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Paul Di Filippo reviews Nicole Kornher-Stace

Archivist Wasp, Nicole Kornher-Stace (Small Beer Press/Big Mouth House 978-1618730978, $14, 256pp, trade paperback) May 2015

I regret that I neglected to note the appearance of Nicole Kornher-Stace’s first novel, Desideria, upon its debut in 2008, shortly after her first story, “Pieces of Scheherazade,” had appeared in 2006 and garnered her inclusion in a Year’s Best compilation. Reading various reviews of Desideria now makes it sound like just my cuppa. But I won’t make the same mistake with her sophomore release, Archivist Wasp, and I can always work my way backwards along her career path! That’s why God invented Amazon and Barnes & Noble and AbeBooks.

The overarching category into which our tale falls is “postapocalypse,” a well-worked vein, especially during the 21st-century’s present cultural fix. But there are enough twists and turns to render the novel satisfyingly different. It bears honorable affinities to such classics as Fred Saberhagen’s Empire of the East series.

The small harsh settlement of Sweetwater, under the aegis of the goddess Catchkeep and her priest, is plagued by ghosts, “faceless silver paper-doll cutouts the size of mice.” But the ghosts are not harmless; they are capable of wreaking physical damage on property and persons. The villagers’ only defense against the ghosts is the young woman dubbed Archivist. With her ghost-trapping tools, including a unique blade, she can purge the spirits, rendering them truly dead. In the process, she is supposed to examine the ectoplasmic remnants for clues about the ancient collapse of civilization, some four hundred years or more gone.

Our heroine, the current Archivist, is named Wasp, and we witness her during the prologue barely surviving the ritual challenge to her duties. So she is in a grim, applecart-upsetting mood when a different kind of ghost approaches her. Man-sized and communicative—how strange!—the ghost wishes to “hire” Wasp to track down one of his dead peers. (For some odd reason perhaps peculiar to me, I kept flashing on Harlan Ellison’s time-stranded savior from “Demon with a Glass Hand” when the ghost spoke.) And so Wasp and companion leave Sweetwater behind for an odd hegira. Along the way, Wasp discovers the ability to mentally relive the pre-collapse life of Foster, the woman who is the ghost’s quarry. Thus the ancient quest to understand what brought down civilization is eventually fulfilled. And Wasp has a chance to change her village for the better.

Kornher-Stace exhibits immense fluidity and grace of prose. She is able to evoke the creepy, barren, stifled post-collapse world; the other-dimensional byways down which the ghost brings Wasp; and the pre-collapse Project Latchkey environment where Foster works, all in differing but equally vivid styles. The reader will feel the cold and damp, the scalpels and clamps, the fairytale ambiance of a ghostly “waystation,” with exactitude and weight.

Likewise, Kornher-Stace exhibits fine skills with characterization: Wasp and the ghost both emerge fully rounded. And her action scenes are cinematic.

But all these skills are, I fear, slightly impeded from full flowering by two choices the author made.

The first is that there is really no one in this book but two people. Wasp and the ghost.

The villagers get some cameo appearances at start and end. But once Wasp leaves Sweetwater with the ghost, there is literally no one else to sustain the action. This burden is something that can be brought off in Waiting for Godot or Neil Gaiman’s “‘The Truth Is a Cave in the Black Mountains…’.” But those are much shorter works. In any novel, we yearn for a bigger cast, to have our protagonist interact with as many people as the plot will allow.

But wait, you say, what about all that good stuff with Foster? Plenty of additional characters there, you rightly note.

Well, kinda. These are visions caused by ghost blood. These people are all dead. Wasp can only witness their unspooling traces. She can’t interact. And the undeniably fixed nature of their deeds, the immutable and helpless fate of Foster and crew, however deftly the Latchkey enigma is protracted before being revealed, distances the reader from full involvement with them.

These two factors—the limited cast and the dead hand of the past—have an effect of lessening the immersiveness and immediacy of the book—at least for me. While I applauded Wasp’s spunk and took interest in her challenges and how she might surmount them, I felt somewhat thwarted from getting fully invested in this world, due to limited exposure on all fronts.

If we look at John Crowley’s masterpiece, Engine Summer, a book with many of the same themes and tropes, I think readers might see what’s missing here.

Archivist Wasp arrives from Big Mouth House, the imprint of Kelly Link’s and Gavin Grant’s Small Beer Press that specializes in books for Young Adults, and this novel is so labeled. But its vast virtues and wise lessons hold full appeal for any age group, despite its brushes with a narrowness of scope.

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

Lois Tilton reviews Short Fiction, late June 2015

Looking at a miscellaneous bunch of ezines, not finding any real stars in them. Hoping to have the digests in for July.

Publications Reviewed

Beneath Ceaseless Skies #175-176, June 2015

#175 has women going forth on adventures; #176 has women with a destiny.


“On Freedom of Agency and the Finding of Lost Hearts” by Ken Scholes

Fantasy adventure in the old-fashioned mode, with thieves, demons, wizards, gods, and a quest for a powerful talisman. Shayna is a thief—there may be a Guild involved—who indentured herself to serve a demon. Her master has now dispatched her to steal an object unspecified from a cabin deep in the woods. This turns out to be the Heart of Elyon, a god of love, which is borne by the man who once ruled the world through its power.

Ansylus of Erok, Ansylus the Conqueror, Ansylus the Enslaver. It had taken half the League of Wizards to bring him down two thousand years ago. It had brought about the treaty with the demons and restored the Art to them.

But Shayna, it now transpires, is immune to its power. After which, things go strangely but ultimately well.

Reading it, I realize how seldom I see this sort of story these days, with all these elements gathered unironically. Only the title suggests otherwise.

“Grandmother-nai-Leylit’s Cloth of Winds” by Rose Lemberg

Aviya-nai-Bashri, our narrator, was born into the Khana people, whose lives are bound with copious restrictions and requirements, many involving sex roles. Segregation is the rule, so that men live as scholars in their own separate compounds while women in adulthood form partnerships to go outside and trade, leaving behind their children and grandmothers to raise them. Aviya’s mothers have decamped, which is apparently not common, but the main problem lies with her younger brother Kimi, who appears to have some form of autism and doesn’t speak; the men will not accept him into their scholarly company, so that his auspicious male name is taken from him and he is given a girl’s.

Now this is an intricate social setting, but by this point in the text readers will have realized that its function is to allow the author to mess with the effects that a society’s sex roles can have on individual identity. In short, this is identity fiction, and the setting is there to serve the author’s message, as are the characters, each inhabiting a particular role as if wearing a mask. So that grandmother-nai-Tommah wants to be a man, while Kimi is a symbol of ambiguity, a prop for an argument against binary identity that comes right out of today’s twitter posts.

“I don’t think your grandchild knows—cares—what tai is.” Naïr used a pronoun common to many desert languages—tai, taim, tair in Surun’—that indicated ‘neither he nor she’. The Khana language lacked such a word, both in the speech the scholars used and in women’s talk. In Khana, a person was either she or he. In Khana, all the words were either she or he—carpets, carts, grains of sand, stars in the sky each had their chosen form, female or male. There was no escaping this, but the desert tongues lacked such a distinction. One could be anything. In Surun’.

This society, while well detailed, seems to be created primarily for thematic purposes and not to be realistic, which is where the story is weakest, when all men and women are constrained to follow a single line of work; this isn’t a practical way of running an economy nor a society. The notion of men as scholars evokes a kind of yeshiva world, but in fact the men are useful–tinkerers who create the goods that the women traders go forth to sell. But I can’t see why a boy needs to be verbal to be able to do this kind of work. I also wonder where Aviya’s family gets the money to survive, since the mother/traders appear to have deserted them. In our world, journeys such as they undertake have always been hazardous business, with the trade routes infested with bandits. Yet two or three women, unarmed, blithely venture forth to cross a bone-strewn desert in full confidence of being able to return safely with riches. Magic can’t be counted on to protect them, as magic is ubiquitous in this world, as likely to be wielded by evildoers as the innocent. This system just hasn’t been thought through. Nor has the notion of trading associations staffed by lovers. As Aviya and her partner discover, compatibility in love doesn’t necessarily mean compatibility in business.

Happily, the story isn’t intolerably didactic, and there are sufficient elements interesting in their own right and not simply message vehicles. And the narrator has a name—indeed, names are a matter of profound importance in these societies, both family names and deepnames, which designate an individual’s command of magic. Aviya’s magic is near-nonexistent and she takes no deepnames, but grandmother-nai-Tommah is a “three-name strong”, capable of safely crossing the desert alone. Kimi, too, has potent magic, which the rigid rules governing Khana society would have left undeveloped. As The Animals would say, they gotta get outa that place in order to realize their individual potential. The author doesn’t mention this, but the system also inhibits the freedom of men and women who might want to live together and even become lovers.

Definitely the best aspect of this piece is related to the cloth woven of winds, symbol of the family’s tragic past that Aviya slowly uncovers. Venturing forth into other lands with other customs, the women encounter exotic wonders, peoples who can weave the air and songs, peoples with different gods. Here is where the magic comes alive.


“The Girl with Golden Hair” by Bonnie Jo Stufflebeam

A variation on familiar fairytale tropes which the author has turned to dross for story purposes. A girl is born with golden hair, but it’s hard and heavy and apparently can’t be sold or spent. Her poor parents believe good things will come of this, but it doesn’t seem likely, especially as they name her Oovis. In fact, her golden hair provokes the jealousy of the Evil Stepqueen.

Readers will flash on one recognizable image after another, but not much seems to come of it, other than a lesson against the destiny of birth so common in the familiar tales.

“Court Bindings” by Karalynn Lee

This daughter is a princess who has a powerful magical gift of binding animals to do her will. “You do not mean to be cruel to all the animals you practice upon, but you are.” The narrator who says this is her bodyguard, who doesn’t like the idea of the unwanted attention this skill might draw in the court, where assassination plots are rife and the queen is unpopular. The princess soon learns how to use her gift on people, until the time comes when she must confront her destiny.

A nicely mannered courtly piece with a fitting twist at the end. The story might involve destiny, but its real theme is power., June 2015

Not much original independent fiction posted here this month.

“Waters of Versailles” by Kelly Robson

One of the main archetypes of the fairy tale is the discharged soldier seeking his fortune. Our soldier, Sylvain de Guilherand, is an officer, not a commoner, in fact, a distant relation of minor nobility, which is sufficient to gain him entrée into the halls of Louis XV’s Versailles. There he’s made a mark for himself by improving the plumbing, restoring the fountains and introducing the luxury of the flush toilet. While Sylvain has done a lot of actual engineering work, constructing cisterns and a network of pipes, the heart of the project is the secret presence of a nixie he’s captured and introduced into the waterworks of the palace. But the nixie is temperamental, jealous, and makes constant demands for attention.

A drip splashed on the back of his neck, and another a few moments later. He had Annette abandoned now, making little animal noises in the back of her throat as he drove into her. Another drip rolled off his wig, down his cheek, over his nose. He glanced overhead and a battery of drips hit his cheek, each bigger than the last.

While this piece doesn’t have the form of a fairy tale, it engages the same themes and, as contemporary of the tales often do, subverts them. So Sylvain discovers that making his fortune at court and seducing ladies-in-waiting isn’t the path to true happiness. What I find missing here is the story of his earlier life, his decision to take this step, and how he figured out about the nixie. Without this, the story isn’t quite complete.

“The Deepest Rift” by Ruthanna Emrys

An interstellar setting called the inhabited worlds, which apparently means inhabited by both humans and nonhumans. Titan’s Rift is the deepest canyon in all these worlds, and in it live flying creatures called mantas. The narrator and her team of sapiologists [love that word] are attempting to prove there is significance in the patterns they form, weaving sculptures of thin wire filaments like spider silk that the observers believe are evidence of sapience. Unfortunately, the evidence they’ve gathered so far isn’t conclusive. Now an AI proctor has come to assess their progress.

A disappointingly predictable piece that slights a promising SFnal premise, being more concerned with the narrator’s personal matters than the science. The members of the research team are all lovers, and it’s clear that remaining together is at least as important to them as their research. And the narrator is deaf, seeing bias against her in the attitudes of others.

I want to point out that for all her advantages, she works without touch, kinesthesia, all the subtle senses that aid human reason. And yet she judges me deficient. But it’s the wrong argument, and I hold my fingers and tongue still.

From the first page, it’s already clear what will happen: the team will discover the evidence it needs; the discovery will be made possible through the narrator’s enhanced non-hearing senses; the team won’t have to break up; no one will have to make any hard choices; things will work out just fine.

