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. Consider, for instance, the moment when Flora is caught outside in the rain, in Chapter Twenty-two. The narrative is intimately and intricately bound up in weather and the seasons.

What to compare this volume to? Besides joining the ranks of other great Animal Fantasies such as those of Richard Adams and Garry Kilworth, it summons up comparisons to Sylvia Townsend Warner’s Kingdoms of Elfin and Jeff Ford’s “The Annals of Eelin-Ok.” There’s a trace of Frank Herbert’s Bene Gesserit order in the lives of the bees, especially when it comes to literally sharing personality simulacra from bee to bee.

What I would not choose to compare it to is any dystopia, as does the reductionist and generally blinkered Publishers Weekly review. Dystopias depict evil, dysfunctional societies organized to benefit an elite and stomp down everyone else. There’s always something a bit arbitrary about dystopias, an artificiality not seen here. The term does not apply to societies that simply exhibit a more stringent and strict set of rules than the United States. Is Saudia Arabia a dystopia? Is Indonesia? I think not, unless we wish to devalue the term entirely. Nor is this the nature of the hive, which is a logical and functional adaptation to genetics and the environment. The bees function as evolution built them to function. No one is pampered, although some existences might seem easier than others. But is the captive egg-assembly-line Queen really privileged, or are the Drones who are subject to Maenad-like slaughter? Is an internal combustion engine a dystopia, because the pistons bear more pressure than the fan belt?

What the hive represents is nothing more nor less than the eternal background of rules and customs against which a strong-willed individual must timelessly rebel. Consider Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man to be the ultimate template.

What Laline Paull has accomplished here is multivalent: a rumination on nature; a portrait of the struggle between individual and the stifling matrix of society; and a depiction of how humanity might organize itself along different lines. I’d call it, in the end, science fiction at its best.

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.


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