GigaNotoSaurus, June 2015

It’s been some time since I looked at this ezine, established to provide a home for longer fiction, though I hadn’t noticed a lot of particularly long fiction here.

“The Business of Buying and Selling” by Patricia Russo

Ria lives in a world where anything whatsoever can be sold in the underground market, including a toothache [good for curses]. But the lease on her toothache has expired, so she has it back again, and the young couple down the hall has a baby that just won’t stop screaming.

If that baby didn’t stop crying, she was going to lose her mind. Her tooth was throbbing anyway, but the high-pitched bawling made her clench her jaw, and the ouch! of that sent a bolt of bright blue pain straight through her head.

This, eventually, gives Ria an idea. Unfortunately, it doesn’t work out as planned.

The key to this one is being able to accept the fantastic premise. The problem is that it’s both too long and too short. Too long, in that Ria’s situation is described at rather excessive length, making for tedium. Too short, in that the ending cuts off too abruptly, leaving readers wondering, “Then what?”

Perihelion, June 2015

Also taking another look at this monthly SF zine, looking for Hard Stuff. There are eight full-length stories, along with other features. Most of these pieces aren’t really ready for the professional level, which is perhaps to be expected. But I would have liked to see more attempts, at least, at real Hard SF. The ones that did make such attempts tend to be the better stories, too.

“Au Pair, or Else” by Lee Budar Danoff

Angela is in a bind. Her large brood of kids, including triplets, is notorious on the au pair network, and she can’t get back to her job at Sea World without childcare. But an alien from Tau Ceti? The State Department puts it to her in a way she can’t refuse. “You get help with your kids, we get our ambassador, she gets to swim with Earth’s sea creatures, and your program gets funding. It’s a quadruple win.” This, of course, is less than the truth. In fact, not only can Angela not leave Coral alone with the kids, she can’t leave her alone at all. Her babysitter needs a babysitter.

This is a silly premise. If aliens want to commune with Earth’s sea creatures, there’s no need to set them up in a human residence as a disguised nanny. And as SF, it’s quite soft.

“Frail World” by R A Conine

Karl is a middle-aged physicist who was foolish enough to marry a gold-digging harpy who isn’t above murdering an inconvenient husband or two. Fortunately, she rarely follows him down to the dark basement lab where he’s attempting to create a Planck universe, but desperation for divorce finally overcomes her distaste.

The reference to Planck theory is momentarily promising, but here it’s mostly handwavium. The portrayal of the wife goes way too far into the ridiculous, and the horror ending is just hokey.

“Electra Had a Daughter” by Juliana Rew

Post apocalypse. Most of humanity is dead, and most of the remainder is feral, outside the guarded enclaves.

The humans in New Telluride were liberal as hell, but out in the hinterland, the Dark Ages were back. Those who still believed in God had the idea that they had to die purely human before they could go to heaven when God called the worthy on doomsday.

The cyborgs are in a position to inherit the Earth, such as it is, but instead they are working to clone humans from a bank of stored germ plasm, albeit with improvements and enhancements.

The overall situation here is sketchy, with the usual clichéd post-apocalyptic demonic nutcases populating the landscape, while cyborgs are the new generation of angels. At least the cloning project seems scientifically plausible.

“This Long Vigil” by Rhett C Bruno

We’re on the Interstellar Ark Hermes, a generation ship run by an AI, in this case named Dan. Orion is the only human currently awake as a monitor to assist the AI. The other nine hundred and ninety-nine inhabitants are hibernating in stasis chambers. Their number never fluctuates; when one is recycled at age seventy, a replacement is birthed. Orion, approaching his fiftieth birthday, will soon return to his chamber after selecting his replacement. But Orion is discontented.

I wanted to grasp her smooth hands and welcome her to the realm of the living; to feel the pulse of her veins beneath her skin—real human contact. Sometimes I’d watch as her chest gently heaved from the air she unconsciously breathed in through her respirator, and that was often enough to get my heart racing.

Orion finds himself wanting many things, but not to return to hibernation and await his death.

Here at least is a Hard SF concept and a somewhat different take on the generation ship—unfortunately, not entirely in a good way. The core problem is the assumption that the passengers should represent a normal distribution of ages, which is why frozen embryos weren’t packed to be thawed at the end of the trip. But this is false reasoning. If the capability exists, embryos could have been thawed in stages when the destination was reached. And if the ability to do this exists, there would be no need to impregnate an unconscious woman, which is really appalling. So I feel strongly for Orion in his position and deplore the waste of lives, but it’s a position he should never have been in, a position artificially contrived by the author.

There are other problems: The term “stasis” is misused. In a true stasis, all organic function including growing and aging would be suspended indefinitely. Here, the unconscious passengers seem to have a normally active metabolism, and that takes the resources of oxygen and nutrition that the project claims it doesn’t have to support a living population. Even in hibernation, however, I suspect that the aging process would be considerably slowed so that seventy years wouldn’t be the natural limit of life. The monitor alone would age, while the sleeping passengers would occupy the quasi-stasis of an artificially extended lifespan. So I don’t think the author has thought this situation quite all the way through.

“Old Clothes” by Eric Del Carlo

The title sort of says it all: humanity has cast off its terrestrial raiment and gone into space, leaving its discarded garments behind. They carry on as well as they can, picking up the lives of their Wearers [sic]. But matters can’t go on in that way forever. Our narrator, who uses the name Yamagata, muses, “Perhaps we simply were not meant to exist without our Wearers.” An overly obvious truth.

The concept is a kind of neat metaphorical twist on the classic Left Behind trope, but it makes insufficient sense as science fiction, as opposed to, say, sentient pets or household robots.

“Good Behavior” by Genevieve Williams

As in, imprisonment. Convicts in this scenario are dispersed among ordinary residential dwellings, with special security arrangements.

There’s always that moment of wondering whether I’ll get to go out today. They could tell you when you wake up. But no. They’ll let you wonder, and hope, and even expect. Then the buzzer will sound and the red light will come on, and you’ll find out there’s a security breach or some con made a run for it or you’ve committed some infraction they didn’t tell you about until just now. Lockdown.

Their sentence is menial labor, cleaning the Street, though not many people actually use the Street. Demetrios is doing pretty well earning good time until he’s accosted by a more effective criminal than he used to be, looking for information that only he can provide.

Here, finally, is a story that works, sufficiently original for interest. I can’t say that I totally buy the non-prison prison system, but it works well enough as conceived here, and it probably saves money. The system works because of advanced technology, the all-seeing ambient, which a much larger overall role in this society; crimjuice is only one aspect. And the piece is quite SF enough to satisfy. The best one here.

“Saving Time” by John Hegenberger

The downside of time travel. Sam got this idea for a time machine and built it to try out the theory.

This fourth dimension is the instant of time when the mind travels freely from one view to the other. Time, then, is an invisible “optical illusion.” The more complex the illusions, the more the mind is conditioned to travel uninhibited—almost in anticipation—directly forward.

But he was reckless, and the thing went wrong; he aged fifty years in a minute, leaving him with nothing but bitter regret and a wife who seems rather too good for him . We know this from the first paragraph, which is where the story starts, and from which it has nowhere in particular to go but over the backstory and over again. Also into the relationship between Sam and his wife. A decently SFnal treatment of this subject, but not the best fiction.

“World Away” by Alan Garth

Another generation ship, this one with teenagers running freely over the place, which makes the Bruno scenario almost seem preferable in comparison. But this time, it’s not Tenni’s fault, it’s the tech who sends her out to the hull with empty thrust packs on her eevee suit. Also her frenemy Freemon, supposed to be her partner on this EVA. A nice enough, though slight, space story that doesn’t quite reach the level of adventure. Tenni seems competent enough but she isn’t given the opportunity to save herself. I just don’t believe in that tech guy.

Aphelion, 196 June 2015

I couldn’t resist the idea of taking a look at this one after the similarly titled Perihelion. But despite the spacey title and space-themed cover image, the zine takes a broad approach to the genre, including fantasy and horror. I like that it’s open to longer works, I don’t like that they’re serialized; there is one serial in this issue. I read the five full-sized short stories, rather better written and more incompetently copyedited.

“Groundhog Days” by George T Philibin

A virus makes all the animals intelligent, which is one thing, but giving them a government subsidy is just silly. Feasters the groundhog decides to go see the world, and he doesn’t much like what he finds, which is that intelligence and government checks don’t make for happiness. The rat, at least, has a useful job, but all the groundhog does is scarf down free food, which means that intelligence hasn’t changed that species much. In the not-thinking-things-through department, we have carnivores eating steaks when all animals have the legal right to life. Nope, silly. Readers who think groundhogs are cute might find this appealing in a way, but I’m a gardener and I know better.

“Mr Bramble and Mr Thornapple Redecorate” by Jill Hand

When her house disappears into a sinkhole, Donna buys the only replacement she can afford, which is kind of a dump but all hers, including a parcel of woods. While hunting one day for her escaped cat, Evil George, she encounters what readers will recognize as a couple of fairies in knee-breeches, who offer her a boon in exchange for their trespassing. This will probably remind readers of a certain fairy tale. Amusingly done.

“Finding the Ice Sculptor’s Castle” by Sean Mulroy

Told in late tsarist Russia by a narrator who had appreciated the works of the master ice sculptor in St Petersburg when a young man. But Mikhail Cherevin was never completely satisfied with his work, as even in Russia his palaces had melted under the summer sun. He disappeared after his last successful season, and wasn’t seen again in Russia for nineteen years, when the narrator recognized him, grown old, and learned his story.

An oddly-done piece, essentially historical fiction.

“Until We Part” by Rajeev Prasad

Mack is chief of security for a large bioengineerng corporation that engages in morally dubious projects attractive to criminals and vulnerable to corporate rivals. “Corporate expects me to get the job done, but whenever they come around, they make things difficult.” But now someone in corporate is trying to dispose of Mack’s lover Yuki, and he’s not going to let that happen, no matter what, even after he learns her secret.

SF action thriller, competently done, but a lot of stuff is left to be explained until late in the action.

“A Life of Simplicity” by Emerson Fortier

The narrator is a refugee from the war immolating his world, destroying his home and killing the rest of his family, a reminder that a disproportionate number of war casualties are civilians, children.

I’ve watched men lined up for holding to some ideal, watched other men come down the line with a laser rifle and watched the heads evaporate from the beam of energy before their bodies were kicked into the stream. Dozens of them killed by men who were filled with rhetoric. Arguments are simpler with a gun, less difficult to understand, less complicated to contend with.

SF for the advanced technology and extraterrestrial setting, but otherwise what we can see here on Earth today.

Fireside, June 2015

This one is subheaded “many genres . . . just good stories”, which is great if you can pull it off. There are only two full-length shorts, plus a serial and other content.

“If Wishes Were Obfuscation Codes” by Malon Edwards

The narrative here is pretty well obfuscated by language, cyberpunkish jargon mixed with the Haitian Creole that the author has employed in other settings, and a lot of brand names for the status factor. This must be considered a feature, not a bug, a tool for creating the cyber-exoticism of this future setting but it can make for a thorny reading experience.

My plan had been to go into Yumi Kobayashi’s nexus with guns blazing, true Doré style: Custom-made hot-pink AMT Hardballer Longslides. Glammed-up silver-dyed kink curls. Golden brown skin oiled to a light sheen. Sleek dark sunglasses. Black leather halter, black leather pants, black leather calf boots. Bad attitude.

So starting out, this sounds like a lot of fun. Our narrator is actually supposed to be on the side of the Law Guild, a forensic detective no less, not that you’d know it. She claims to be an infiltration programme, which seems to mean that she’s running one in the nexus, and is, like everyone else in this milieu, enhanced and cyborged, unless they are wholly artificial like holograms and murderous gynoids like Yumi Kobayashi, the target of her raid. She calls dj gruv grrl an obfuscation programme, and she’s a lot more than just a dj. Doré is supposed to be targeting Yumi Kobayashi on a murder charge, but she’s totally distracted by dj gruv grrl, which is either dereliction of duty or cyberattack, or undoubtedly both. And things then get even more complex.

All this glitz could be construed as just seksi cyber-thriller adventure, but it’s not, as we discover by the end. It’s bad shit, it’s betrayal, it’s cold-blooded murder, it’s outright evil—nothing to have fun about. Which gives the ending a very bad taste in the mouth.

“Fluffy Harbinger of Death” by Alex Hughes

Myss is a harpy, for some definition of harpy with no relation to the original creature of myth, and that’s something I don’t like. Harpies don’t sing; sirens sing. Harpies torment people and shit on their food, they don’t escort them to heaven. They don’t belong noway nohow in the Christianized heaven Upstairs, rather, if anything, the other place. So it makes me irritable, and the story with a feelgood moralistic ending brings nothing to alleviate this.

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

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 Terry Pratchett & Stephen Baxter

The Long Utopia, Terry Pratchett & Stephen Baxter (Harper 978-0062297334, $26.99, 368pp, hardcover) June 2015

I inadvertently drifted away from this splendid series, a collaboration between Hard-SF guy Baxter and Funny Fantasist Pratchett, after the second volume, strictly from the usual cause of “not having enough damn time to read everything.” The appearance of the fourth installment happily gives me reason to catch up.

For those interested in what I thought of volumes one and two, my piece is archived at The Barnes & Noble Review, an online venue which dispenses brilliant criticism daily, for free, and with which I am most proud to be associated.

The Long Mars is book three in the series, and it unrelentingly and thrillingly continues the radical destabilization of Life As People Know It in the 2040s.

Datum Earth—our origin world in the multiverse, where the cross-dimensional Stepper device was discovered—has just experienced a cataclysm (the long-predicted explosion of the Yellowstone volcano) that renders much of the planet uninhabitable. Survivors and refugees are being shuttled to alternate colony Earths, which are strained under the influx. At the same time, a mutant race of sociopathic genius humans, the Next, has been born and is making plans to take over the multiverse from their locale at Happy Landings. (If any reader is flashing on Asimov’s Mule, times many, I think your intuition is correct.)

The Aegis—the loose confederation that seeks to coordinate the human diaspora—has mounted an expedition to set a new record of Stepper travel and exploration, and the dual-dirigible mission will, after many adventures, eventually reach a continuum some 250,000,000 universes removed from Datum Earth, then make a safe return with much knowledge.

A vastly smaller expedition elsewhere provides the rationale for the book’s title: three explorers have voyaged to Mars by conventional means and begun Stepping across the timestreams from that locale, surveying alternate versions of the Red Planet, until finally they reach one that boasts an ancient space elevator, their Grail, which will give humanity the same technology to reach space more easily.

If that sounds like a lot to cram into one book—a book not even particularly large in this age of 800-page hypertrophied tomes—your feelings are once again correct. Pratchett and Baxter are writing in “info-dense” mode that seeks to overwhelm and inspire wonder with sheer plentitude.

They certainly do not switch horses in The Long Utopia, volume four, a book with a slightly inappropriate title insofar as it depicts no conclusive settled state of perfection. But despite its similar generous overstuffed condition, the book nonetheless has a bit of a different feel, insofar as its venues are more compact, less spread-out: no journeys across millions of continua. But this does not preclude cosmic visions. As to whether this book concludes the series or not, especially in light of Pratchett’s death, the evidence is non-determining.

Throughout the series one of the main foci has been the exploits of that pioneering pair of “natural” Steppers (they do it sans machinery), Joshua Valienté and Sally Linsay. Their prickly friendship has been a dominant chord, and its sees its melancholy closure here, through developments I shall not reveal. It’s a truly affecting piece of the book. And in another aspect of character development, we get some Victorian backstory to Joshua’s powers (readers might think of Heinlein’s Lazarus Long at this juncture), and some more ruminations on Sally’s role as “the conscience of the Long Earth.”

Other threads picked up from prior installments include the ultimate fate of Lobsang, the guiding artificial intelligence who houses himself in various humanoid avatars. You might recall that one of those avatars was left talking to First Person Singular, another deific type. Get ready for that avatar to resurface. We also learn more about the Next mutants and their hidden home, the Grange.

The new developments in this book, which has moved ahead to the 2050s, concern the discovery of a race of self-replicating assemblers and disassemblers and the threat they pose to the entire Long Earth “necklace” of universes. Baxter and Pratchett rousingly approach Greg Bear territory here.

This series has shown a rare desire not to replicate familiar thrills from one volume to another, but rather to always be moving into new frontiers of plot and future history, a strategy congruent with the very nature of their SF novum. This volume, more than the previous three, really drives home the weight of the changes, the resonance for the characters of all their shared weird history, and so perhaps ultimately does justify its Grail-assonant title.

The Outward Urge is the title of one of John Wyndham’s lesser-known novels, and I always felt that the phrase captured one of the core qualities of science fiction. “Beyond this horizon.” “The lights in the sky are stars.” “The day after tomorrow.” “The door into summer.” “Ten thousand lightyears from home.” All of these other coinages express the innate human desire to see what’s up the bend and over the next mountain. It’s a trademark SF theme.

Baxter and Pratchett have found and reified the perfect objective correlative to this overwhelming and undying desire, providing readers with a new model for the same valuable and life-affirming vision of infinite frontiers that has motivated both the genre literature and the reality of the human condition since the first hominid contemplated leaving the hearth for parts unknown.

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 2015

This time I feature the latest “Destroy” special issue from Lightspeed, from which I give the increasingly rare Good Story award to Chaz Brenchley. Also the June stories from Strange Horizons, from which I like the Evanby.

Publications Reviewed

Lightspeed, June 2015

Special “Queers Destroy Science Fiction!” issue, the latest but not last of the “Destroy” series, this one with Seanan McGuire heading up the large editorial cast. I’ve not been exceedingly excited by the previous entries in this list, and I was a bit disappointed here to miss the names of some of my favorite authors on the ToC, although I wasn’t really expecting to find them. I did expect to see rather more identifiable men, authoring only four out of the eleven full-length stories. Given that women, including queer women, had the starring role in all the previous issues of the series, readers might have had good reason to expect, finally, more male contributors. [I know they’re out there.]

But my main concern with this issue is a different matter. When the submission guidelines first appeared, they made it clear that contributors would be selected on the basis of the queer identity of the author, not the subject matter of the story. Readers might have assumed that the quality of the story would have entered into this equation. Several of the stories here are good ones, obviously by competent professional authors. Some are quite good, and I single out the Brenchley. But there is a sharp, obvious contrast between these and the rest, which don’t rise anywhere close to the same standards. I can’t imagine what the fiction editor was thinking, except perhaps that any story by a queer author would be good enough for this issue.

And this points to a fundamental flaw in projects like this series: they are author-driven. The assumption seems to be: let’s have a publication where we can all place our stories. This can shortchange the reader who doesn’t care so much about who the authors are but wants to find some good reading. Too many of the stories here suggest that the editor prioritized the interests of the authors over the readers, and I don’t think that’s what publication is supposed to be about.

“勢孤取和 (Influence Isolated, Make Peace)” by John Chu

Military, or rather postwar SF. In the course of the late war, the military created cyborg supersoldiers, who aren’t considered human, even if they once were. Now the peace treaty mandates that they be decommissioned, which means eliminated. The cyborgs have other plans, but to succeed, they have to be able to fit into human society without arousing suspicion. To test himself, Jake sits down at a cafeteria table with a human soldier and engages him in conversation.

Jake discarded the sarcastic remark that headed his list of conversational alternatives. Snarking with every response was a decades-old gambit that anyone on base would recognize. Cyborgs soared through the Turing Test–they still had some human brain function, after all—but composing words was just a sliver of what he needed to do. He couldn’t merely pass for human; no one could be allowed to suspect he wasn’t.

His target turns out to be named Tyler, and he turns out to have a lot in common with Jake—they are both expert at the game of Go, they both originated in a part of China, and there is a hint of mutual attraction. But Tyler is something else, which forces a drastic change in the cyborgs’ escape plans.

The basic premise is one we’ve seen before, but Chu works it up well, giving us a good idea of what the cyborgs are without showing them in military action or suggesting that they’ve been permanently harmed by it; they apparently have advanced healing abilities, and perhaps that extends to the psyche, as well. A strong and promising opening to the issue.

“Emergency Repair” by Kate Galey

Following the instructions:

2. Drain and flush the ferrofluid circulation system.

Along the clavicular ridge, I find the port to the circulation. Every system in my original design corresponds to human anatomy, a complex advertisement of the medical applications the technology could have. It’s designed to be drained, and even with my improvised IV drip system the silver ferrofluid rushes out when the pressure is released.

It was the narrator who invented the androids and wrote the instructions for repairing them. The narrator is one half of a couple: the mad scientist, not the hero surgeon who now lies dying while the scientist works desperately to save the human life by transplanting the android core into the surgeon’s heart, using the techniques of both professions. It’s a neat military SF idea, but unfortunately overloaded with backstory, too much of which focuses mawkishly on the romantic relationship between the couple, who, after all, we haven’t really met.

“Trickier with Each Translation” by Bonnie Jo Stufflebeam

Rosalinda warns us:

It is difficult to tell a story out of time just as it is difficult to live out of time. I try to keep hold of the present, but it’s trickier with each translation to know the present, to remember if a scene is new or old. And in a way each moment is new because I look on it with new eyes.

This is a world with superheroes. One of these, a man named Archer, has the ability to control time, and also apparently to read minds. Archer falls in love with Rosa, who is in love and married to Logan. To keep her from Logan, he keeps yanking her back and forth in time, often to the years when she was in love with a woman named Webber. But there is no time that she loves Archer.

Basically a relationship story, not a lot going on with the time travel aspect. In fact, I would call the piece fantasy. None of the characters ever develop real personalities.

“The Astrakhan, the Homburg, and the Red, Red Coal” by Chaz Brenchley

Martian steampunk. Let’s assume that the British Empire, before it was quite an empire, colonized Mars and subsequently employed it as a penal colony, rather on the lines of Australia in our own timeline, although apparently less brutal. Our narrator and his companions have been exiled there for the crime of sexual deviancy, or, as he says, “so many names for our kind–leering, contemptuous, descriptive, dismissive . . .” There is a newcomer among them, a famous individual that readers will certainly recognize, despite a bit of coyness on the part of the author concerning his name. But their gathering is interrupted by an officious official who wants to draft them into an experiment, communicating with a telepathic alien species also residing on Mars. His rationale:

“Our wise men speak of the, ah, inversion of the generative principle, as a bonding-agent stronger than blood or shared danger or duty or sworn word–but again, there is more than that. You gentlemen may be a brotherhood, drawn from within and pressed close from without; we can make you something greater, a single purpose formed from all your parts.”

Fine writing, excellent use of character in this imaginative story—the sort that can make an entire issue worthwhile on its own. The pompous-ass officer, the casual class snobbery, with the assumption that the enlisted men are drawn from a different order of humanity—all ring with an authentic tone. The milieu, the time and culture of the setting calls for a different sort of prose, but not every writer can recreate it well. Readers with contemporary sensibilities may feel uneasy at the narrator’s description of the tavern potboy as collective bedwarmer to the group [What do you mean “boy”? Pedophilia!] but Brenchley knows that no one of the age would blink at the connection. Even more, there is the clear assumption among the group that the poet will speak for them all—and the poet certainly does so. Oh, and the powerful concluding image. A whole lot to like here, and I plan to look forward to more from this author.


“The Tip of the Tongue” by Felicia Davin

Here’s a really hoary dystopian premise right out of 1950s fanzines, when They come and take away all the books and printed matter, expunging the ability to read from the people’s brains, for good measure.

It was for the greater glory of the city and the people, they said. Text couldn’t be trusted. This way, we have all been purified, they said. We have all returned to our natural state. Now we can truly build the society we have always dreamed of, they said. Good will reign, they said.

The reader wonders: Satire? Alas, no such luck. The author is unfortunately serious with this effort. Alice tries to remember how to read and ends up kissing the pretty librarian. There is nothing, of course, to suggest how a society could actually function under these conditions, and the excuse for it makes no sense whatsoever. But worse, I can’t help being reminded of the fate of Cambodia under Pol Pot, when literacy was forbidden and the urban population was displaced to forced labor on the farms. I don’t know if the author actually meant this comparison, and there are no actual scenes of torture and genocide, but the association is enough to make me quite uncomfortable. Some things should be beyond trivialization.

“How to Remember to Forget to Remember the Old War” by Rose Lemberg

More postwar SF. The narrator is a damaged ex-soldier who seems to have once been minimally cyborged, but the military implants have been removed and the human remnant cast ashore. The narrator has flashbacks and breaks things, and manages to keep it all under control in the times and places where this matters.

I wish they’d done a clean job, taken all my memories away so I could start fresh. I wish they’d taken nothing, left my head to rot. I wish they’d shot me. Wish I’d shoot myself and have no idea why I don’t, what compels me to continue in the conference rooms and in the overly pleasant office and in my now fashionably gray house. Joy or pleasure are words I cannot visualize. But I do want — something. Something.

Or someone. Someone who shares what the narrator can’t remember to forget.

This one makes an interesting contrast with the Chu story above, so that readers might well wonder which is more humane—to euthanize the no longer wanted military cyborgs or discard them to live with their pain. Here, the narrator and other damaged war veterans are fully human, which is what makes them so different from those around them, who haven’t been where they have been, or seen and done what they have seen and done. We can recognize them in this effective work.

“Plant Children” by Jessica Yang

So Qiyan is a sort of slacker who’s put off her senior thesis in plant engineering until almost too late, so she decides to create sentient plants, and does, just like that! Although the story doesn’t say how or give the slightest indication how this might be possible. In the end, of course, she learns a lesson about love. This certainly isn’t science fiction, and I can find no sense, originality, or merit in it.

[For readers who wonder, as I did at first, this author is not J Y Yang, who also appears in this issue, in the flash fiction section.]

“Nothing is Pixels Here” by K M Szpara

Ash and Zane, lovers, have lived most of their lives, decades, in the SimGrid, while their physical bodies lie on medical beds somewhere. But Ash starts to want more, to know Zane in physical reality, to live actual lives together. At the same time, he’s nervous because he only knows Zane’s avatar, based on Zane’s mental image of himself; what if the physical reality is less attractive?

This is another completely ridiculous premise, beginning with the idea that abused five-year-olds would be allowed to sign such a contract, signing away their entire lives into virtual slavery. Or so it seems to be. The simulations are called contractors, and we’re supposed to believe that in some undisclosed manner the company makes a profit from the games they play in simulation, all the while keeping the physical bodies in working order for decades—an expensive proposition. This makes no sense whatsoever, no more than the idea that a body lying on a bed for decades could just stand up and walk around. I’m buying none of this.

The story has more explicit sex than the others I see here, which makes me wonder if the simulated avatars are growing older at the normal rate for a physical human, aging at the rate their bodies are, getting wrinkled and flabby and eventually impotent. Ash and Zane, those Peter Pan lovers, never seem to consider such eventualities. They blithely assume that they can step into the real world and make places for themselves there, with no experience at actually living. The author clearly hasn’t thought through these matters any more than his characters have.

“Madeleine” by Amal El-Mohtar

Memory and time, a theme the author introduces with both the title and an epigraph from Proust. Madeleine has been depressed since her mother was dying of Alzheimer’s.

when Madeleine couldn’t sleep without waking in a panic, convinced her mother had walked out of the house and into the street, or fallen down the stairs, or taken the wrong pills at the wrong time, only to recall she’d already died and there was nothing left for her to remember.

She has recently taken part in an experimental memory drug trial, which has left her suffering from episodes in which she flashes back to her past, often after an olfactory trigger. She is reluctantly seeing a therapist who always seems to address issues irrelevant to Madeleine’s real problem. But everything changes when her memories begin to include another girl named Zeinab, who had never been part of her past. Soon Madeleine is welcoming the episodes and spending time with Zeinab, even deliberately attempting to trigger them, which the therapist regards as a sign she is regressing. But it is Zeinab who finds the solution.

Emotionally strong story with a well-done portrayal of the effects of dementia on a caretaker. The time aspects are also well-handled, with vivid descriptions of the remembered past.

“Two by Two” by Tim Susman

The earth is dying and the rich and powerful are escaping by spacecraft to settle and ruin other worlds. Fortunately for Daniel and his husband Vijay, they are part of a rich and powerful family. Unfortunately for them, the spacecraft is under the control of the Texas-based Christian States of America [CSA, get it?] where not only is their marriage is disallowed, they would have to retreat to the closet. Decision making ensues.

I don’t have the digits to enumerate the number of times I’ve read this story. At least the premise doesn’t violate common sense. The best element is the feisty old lady. Everyone likes feisty old ladies.

“Die, Sophie, Die” by Susan Jane Bigelow

Cyberbullying. With stunning unoriginality, the author gives us Sophie, who wrote an article on sexism in gaming and became a target for trolls, which drove off her boyfriend, good riddance. But the messages from @diesophiediebot seem to be asking for help. A lesson story, of course: “Kindness is never wrong.” The triumph of the banal. My own lesson would be to stay off social media.

Strange Horizons, June 2015

This month features a two-parter historical fantasy that makes good use of the double story slots.

“Utrechtenaar” by Paul Evanby

Strongly informed by the history of the Low Countries in the eighteenth century. The title originally meant “resident of Utrecht”, but it was used as a synonym for homosexuals after the persecution of the sodomites there, beginning at the time of the setting: 1729. For some time previously, the religious officials of the city had been convinced they were suffering from divine wrath after a series of calamities, including the collapse of the Domkerk cathedral’s nave. The ruins became a place where men would meet for illicit congress. One night Gysbert, a student, with his friend/lover Raphael, are attempting to evade the watch when he falls through the collapsed ceiling of a level below the foundations and finds himself in the remains of the Roman castellum on top of which a succession of churches were subsequently built. There he meets a Roman auxiliary soldier named Ilurtibas, with whom Gysbert can haltingly communicate in school Latin. The Roman has been in the ruins for centuries, stationed there as a guard, although he can’t quite say by what authority.

He tells of battles, campaigns, friendships, loss. Time becomes fluid when he speaks of centuries that might have been days, and nights that stretch on forever. Repeatedly he refers to himself as a praeteritorum custos, and gradually I realize he does not just think of himself as a soldier, but as a watchman: a guardian of things past.

So Gysbert is saved, but when he returns to the present level of the city, he discovers that Raphael has been arrested and faces execution.

There are two story threads woven together here, and while Gysbert is the narrator and point of view, I think the primary story belongs to Ilurtibas, the exile from time, the sentry left on perpetual rear guard. I definitely find him the more interesting character, coming as he does in three versions: youth, soldier and sage. But both phases of this history are interesting in their own right. There have recently been archeological excavations in the city, uncovering buried details of Utrecht’s history, and I imagine these might have been instrumental in inspiring this story.


“What We’re Having” by Nathaniel Lee

A relationship story with twisted-up time, which is generally more interesting than relationship stories. It seems to be the nameless narrator’s fault, because he was lazy and didn’t go to the store to buy the bacon. He knew his partner Frankie, whom he is addressing here in apology, was counting on the bacon for breakfast. He hadn’t bought it, but there it was anyway, sizzling in the skillet, because it was tomorrow’s bacon in the skillet today. And the next day, the next tomorrow’s grilled sandwiches. Now the thing is, Narrator works the night shift and Frankie the day, ships passing each other, and days might pass when they don’t ever really meet. Which is the relationship problem for which the time twisting is the metaphor. That’s how these things go.

Maybe you did, but you ate them at the right time, with the right version of me responding to your actual notes and e-­mails and not whatever you’d said the day before or what I thought you might say tomorrow. A lot of times I feel like I’m talking to you a day late anyway, even when we manage to get into the same room at the same time.

The narrative is kind of clever and the time twist is kind of interesting, and the nameless narrator is kind of irritating, but less so than they often are, since I see few natural occasions for someone to be addressing him.

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

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 Kevin J. Anderson

Blood of the Cosmos, Kevin J. Anderson (Tor 978-0-7653-3300-1, $27.99, 607pp, hardcover) June 2015

I am on record as having thoroughly enjoyed the first five volumes of Kevin Anderson’s series, The Saga of Seven Suns. The books showed Anderson incorporating everything he had learned (by helping Brian Herbert to extend father Frank’s Dune mythos) into a fully conceptualized space opera of his own that resonated with all the classics of that mode, yet which also felt fresh and unique. But by the sixth installment, Metal Swarm, which I reviewed for the late, lamented, I felt that the events of that book were protracted slightly, and that the arc of the whole series might have benefitted from a faster climax. Consequently, I fear, I let the final book, The Ashes of Worlds, slip right past me.

But now that two volumes of the sequel trilogy, The Saga of Shadows, are out, and especially since the first claimed a place on the Hugo ballot, I was moved to resume the series. I cheated a bit by swotting up on Volume 7 online, without actually taking down my copy from the shelf, but have started anew with a read of The Dark Between the Stars (one of those perfect, archetypically stefnal titles which also happens to be attached to story collections by Poul Anderson and Damien Broderick).

The internal continuity of the initial new volume finds the galaxy advanced by twenty years from the events of the Elemental War that occupied the first Saga.

Generally, peace reigns. The belligerent fire and water aliens have retreated to their native ecospheres, and the humanoid aliens, the Ildirans—with whom humans have created hybrid offspring, and who originally gave humans their stardrive—are friendly once more. The evil insect aliens, the Klickiss, and their war robots, have all disappeared from the scene as well. Human factions are generally amiable among themselves. But of course, such a mild-mannered era would hardly merit a space opera scenario, and so new complications arise.

The main villain/disaster/threat this time is from the Shana Rei, invisible creatures who seem more or less embedded subdimensionally into the spacetime continuum since before the rise of sentience in the galaxy (a very Rudy Rucker-esque concept), and who are affronted by us upstart sophonts and wish to wipe us out and restore a blissful quiet to the cosmos. The hidden remnant of the Klickiss robots ally with them, and attacks begin with a combination of entropic fields of darkness and good old robot warship depredations. I must say that these villains—the insane and hateful Shana Rei, and the robots led by the megalomaniacal Exxos—steal the show with their dastardly ambitions whenever they are on stage.

But this main MacGuffin, as you might imagine in a volume of some 700 pages, is bolstered and counterpointed by numerous subplots. One of the most intriguing thread involves the medical researches of a certain woman named Zoe Alakis and her catspaw, the sociopathic Tom Rom, and a diabolical new plague. Similarly vital is the discovery of a new kind of interstellar, vacuum-dwelling alien, the “bloaters,” who prove useful in a number of ways.

There’s a freshet of new characters introduced, and we also get reacquainted with many old favorite protagonists.

Anderson’s chosen narrative matrix features shifting third-person POV across nearly 140 chapters. But he does not merely cycle through his cast arbitrarily. Instead, he uses the jumps either to produce cliffhangers or to counterpoint or laterally advance the action. This complex, thoughtful arrangement is a mark of his skills.

If you read The New Space Opera or The New Space Opera 2, by Dozois and Strahan, or The Space Opera Renaissance by Hartwell and Cramer, you will find no selection from Anderson’s giant production. And, indeed, his work is not allied to Corey or Reynolds or Hamilton or Baxter or anyone else working in cutting-edge space opera today. Anderson’s Saga is resolutely old school. Frank Herbert or Isaac Asimov are the most advanced of Anderson’s guiding lights, and in fact one might almost add Doc Smith to his pantheon. (A clan named “Duquesne” might well constitute an homage.) But this deliberately archaic slant, once acknowledged, should not prevent admiration of his story-telling chops. And as for the pacing, I found the new books not over-extended or over-stuffed. Perhaps the novelty of the milieu was an influence here, but I think not. I attribute the relative concision to the fact that this current arc must be completed in only three volumes. (Eternity’s Mind is due next year.)

Blood of the Cosmos delivers plenty of original developments, not all of which should be revealed in this review. The war with the Shana Rei and the robots continues its teeter-totter progress, with the enemy’s ability to mind-control humans and Ildirans wreaking disasters galore. Most dramatically, a new alien race appears, the Onthos. They claim to be old victims of the Shana Rei, and also the former guardians of the Theroc forest mind. They are given refuge—but are they what they purport to be?

New weapons get developed and tested. Several microscale threads, such as Prince Reyn’s illness and its intersection with the eccentric researches of Zoe Alakis, are advanced. Anderson is always willing to take a little scenic detour away from the galactic tsuris, such as a thrilling and bloody wyvern hunt. I think it safe to say that after eight volumes in this franchise, Anderson is not going to deviate much from his trademark methods or themes, so the reader is assured of getting lots more of what he or she already enjoyed. Which is not to say that there are no surprises in store.

One notable aspect of this series is Anderson’s granting of nearly equal time to the “little people” as well as the big players. Few current or past space operas do that. But here, one chapter can be told from the POV of the Mage-Imperator of all Ildirans, while the next follows the humble doings of Garrison Reeves, Roamer miner. A very interesting character arc is that of Lee Iswander, who is a merciless capitalist, and yet who steps forward with a big altruistic gesture when he realizes the fate of civilizations is at stake.

This middle installment concludes with affairs in a vastly different configuration than they were at the start of the novel, and portends even greater doings ahead.

Above the planet, empty space tore open and black geometrical horrors emerged. Long hexagonal cylinders slid out like blunted knives of pure obsidian. The very presence of the Shana Rei ships exuded chaos, unraveling coils of capricious entropy that made the systems aboard the flagship warliner malfunction, flicker and fail.

A flurry of metallic hornets emerged alongside the hex ships, black robot warships that swooped forward in search of targets. Though their primary target was the Hiltos shrine on the surface, they spotted the Solar Navy flagship and immediately opened fire.

If you can enjoy and get behind such Skylark of Space shenanigans, then Anderson gives just what you need, in cosmic-sized quantities.

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.

Our Dinosaurs, Ourselves: A Review of Jurassic World

by Gary Westfahl

If you are wondering whether or not you should see Jurassic World, here is this reviewer’s advice: either pay the exorbitant price of admission to watch the film in a theatre, or never bother to watch it at all. Viewed on a small screen, the way I watched the other Jurassic Park films, this fourth installment’s shrunken dinosaurs will not be impressive, and the flaws that have always characterized the franchise – shoddy science, illogical plotting, uneven acting, and clumsy pauses for ineffectual character development – will be magnified, making it almost impossible to endure. But when everything in the film is larger than life, accompanied by booming sound effects and marginally enhanced by 3D or the IMAX Experience, none of its weaknesses matter, as you will consistently be enthralled and entertained by the amazing spectacle of realistic dinosaurs thundering across the screen and interacting with human characters.

Since computer animation can now create all sorts of enormous creatures, the question to ponder is: why are dinosaurs so particularly fascinating? The answer may lie in a word that is repeatedly employed in this film: “control.” The billionaire who inherited the Jurassic World theme park from the late John Hammond, Simon Masrani (Irrfan Khan), explains that the secret to enjoying life is to realize “you are never actually in control.” Though employee Owen Brady (Chris Pratt) has trained some raptors to obey his commands, he insists that “I don’t control the raptors. It’s a relationship.” And when he complains about how the crisis of an escaped dinosaur is being handled, Owen is told, “You are not in control here.” The issue of control arises because, in the popular imagination if not Earth’s true history, only two groups of creatures have ever enjoyed complete dominion over the planet – dinosaurs, and human beings. Even though they were quite different from humans, they were also our prehistoric counterparts. If we did contrive, then, to bring dinosaurs back to life, they would inevitably compete with humans to rule the Earth. And such a conflict, on a small scale, is central to the Jurassic Park films: the humans strive to keep dinosaurs under control, but the dinosaurs get out of control, humbling and threatening their would-be masters.

As the dramas play out, each set of combatants enjoys a certain advantage: the humans are highly intelligent, but the dinosaurs have brute force on their side. But instead of a simple struggle between brain and brawn, each adversary interestingly endeavors to emulate their opponent’s strength. Instead of trying to outsmart the dinosaurs, the humans strive to overpower them with larger and larger fences and more and more lethal weapons (though only the film Pacific Rim [review here] takes the process to its logical conclusion by providing humans with the size and attributes of dinosaurs). Instead of trying to overpower the humans, the dinosaurs become more and more intelligent in order to outwit them. In this film, not only are the raptors smarter than ever, but its new species, Indominus rex, surprises its captors by displaying its own unexpected intelligence, as it conceals itself from thermal detection by lowering its temperature, removes the monitoring implant inserted into its body, and figures out how to kill an armored ankylosaurus by turning it over to attack its unprotected stomach.

The other surprising aspect of the film’s war between humans and dinosaurs is that audiences are routinely urged to sympathize with the dinosaurs: true, whenever a dinosaur is about to kill a purportedly beloved character, we are supposed to cheer when it is slaughtered, but everyone recognizes that the dinosaurs are not evil; they are only following natural instincts that were perfectly appropriate sixty-five million years ago. The film also strives to make Owen’s raptors likable, as they are given names and sometimes figure as heroes, and a dying apatosaurus deeply saddens Owen and his companion, park executive Claire Dearing (Bryce Dallas Howard). And without revealing any details about how the story ends, it is telling that the film’s final image powerfully suggests that the dinosaurs have ultimately triumphed, and that they will henceforth be in control of Jurassic World.

One reason to like dinosaurs and dislike people is that, more often than not, the people have despicable motives. The recurring cause of problems in the Jurassic Park films (and in other monster movies like the King Kong films and the Jaws films) is that people are greedy, more concerned about making money than protecting people and caring for innocent animals. And since, as Owen’s friend Barry (Omar Sy) ruefully notes, “people never learn,” they are still acting this way in Jurassic World. The park’s desire for profits is underlined by a barbed remark about charging “seven bucks a soda”; the Jurassic Trader is only one of many stores observed in the film’s park, all undoubtedly offering overpriced souvenirs; park employees constantly refer to the dinosaurs as “assets”; and one of them is criticized for regarding the creatures as nothing more than “numbers on a spreadsheet.” The film’s major villain – the enormous, predatory Indominus rex – was unwisely created by the duplicitous Dr. Henry Wu (BD Wong) solely because the park needed a new attraction to boost attendance, and it was being readied for display without a full awareness of its abilities, even though Wu recognized that “modified animals are known to be unpredictable.” Then, after it escaped, the crisis was not dealt with promptly and properly because park executives wanted to avoid a costly panic that would reduce their profits, and they did not want to kill a dangerous dinosaur that represented an investment of twenty-six million dollars. Even when they are compelled to inform visitors that vicious pterosaurs are about to attack from the sky, the park announcer blandly describes the impending calamity as a “containment anomaly.”

The irony in all of these attacks on corporate greed is that the film itself is so manifestly a product of corporate greed: of course, every Hollywood film is designed to make money, but only a few, especially avaricious producers will contrive to saturate their films with conspicuous brand names, obviously incorporated in response to financial incentives, and Jurassic World is filled with them. One of its first images is of youthful protagonist Gray Mitchell (Ty Simpkins) holding a View-Master; the rights to sponsor the Indominus rex are purchased by Verizon; in his helicopter, Masrani and his co-pilot wear Alpha headphones; when he’s thirsty, Owen drinks a Coke; while Gray and his older brother Zach (Nick Robinson) are trying to get the iconic No. 29 Jeep Wrangler from the 1992 film working again, they insert a Kawasaki battery; and in the streets near the entrance to Jurassic World, one observes the Samsung Innovation Center, a Pandora jewelry store, a Brookstone gift store, a Lego store, a Jimmy Buffett’s Margaritaville restaurant, and a theater advertising “Pterosaur: The IMAX Experience.” The list is not complete. In sum, if you want to get really drunk, and motivate yourself to watch Jurassic World on television, you can turn it into a drinking game – everyone takes another drink every time another plug appears on the screen.

Jurassic World does innovate by condemning another human foible, militarism. Its chief villain, Vic Hoskins (Vincent D’Onofrio), is obsessed with the idea that trained raptors could become the ideal soldiers of the future, and after the Indominus rex escapes, he initiates a crazy scheme to release the raptors so they can track down and kill the enormous menace. (Predictably, not only do they fail to bring down their target, but the released raptors then become menaces in their own right.) Audiences are supposed to admire Owen for his principled resistance to the use of his cherished raptors as weapons, but in this case, I think the film’s righteous indignation can be challenged. Wars themselves may be immoral, but employing trained animals in wars is a time-honored tradition; one of the trailers attached to the film is promoting the forthcoming film Max (2015), which celebrates a dog who assisted American soldiers in Afghanistan, and other animals like horses and elephants long participated in combat without any suggestion that the practice was evil. So, if we do ever bring dinosaurs back to life, and if we are still fighting wars, I see no reason why soldiers shouldn’t be allowed to ride into battle, say, on the back of a trained Tyrannosaurus rex as an organic alternative to a gas-guzzling tank.

There is nothing controversial about the film’s third foregrounded message, that family members need to be nice to each other. Gray and Zach’s parents are implicitly criticized for sending their children off to visit an aunt while they work out the details of their divorce, a decision that reduces Gray to tears once he figures out what is happening. His mother Karen (Judy Greer) worries about Zach and Gray being alone together because Zach is often cruel to Gray, and during their first visits to Jurassic Park attractions, Zach spends all of his time looking at pretty girls instead of talking to his brother. Karen also laments that her sister Claire has never had children, and Claire initially proves to be a thoughtlessly inattentive aunt, too preoccupied with business to escort her nephews through Jurassic World as she had promised. They soon get into trouble precisely because the distracted assistant instructed to accompany them loses track of their whereabouts. Asked to assist in finding them, Owen is dumbfounded to learn that “you don’t know how old your nephews are?” But in the end, almost everyone sees the error of their ways: while the film avoids becoming excessively maudlin by failing to suggest that Gray and Zach’s parents will be reconciling, they do travel to Costa Rica to reunite with their children; Zach assures Gray in an excruciatingly awkward scene that they will always be brothers, no matter what; once she finds her nephews, Claire announces that she will never leave them again; and after the crisis is over, she seems prepared to settle down with Owen and finally have her own children (perhaps to become the protagonists of Jurassic Park VI).

It is not surprising that director Colin Trevorrow and co-writers Rick Jaffa, Amanda Silver, and Derek Connolly felt compelled to include these moments of romance and domestic drama; they allow filmmakers to feel that they are making a real film, not a thrill ride, and using dinosaurs to promote family values seems like a foolproof crowd-pleaser (an approach also employed in the execrable 2014 version of Godzilla [review here]). But as calm interludes, one wishes that they had shown less of the characters’ cardboard personalities and more of Jurassic World itself: after all, this is the first film in the series that faced the challenge of depicting what sorts of rides and attractions a fully realized, functional theme park with dinosaurs would actually offer, and the result is quite an interesting place. First, since the park only offers a limited number of dinosaurs – fourteen species, an increase over the original eight – there would have to be some dinosaur-related attractions that did not feature dinosaurs. Thus, the park offers visitors the chance to play “Jurassic Tennis” and a golf course; Gray and Zach talk about going on the Spinning Dinosaur Eggs ride; we see children at the Digging for Dinosaurs playground using brushes to gently unearth realistic dinosaur bones; there is the aforementioned pterosaur film; and a display room includes a statue of park founder Hammond, holographic images of dinosaurs, and an interactive screen where an animated “Mr. DNA” (portrayed, the credits inform us, by the director) presumably explains how the dinosaurs were created. For the experience of interacting with dinosaurs, the Gentle Giants Petting Zoo allows children to pet tiny sauropods and ride on the backs of baby triceratops; we briefly glimpse people in canoes paddling down a stream filled with aquatic dinosaurs; and a rolling Gyrosphere enables Gray and Zach to travel alongside galloping dinosaurs. The larger dinosaurs have to be observed from a distance in various ways: people look at a Tyrannosaurus rex within an elevated log with a window; roaming dinosaurs can be seen from a monorail; and in a grandstand recalling a Sea World exhibit, crowds gasp as an enormous mosasaur leaps out of the water to devour a dead shark, and their seats are then lowered so they can see the dinosaur through a window, swimming underwater.

The Gyrosphere shows a humorous instructional video in which Jimmy Fallon assures park visitors that “your safety is our main concern”; however, since we hear these words coming from a Gyrosphere that Gray and Zach have abandoned because it had just been attacked and crushed by a dinosaur, it is suggested that the park’s “concern” is not entirely sincere. In fact, nothing about the park’s attractions really seems safe at all. All of the “Gentle Giants” may be perfectly tame, but they could still do some significant damage by stepping on a child’s foot; swimming dinosaurs could easily capsize a canoe; and the film later establishes that the mosasaur is capable of leaping out of the water and eating a creature standing near the shore, such as a human spectator. More broadly, the island home of Jurassic World is part of Costa Rica, a nation that happens to experience major earthquakes on a regular basis, and these might derail the park’s monorail or send that log plummeting to the ground to smash and expose its occupants to a hungry Tyrannosaurus rex. Even if human greed and aggressiveness does not complicate the picture, then, it would seem that Murphy’s Law would forever preclude the possibility of making recreated dinosaurs the centerpieces of an amusement park. (One might suggest as an alternative the use of robot dinosaurs, like those already featured at some theme parks, but Michael Crichton, author of the original Jurassic Park novel [1990], also reminded us in the film Westworld [1973] that advanced robots might not be entirely safe either.)

Yet the makers of Jurassic World, like their predecessors, manifestly were not interested in predicting a plausible future; rather, they needed a premise that would justify numerous scenes of people running away from dinosaurs, shooting at dinosaurs, and (very occasionally) petting dinosaurs, and imagining a future world where scientists raised dinosaurs to serve as theme park attractions proved an ideal strategy. This Jurassic Park film will surely prove just as popular as the first three installments, and it should inspire executive producer Steven Spielberg to pick up the pace in generating further sequels. (Only three sequels in the twenty-three years since the first blockbuster? What was Spielberg thinking?) In light of the perpetual popularity of dinosaur movies, it is very odd that during Claire’s first appearance, she declares that “No one’s impressed with a dinosaur anymore.” As of 2015, that clearly represents another prediction in this film that has not yet come true.

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

Paul Di Filippo reviews A. Bertram Chandler

Gateway to Never, A. Bertram Chandler (Baen 978-1-4767-8047-4, $14, 656, trade paperback) May 2015

In 1985, at the age of thirty, I decided to start a database of all the books I owned. I was freshly embarked on my dream of becoming a professional SF writer. I think maybe that transition formed a subconscious reason for assessing and cataloguing my library. But the main reason I recall was so that I could carry around a printout of my holdings when I went book-shopping and avoid buying so many damn duplicates of forgotten titles I owned but hadn’t read and remembered.

At this time, my books—maybe 2000 or so—were indeed divided into read and unread shelves. I had no sophisticated software for indexing—1985, remember?—so I just started grabbing books and typing their data into a word-processing file, alphabetizing manually by author as I went.

For some reason, I decided to make two separate files: the read and the unread. I could have collated the titles, but I did not.

Now my library numbers about 14,000 books, and I still capture the data on each new entry.

In retrospect, I am glad I divided my holdings into two categories, because one of these files represents a 1985 snapshot of all I had purchased and read from about age twelve to age thirty. The formative stuff, prior to trying to become a professional. I see vast swathes of van Vogt, Ellison, Asimov, Moorcock, PKD, JGB, Simak, Heinlein, Andre Norton, Poul Anderson, Gordon Dickson, Brian Aldiss, and so many other titans of the field, many swallowed whole as a teenager, when time to read seemed infinite.

With an eye toward the book under discussion today, I went to check on my record for A. Bertram Chandler, and was disconcerted to find I had read by then only The Coils of Time and Into the Alternate Universe, while on the other side of the ledger sat about two dozen purchased but untouched volumes of his.

And you know what? I do not believe I have read another Chandler book in the past thirty years.

This is inexcusable, although perhaps understandable. There is simply so much out there to read, new and old, that wonderful authors without a high profile—especially once they are deceased—can get lost in the noise.

But today I and others in my fix have no excuse not to get up to speed on Chandler, since Baen Books is giving him the omnibus treatment, as they did for Poul Anderson and Christopher Anvil, among others. The current volume is number six.

I would have liked also to survey the prior five volumes for this same essay, but guess what? Time did not permit. So we will only dip a toe into the career of Commodore John Grimes. I note from the very handy list at Wikipedia that the three novels here constitute the very final ones in internal continuity, so this book—which also includes six short stories and a memoir by Chandler, full value indeed—will be the capstone of their series, I think.

The first novel is The Gateway to Never (1972), and immediately we imbibe the pleasures of Chandler’s mythos and admire his deft strategies. We open on Grimes the desk-warrior in his office, and learn within one page not only his current status and duties, but also concrete details of his past: a clever narrative maneuver to get newbies onboard and reaffirm the fond memories of the veteran fans. Then comes the central MacGuffin of the narrative: the prevalence of drug smuggling in the Rim Worlds (nicely distinguished by place and culture as a separate polity from the several other galactic alliances). Grimes has a brief chat about his assignment—to find the source and smuggling route of “dreamy weed”—with his smart and funny wife, in the manner of Simenon’s Maigret and spouse, or Nick and Nora Charles. Then our man is off, hanging undercover with the orgiastic “Blossom People,” visiting an offworld spa, and eventually meeting bad guy Drongo Kane and surviving the opening of the “gateway to never.” A perfect artifact of the hippie era as seen from the straight world, this tale is like one of those late-career Ross MacDonald novels.

In just about 150 pages composed of swift short chapters, heavy on the light-hearted dialogue, with only minimalist descriptions, we get vivid characters—Grimes is a salty, irascible softie, old-fashioned but empathetic, with a code of honor, but not inflexible—a solid plot and a negligible but not nonexistent quota of speculative bits. Although to be sure, a far future that still uses “blue pencils” and typewriters was a tad lazy even in 1972. But the amiable, affable Chandler is not here to be Wells or Verne, he’s here to be a modern pulpster, a Max Brand or Hugh Cave or E. Hoffman Price. Is it banal to say wistfully, “They don’t write them like this any more”…?

In contrast, The Dark Dimensions (1971) offers solid stefnal wonders in spades. Fifty light years outside the Rim of our galaxy lies an abandoned alien ship, the Outsider, whose mysteries have never been fathomed by the unsuccessful prior expeditions, and so humanity has turned its back on the enigmatic hulk. But now a craft from a rival to the Rim Worlds is heading for the treasures, and Grimes is commissioned to thwart the intruders.

This time Sonya, Mrs. Grimes, comes along, in her “Survey Service micro-skirt” that possibly bespeaks Star Trek influences creeping into a prose series that predated the show. The Trek-like ambiance extends to the plot, which sees Grimes’s vessel, the Faraway Quest, meeting cross-dimensional travelers due to the weird timespace around the Outsider, including a Grimes doppelganger and a surprise guest from another famous SF franchise.

The Way Back (1976) opens directly upon the closure of its predecessor. Grimes and crew have been displaced in spacetime and must somehow engineer a return to the world they know. They eventually get as far as the Earth of the ancient Greek era, but there things go kerflooey, due to internal dissent among the castaways. However, some heroic actions on the part of Grimes and seven of his allied comrades produces a happy ending to the Robinsonade. Although Grimes’s closing thought about facing a Court of Inquiry to account for the cockup is a wry note upon which to conclude the saga. Heroism is fleeting, bureaucracy is forever.

The assorted short stories offer some nice readable interstitial adventures, including a couple of first-person narratives by protagonists other than our hero, giving us a chance to see him from the outside, so to speak.

These three novels, the essence of workmanlike competence, like all series installments, offer both variety and the solace of repeated touchstones. Grime’s habit of vocalizing “Mphm” as a wordless expletive. His favorite saying of “Spit on the carpet and call the cat a bastard.” These tics, if you will, are interspersed with fresh elements in a highly palatable matrix that conduces toward the pleasures we all seek in returning to familiar literary friends.

The memoir, “Around the World in 23,741 Days,” is a delight, revealing that the fellow behind Grimes is pretty Grimesian himself: insouciant, adventurous, not suffering fools gladly, yet cognizant of his own sins. Chandler had a full, rich life, not without its challenges, that allowed him to craft stories that reflected his easygoing, optimistic, can-do attitude mixed with a sense that the world held lots of wonders. Once upon a time, that fusion was the essence of science fiction, and still holds vast appeal.

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, early June

It’s getting kind of unusual to see more than one print publication at a time. This time, I prefer their stories overall to the webzines.

Publications Reviewed

F&SF, July/Aug 2015

Featuring a novella by Rachel Pollack. What I like in this issue are a couple of the shorter pieces, most notably the Chwedyk and James, as well as the V Hughes.

“Johnny Rev” by Rachel Pollack

Part of the author’s Jack Shade series. Some time ago, when Jack was afflicted by personal problems, he created a double of himself and, when its task was complete, dissolved it. Or so he had supposed. But after a series of disturbing portentous signs, the duplicate now shows up in his dreams, a Revenant, bearing his card, which obliges Jack to take up his cause, whatever it is. In this case, the cause is to defeat the original Jack, himself. Naturally, Jack looks for a way out, which means he runs around town consulting with a lot of experts in matters occult.

This one has the typical interest and flaws of the series, which is largely a matter of being too long. Ostensibly, it’s adventure/mystery fantasy, but in effect it’s a social journey through the series’ milieu, which is quite full of gods, oracles, and various other practitioners of the magical and arcane arts. Quite, quite full, and the narrative drags us along as Jack pays most of them a visit, which seems always to begin with a description of what everyone is wearing. There’s a certain amount of clothing-semiotics here, but much of it seems unnecessary. There’s also a lot of stuff about Jack’s identity, signified by the various names he gives to both himself and the copy, but this leans way too much on the backstory. The plot takes way too long to get traction; we’re a third of the way through the text, after multiple portents and a whole lot of backstorying, before the nature of the problem at hand becomes clear. I’d like this one better at about half the length, with a lot less backstory, concentrating on the present magical problem of the dream-Dupe-Revenant’s threat to Jack’s existence. Such as:

And then suddenly it wasn’t him. He could not have described how he knew, but it was like seeing yourself/not yourself in a dream. The goddamn Rev had his lips on Carolien’s right nipple, his hand between her legs. With all his concentration, like some novice Traveler trying to psychically lift a fucking pencil, Jack managed to push the body, the Dupe’s body, his body, away from Carolien.

“The Deepwater Bride” by Tamsyn Muir

Hester comes from a long line of seers, and in her sixteen summer, entering into her power, she notices portents in the local pond, sealife where it doesn’t belong. “Amassed dead. Salt into fresh water. The eldritch presence of the Department of Fisheries — ” These signs point to the all-devouring dread lords of the Pelagic abyss, who seem to be Personages not to mess with. The trees are weeping brine, and the rain is saltwater. Consulting the family archives, Hester concludes that one of the lords of the abyss is coming to take a bride. She regards the phenomenon as her birthright, her quest to find the chosen bride, which annoys her aunt, who had wanted her to have a normal, ie, mundane, summer. But such is not to be, not with Main Street coated in salt crystals. She locates the candidate bride, an airhead named Rainbow Kipley. “She would be taken to a place in the deep, dark below where lay unnamed monstrosity, where the devouring hunger lurked far beyond light and there was no Katy Perry.” So they become friends, which is what her aunt had wanted, more or less.

This is lite dark fantasy, and seems to be YA in an eldritch way, which makes it the rare YA that pleases me, in particular the narrative voice and imagery. It’s nicely complex for a YA, if it is YA. It could even be considered a romance of sorts, but I don’t want to think too hard about that. I do have a problem with the piece, because it involves mass death and destruction, with individuals dying before readers’ eyes. I find this in conflict with the lightness of the narrative tone, though granting that Hester, at least, recognizes that real people are suffering. Of course it helps that she and her family are immune to it, as designated archivists.

“The Curse of the Myrmelon” by Matthew Hughes

Cascor the Discriminator takes the case of a clerk who believes himself under a curse.

Ulph had risen to a senior clerical position in the accounts department by reason of his being one of those useful but undistinguished functionaries who delight in creating a neat column of figures and bringing them to a precisely accurate total. His triumphs and pleasures, though small, were meaningful to him, and he had enjoyed what he considered a satisfying existence until recently, when, as he put it, “Things began to go hinky.”

There is in fact no curse but rather malfeasance, which is the proper line of work for a discriminator, as opposed to curse-lifting, the provenance of the wizards’ guild, which guards it jealously. Cascor employs his associate Raffalon the thief to confirm his suspicions.

This one is relatively light on the humor and absurdity often found in the author’s Archonate universe, rather more of a straight detective story, in which Cascor’s new studies of magic prove quite useful in his profession. At one point, I was wondering who would pay his high expenses—certainly not Ulph the clerk—until I realize that Cascor means to profit from the situation in his own right. While Raffalon is involved in the plot, he is definitely a secondary character, as Cascor takes top billing; I expect we may be seeing more of his adventures.

“The Body Pirate” by Van Aaron Hughes

Inspired, says the editorial blurb, by the song “A Murder of One”, the image of the soul as a bird beneath a woman’s skin. The story is hard at first to get into, partly because of a multiplicity of pronouns. We have bodies and souls, which are separable, the souls in the form of blackbirds. When united, they are plural, when separated, singular. Some souls/birds have more than one human body. The system seems to confuse some of the characters, as well.

These bizarre thoughts are making me dizzy. Her? Who is her? I have never before thought of Martayn as her. When conjoined, Martayn is them. When separated, Martayn’s soul is him. But surely this body I am touching is a woman.

The author has been quite deliberate in the text, shifting pronouns as bodies/souls separate and unite, with the text splitting into parallel columns. As the story progresses, readers have to adjust their assumptions, with concepts, soul and bird, that at first seem metaphorical being revealed as literal fact.

Adela, the soul/bird [bodies don’t have their own names] is working on a timesaving project, Freebird, whereby everybird can have two or more human bodies; there is a breeding project to supply these. There is also a glitch in the transfer of memories from the bodies when they have been left unoccupied to act on their own, which they are quite capable of doing, the more so as a bird occupies more bodies and leaves the unoccupied ones longer on their own. It isn’t long before some people begin to realize the truth, but some, like Adela, resist it.

This seems in the end to be slightly more science fiction than fantasy, although no definite explanation for the situation is given, only one hypothesis. While there are clear ethical themes here, the primary one is identity—not sexual/group identity as the pronoun thing might seem to imply, but the more basic issue of personhood, of “who am I that I am?” A lot to ponder here.


“Dixon’s Road” by Richard Chwedyk

A story of love and poetry. Alice is a curator of a museum that was once a home belonging to two people in love. James Dixon was the terraforming engineer who built the world, Laura Michel the poet he built the house for. But he could not stay and she could not leave. After her death, the house was preserved by people like Alice who loved her work, as a memorial for her, but as it was time dilation that kept them apart, it allowed him to return, as Laura knew he would, one day.

“I’m not crazy. I know that isn’t what Laura literally meant when she said she had to stay to finish her work. But it made sense to me, finally. What she had to do and what I had to do…worked together.”

A poignant love story. The author wisely keeps some things private between the two, in the letter that she left for him. The story reminds me a bit of Emily Dickinson, not in the verse but in the close connection of the poet to the place, to the particular house. “Laura Michel was the sort of poet who believed it was in the specificity — this tree, that garden, seen by this woman, on that day — that poems were found.” This is what Dixon recognizes at last. I do have to wonder about time and aging—how long it takes to create a world, even a small one that used to be an asteroid. How a man could go from one world creation to another and still not have aged beyond recognition. It takes an effort to suspend that measure of disbelief.

“Oneness: A Triptych” by James Patrick Kelly

Variations on a theme of copulation and communion, experiencing as the Other, as all Others. Kind of sex mysticism.

“This Quintessence of Dust” by Oliver Buckram

A plague has suddenly wiped out all the mammalian life on Earth, leaving most of the bots with no function to perform. It’s a matter of programming. In other similar scenarios, bots have sufficient self-awareness to create a society of their own, but not here.

“Paradise and Trout” by Betsy James

A young boy, newly dead, is sent on his final journey.

“At the chasm where the road ends, lay the bridge down. Cross it,” his father said, “and follow the upward path. Your uncles will meet you in paradise.” With a bitter look he pulled the last fold of linen over his son’s face. “Do as I say.”

So Halley sets out on the way to paradise, taking the familiar road, meeting on his way the demons his father warned him of, coming at last to the road he had never seen, and the chasm.

Short, simple, entirely engaging. The journey of death has to be one of the most universal subjects of myth worldwide. This is an original vision, highly specific to time and place and character, yet full of mythic resonance.


“Into the Fiery Planet” by Gregor Hartmann

Zephyr is a misnamed volcanic moon covered in cindery regolith, where a human population struggles to exist with the aid of a sponsoring world. Alas, political exigencies are prompting that sponsoring world to withdraw its support. A desperate PR effort is now underway, and new immigrant Franden, aspiring author, has been recruited for the effort. Inspiration, however, is hard to come by.

What makes this place special? Special from a Mainline point of view? I need a story that will give Tensers a hard-on when they think about this pile of cinders.” The Conductor kicked the ground, made bits of regolith fly.

Light, humorous piece with a somewhat unusual setting. It’s never made quite clear exactly why Franden did come to Zephyr in the first place. It doesn’t seem like a likely place to launch a literary career.

Clarkesworld, June 2015

Four pieces of nominal science fiction this month. I found the Dudek strangely interesting; the others seemed variously incomplete.

“Somewhere I Have Never Traveled (Third Sound Remix)” by E Catherine Tobler

Vasquez, working to extract helium from the Jovian atmosphere, starts to hear a voice:

The voice spills from the planet, from deep within its clouds, pushing itself out of roiling gasses, tunneling through thirty-one miles of cloud, through the station’s skeleton and into my own. If I close my eyes (and I do), the sound rattles my teeth, my tongue, and when it has gone (it always goes), I am left with my cheek pressed to the cold window, as if I meant to go out with it—as if it meant to take me.

She begins to think she hears the voice coming from inside a pod of frozen helium, which she attempts to open and release the voice, causing her supervisor to send her to have her head examined—a reasonable precaution. But of course Vasquez isn’t crazy and there is actually something going on in the orbit of Jupiter, as readers will expect.

What this is about is the mystical/poetic communion between Vasquez and the whatever, not making a lot of sense of it. There are plenty of questions that readers might want to ask [like, why Vasquez?] but the text has no interest in answering them. While nominally science fiction, the mystery has no observable scientific basis. It’s all the subjective experience of the communion going on inside the narrator’s head, and the author’s expression of it.

“Asymptotic” by Andy Dudek

The title is ominous, portending the presence of math, but it turns out to be absurdly humorous; there’s something inherently absurd about infinity. SF readers are well aware how time travel fiction can become confusingly tangled in paradoxes, but Dudek has raised the confusion factor by several orders of magnitude here, as instead of a time patrol, we have our protagonist Nuhane as an officer of the Collection Bureau, pursuing violators of the laws of physics across the universe, a traffic cop in pursuit of vehicles exceeding the c limit. But of course this necessarily involves his own violation.

Beyond c there is no time and no speed. Bureau officers call the speed of light the “last speed.” Here in violation space, all of Nuhane’s violating selves are united. Beyond time there is exultant joy, infinite peace, and the “eldest” of Nuhane’s violation selves will find it hard to condescend back to the universe. They will leave pieces of themselves here.

Nuhane is succumbing to violation syndrome, a delusion of godhood, an addiction to the transcendence of spacetime. And the addiction to the hunt of the arch-violator known as Phlogiston.

I’m reminded somewhat of the Rucker’s work, the imaginative absurdity spun out of a base of actual physics, toying with the stuff that holds the universe together. Enough to make a reader’s head spin. I note that someone in this universe has had to invent a religion because people can’t stop questioning the sense in what they’re doing. Never a good sign.

“This Wanderer, in the Dark of the Year” by Kris Millering

Audra is what might have been called a war correspondent back when wars were more regularized. Instead, she mostly interviews the survivors of atrocities, recently the Roma being slaughtered by rightwing militias in Hungary. She has now flown back to that region to check out reports of a meteor fallen to Earth, which is being reported as a possible spacecraft, but at the airport she is abducted and imprisoned with the alien who emerged from it. The abductors seem to have targeted her, members of the same militia she had reported on. They want something—unclear—from the alien. “War has a habit of drawing us all in, eventually. Even a journalist. Even an alien who came here entirely by accident.” A painful process of assimilation/communication begins.
There’s much here that isn’t clear, being from Audra’s point of view, which is necessarily limited by imprisonment. We particularly don’t learn anything of note about the alien, except it’s not likely to develop a good opinion of the human species, despite its connection with Audra. We also don’t learn as much about Audra as the text seems to assume.

“Forestspirit, Forestspirit” by by Bogi Takács

In a far distant, posthuman future, the narrator was once a soldier of sorts, now transmuted into a protean, neuroplastic entity that can assume any shape. It now inhabits a forest, apparently a rarity in this world, as tourists come to view it and its mushrooms. A child comes to the forest, nephew of a man who lives on its margins, a man who has powers of his own, enough to identify the narrator’s presence. The child is unhappy because something called the Consentience is planning to destroy the forest.

This is a kind of children’s story, in which the political background of the world is ignored. Thus we have no idea what the Consentience is, or why it has made its decision, which may be an automatic response, but we don’t know, or what powers could countermand the decision. The boy doesn’t involve his uncle in his problem, although the uncle seems to be a person of some power and/or influence. It’s a pretty sort of fairy tale, but it makes no real sense.

An irritating note: in the course of begging the “forestspirit” for aid, the child is distracted into an irrelevant sidetrack about the gender of names, a matter that seems to be of contemporary interest to the author, but not in this posthuman world in which the narrator is far, far removed from such concerns.

Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet, June 2015

In my desk I have a magnification device that can be placed on a page to enlarge the print. This is a good thing, as otherwise I wouldn’t have been able to make it through this publication. With it magnified, I discover eight pieces of fiction, most on the short side, with enough nameless narrators to make me pretty irritable. I generally prefer the weird fantasy over the science fiction.

“The Beast Unknown to Heraldry” by Henry Wessells

Our man Thornton is a failed and unemployed scholar who, being in want of lodging, invites himself to Castle Delvoir, seat of his distant cousin the fourteenth Duke, where he proposes to sift through the archives in search of nuggets for publication. There he hits paydirt in accounts of a chimerical beast called the wulkderk, spawn of a mating between a she-wolf and a dragon.

Of the wulkderk, its head of the dragon father with teeth of the wolf mother, four-legged and of two forms, the male fur-clad with strong wings, the female scale-clad with furry man and back, like dog and dragon the wulkderk will sleep for days and decades, until hunger stirs it or the unwary trouble it lair [sic LT]

This one ends much as readers will expect, but I find great charm in the notion of a castle with such a library –complete with librarian—where impecunious scholars can page through ancient chronicles and retire to a comfortable room with supper on a tray. Fortunate Thornton!

“The Blood Carousel” by Alyc Helms

An unlikely premise, an odd variation on hell: a derelict carousel where dead parents are imprisoned and their children can free them by riding it through hellish revolutions. Hazel wants to retrieve her newly-dead parents, and her nasty friend Barnabas offers to help her find an animal to ride, as required by the devil/ticketman. Of course no one thinks of what will become of the animal.

In this sort of story, it’s typical for a child to be justified in anything she does to accomplish such goals as freeing her parents from death or hell. Here we have Barnabas, a vile little fiend, to serve as Hazel’s obvious foil and soak up the blame. I quite like how things turn out in the end, but the premise fails the credibility test.

“Marrying the Sea” by Kodiak Julian

Four girlfriends spend the high moments of their lives together, high on bottled magic, until the 2nd-person narrator is the only one remaining, with one final bottle to open. The friendship is the thing, the closest love, while the four explore their similarities and differences, fulfilling the terms of the magic: “May you each see all that you see and taste all that you taste. This mess is all that we get.” But we might get it again, if we’re lucky. Nicely felt.

“Everything is Haunted” by J M McDermott

Science fiction, a post-collapse world, the collapse caused by an earthquake, in which Stephen and Immie’s young son Andrew was infected with a designed virus that would have been fatal if they hadn’t gotten him a multi-organ transplant. The organ donor is a genetic chimera tailored to match Andrew. Most donors are raised in a stable but Stephen and Immie raise Andrew’s until the organs it grows have matured. The donor is sentient, capable of speech and affection; they even give it a name, Oreo.

It’s not hard to get over appearances when it looks up at you with those human eyes, places a head in your lap and you can feel how soft the hair is and it’s murmuring because it likes the affection.

Now Andrew is almost grown, reasonably healthy although overprotected by his parents, ready to explore his world on his own. There is no more Oreo. Unstated is the fact that Oreo was sacrificed to save Andrew, though not entirely forgotten, with residual guilt.

An obvious ethical theme here. What the author doesn’t point out is that the fate befalling the donors isn’t unique or unusual, not in our carnivorous world.

“The Shadow You Cast Is Me” by Henry Lien

Here is a very sad, very depressing short piece about a man obsessed with his wife, who is perfection in all ways, or so he perceives her. He stalks her, taking photos of her in her sleep. She is a celebrity, she’s invited to events and he is not, probably her own wish. She refuses sex with him, yet she insists they remain married. She has given him an ultimatum: to “satisfy my needs” outside the marriage but not fall in love with anyone else. The narrator finds himself wishing “that there were some way that she could rape me and take whatever she wanted from me, because then there would have been something she had wanted from me.”

We can only think of the narrator that he is sick, that he suffers from an obsessive disorder, but what we lack is the wife’s point of view: why she wants to continue in the empty shell of the marriage. Did she ever love him at all? Did his obsession drive her away from him, or was her rejection the cause? From the narrator’s point of view, the relationship is a tragedy, but for her, it is likely something very different; the element of tragedy is that he doesn’t know, may never know. “Because one of us always walks in light, and one of us always walks behind. Always.” That’s beautifully expressed, and the story is perhaps the best I’ve seen from this author. Yet I can’t see in it anything fantastic.

“Auburn” by Joanna Ruocco

Farce, fantastic. Lord Abergavenny married Malvina Potts for the sake of her long and shining auburn hair, making her the ninth Lady Abergavenny, which should strike readers as more ominous than it apparently strikes Lady Abergavenny. He is not an ideal husband. He never is home in time for supper, and he drags his lady from one dismal, forested land to another in his searches for the rare Boffin Bird. He requires her to spend the days sitting in the forest “to improve her constitution by the strengthening vapors.” In fact, he is using her, which is to say her hair, as bait for his quarry, much as unicorn hunters may once have employed virgins [which would also seem to include Lady Abergavenny, although Lord Abergavenny isn’t in search of unicorns]. It isn’t clear if the quarry has devoured the nine previous Lady Abergavennys, or if they decamped, in which case milord may be a bigamist. But Lady Abergavenny is stout [of heart] and she has Had Quite Enough.

Amusing in the sort of repetitive way characteristic of this species of farce.

“The Square of Mirrors” by Dylan Horrocks

One consequence of the first-person, nameless narrator is the tendency of authors to neglect or deliberately refrain from indicating the gender of pronoun that might apply, which makes life difficult for reviewers. This nameless narrator was once a mage but left the profession to take up nothing in particular but looking out the window. I is currently living in the Square of Mirrors, although the mirrors seem to be illusory, or at least not glass. Someone has proposed glass as a subject for I’s book, and I becomes interested in a desert tribe that uses lightning to create glass out of sand, a process in which lives are always lost. This seems to imbue the glass with a supernatural quality, about which I speculates.

When Master Burbekker gazes on its dark frozen face, what does he see? The soul of the desert? The raging sky? Some elemental spirit, lonely and lost? Or himself, staring back from some finer, fairer world?

I never seems to look into the mirror of I’s self, so there is no reflection of who I is, only obscurity, as much for I as for the reader who sees through I’s eyes. The tale’s interest lies also in its setting, as I observes the events in the square, attractively different, which is the exotic, so important to fantastic fiction. From this outsider point of view, I begins to see magic again, which may be the missing reflection—or not.

“Sun Circles” by Jade Sylvan

Science fiction. When the first paragraphs of a story repeat the mention of “have a good laugh”, readers can be fairly sure that some kind of tragedy is in store. Here we have another nameless narrator, one for which I can find no excuse, who has been sent in a spacecraft, with only a parrot for company, to a distant world to determine if it’s suitable for human colonization. The narrator was selected for this voyage as a child, as being “the best with numbers and space in all the world”, but we later find reason to believe this child was considered deficient in aspects of life not involving numbers and space, and that it was thus supposed to be OK to send it into this lifelong solitary confinement. The narrative voice remains childish and repetitive although by the end, the narrator must be quite old and referring “the planet where I was a child”. No one, we have to assume, would send an actual child alone on such a voyage, with or without a parrot, which at least has a name, Tom, although its speech is nearly indistinguishable from the narrator’s. Tom has died by the time the spacecraft approaches its destination, and it seems likely that the narrator might die, as well, before it can send back the message saying that the world is or is not habitable. Which means, of course, that the narrator’s presence isn’t really necessary at all and thus the entire premise is artificial and untenable.

But it serves the story’s theme, which is the human need for companionship and love. We even have a reference to the Harlow experiment with baby monkeys, in case readers miss the point. What we see is how the narrator connects with the individuals in ground control, at first chatting back and forth and making repetitive jokes, but gradually losing that connection as the time lag increases so that it eventually takes over a year to receive a reply; individuals in ground control leave and are replaced by strangers, so that the only real, lasting connection the narrator has is with the parrot. I suspect that the childlike voice is intended to enhance the poignancy of the narrator’s situation, but I find that it has the opposite effect, particularly since I can’t take the premise seriously. At one point, the narrator is looking through “every cabin in the ship” for the lost parrot. Why are there a number of cabins in the ship, when there are no people to occupy them? Why send a sole passenger when there are cabins for more? Nope, not buying it. Not moved.

Apex Magazine, June 2015

Not too much originality in these scenarios, but the stories do what they can with them.

“Inhabiting Your Skin” by Mari Ness

Another sentient house, this one a nanny house in the usual sort of nanny state. Unfortunately for the house, while made responsible for its resident’s welfare, it’s not adequately enabled to do much about it, other than locking the resident inside, which isn’t what the nameless 2nd-person resident actually needs. You has fallen into depression after the loss of a girlfriend and wants to do nothing but eat pizza and lie in bed, but the house nags in desperation and makes deals with its charge, which only enable its dysfunction. You often hallucinates, which leads directly to the ambiguous conclusion—a good use of the 2nd-person.

When you finally fall asleep, between all the continued tingling and the inexplicable craving for pizza, you dream that the paint is changing in you. No, not you. Your rooms. You. Everything is askew. Moved. Trembling. You have to see it. You have to see what’s going on. You send a current of power running through your walls as the lights come blazing on. The power shoots right back into you, making your walls—no, you—shake. You can feel yourself shaking all the way down to your foundations. You will need repairs.

Some clever stuff here, though the basic premise is pretty old. I also note that the protagonist, spending all day and night in bed, seems to have no visible means of support to pay for the house and the pizza delivery. That’s quite a nanny state.

“Proximity” by Alex Livingston

Socialmediapunk. This protagonist seems to go by the nom de net Tipsy, if I have that straight, and she makes her living stealing the metadata from the phones of strangers, “tasty usage statistics the data providers pay my crew so well for. Every day we cast our nets and haul in hundreds of shimmering little stats”, which she and her crew then sell to the providers. Tipsy is good at what she does because she selectively curates the data, trolling the users most likely to be highly connected, highly rated, passing by those who obviously want to be noticed and homing in on the secretive and discreet. What she does also happens to be a crime. Tipsy also has ambitions to be connected in her own right in the arts field, which causes her to take risks that her crew doesn’t approve.

Much of the text is concerned rather obsessively with the details of the rating system, based on the proximity to a person who actually matters. It’s all highly contrived and artificial, which is why it’s so refreshing when Tipsy meets a person who doesn’t seem to be part of the net at all. But it’s also pretty derivative, a mix of today’s media nets with older tropes of cyberpunk. I note that the ubiquitous devices that drive the net are called “phones”, which is very 2015 and not convincingly futurey.

“Foreclosure” by D J Cockburn

A dystopian British setting, as they so often are, in a world suffering from global ocean rise, drowning London among other areas. This hasn’t been good for the banking and mortgage businesses, which have used their influence to pass stringent new laws enforcing payment of debts, even unto a pound of transplantable flesh. Colin is a striver working for bank collections, come to extract payment from a bankrupt whose mortgaged home is literally under water. Colin expects the usual sob story and pleas for forbearance, which he is quite ready to refuse.

So much of customer relations came down to choosing the right smile. Colin assumed the most professional smile in his repertoire. He couldn’t understand why so many of them asked that question. Did they think he’d have some sort of existential crisis and walk out on a job he’d been damn lucky to land in the first place?

Classic If This Goes On scenario with a sharply vengeful twist at the conclusion. The story is a moral one, making that point that the triumph of evil requires functionaries to facilitate it, whose excuse comes only second to “I was only following orders.”

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

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

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

Gary K. Wolfe reviews Silvia Moreno-Garcia

Signal to Noise, Silvia Moreno-Garcia (Solaris 978-1-78108-299-7, $9.99, 272pp, tp) February 2015.

Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s debut novel Signal to Noise – a title so broadly utilitarian that it’s probably already been overused – also deals in that trope of past trauma remembered in later years, a trope that might be most concisely distilled as ‘‘something happened’’ (although Joseph Heller’s novel of that title isn’t really about it at all). Moreno-Garcia uses the trope in such an ingratiating way, though, and with such intriguingly conflicted characters, that it seems vibrantly new. I think it’s one of the most important fantasy debuts of the year so far, despite that almost-generic title, that familiar trope, and the fact that on the surface it looks like a coming-of-age novel about teenage witches. But Sabrina would get eaten alive by Moreno-Garcia’s problematical and razor-edged protagonist Meche, and any readers hoping for a franchise-ready Beautiful Creatures will find themselves not in YA-franchise land, but in a mature and beautifully written tale about the ways in which adults negotiate with their memories and with their younger selves. In a strange way, given the importance of music in the novel, it may owe far more to Billie Holiday and Procol Harum (or even to Greil Marcus, given a short bit about bluesman Robert Johnson) than to any sort of genre fantasy.

The novel opens in Mexico City in 2009, when Meche, now living and working as a ‘‘code monkey’’ in Oslo, returns home after her father’s death. The father, a failed songwriter who abandoned the family when Meche was a teenager, nevertheless passed on his passion for vinyl recordings of everyone from Ella Fitzgerald, to Leonard Cohen, to Spanish bands like Duncan Dhu, and this music has provided the cultural and emotional touchstones of her life ever since. Even more important, in a parallel narrative set back in 1988, the 15-year-old Meche (given name: Mercedes) finds that these same vinyl recordings, or at least some of them, serve as talismans for her own witchy talents, presumably inherited from her grandmother, who tells tales of folkloric witchcraft which she herself has witnessed. When Meche discovers that she seems to have this power – by causing a school bully to fall down some stairs – she enlists her friends Sebastian and Daniela to start experimenting. Sebastian is a sort of half-assed punk and an intellectual who wants Meche to read things like Henry James’s The Ambassadors, while Daniela is the sort of teen girl who likes Barbies and cooks mealy things in her EZ-Bake oven. They make an odd trio, and as they learn the powers of their collective rituals – using those vinyl records as power sources – they find clever but immature ways of exacting vengeance on annoying teachers, principals, and rivals.

But – as I mentioned earlier – something happens, and much of the suspense of the novel lies in discovering why the 36-year-old Meche, returning for the first time in years, is so reluctant to reconnect with Sebastian and Daniela, both of whom are also back in Mexico City, and both of whom she will need to deal with in connection with her father’s funeral. In the 2009 chapters of the story, there is virtually no magic or fantasy, and we are led to suspect that the witchcraft in the 1988 chapters escalates toward some crisis that may explain Meche’s 2009 reluctance to reconnect. That is indeed the case, although the judiciousness with which Moreno-Garcia parcels out her magical effects keeps us focused on her central concern, which is primarily Meche and secondarily Sebastian, Daniela, Meche’s parents – especially her dad – and her grandmother. Daniela comes closest to a stereotype, the slightly dim but well-meaning high school follower who later becomes a conventional mom, but Sebastian is more intriguing, with his literary interests, which don’t quite follow him into his later life as a marketing director, and Meche is most intriguing of all, with her visceral understanding of how the magic of blues, jazz, and rock can inform the more traditional magic of Mexican folk tradition. She’s neither particularly sympathetic nor romanticized, but her anger and her pain are as real as her connection to the music. When, toward the end of her 2009 return to Mexico City, she finally reads her father’s unfinished and unpublished magnum opus about the music that he and she loved, she tells her mom that it’s pretty good, and she leaves us wanting to know what he said.

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Paul Di Filippo reviews Chris Beckett

Mother of Eden, Chris Beckett (Broadway 978-0-8041-3870-3, $15, 480pp, trade paperback) May 2015

Return with me now to the thrilling days of yesteryear—namely July of 2013—when I had occasion to review in this same cyberspace Chris Beckett’s novel Dark Eden. Are you up to speed on this intriguing universe? Good! Now we can address the entrancing and laterally different sequel, Mother of Eden.

One of the great things about science fiction is its capaciousness, its big-tent welcome to any number of different stories and modes that fall outside the central core of future worlds & robots & starships & dystopias & time travel, etc. A certain novel can read as if it belongs in some other genre, yet be pure SF. This is one of the reasons a broad consensus definition of the genre is so hard to attain. Any time you think you have an airtight definition, exceptions by the handful arise, books which are indubitably SF yet don’t fit this particular straitjacket.

I mentioned in my review of Dark Eden that it overlapped partially with the Clan of the Cave Bear-type novel, the kind of story that is about humans prior to our civilization learning the rudiments of how the world works. Of course, in Beckett’s scenario, it’s future humans who have been stripped of civilization by dire circumstances and now have to regain it. (And in a sense, so estranged are they from us that they almost resemble aliens.) I also alluded to the kind of “steel beach” cloistered and formative environment tale done by Niven and Baxter among others. But I did not have the sense at the time to mention the one book that Dark Eden most resembled, and that would be Jack Vance’s The Dragon Masters. Now, in this volume, Beckett conflates Vance’s The Last Castle, with its saga of isolated battling redoubts, to produce a work that carries his stranded offworlders a step further in their skewed recapitulation of the same grim eras that humanity endured on the home planet.

It is a couple of generations beyond the events of the prior book, and humanity is doing fairly well on their new strange planet with no sunlight. Several centers of civilization now exist, and although they are puny by Earth standards (one of the biggest, Edenheart, has thirty whole structures!), they represent a major improvement in living conditions. A native source of metal has been discovered; clothing is more sophisticated; and even money has been invented! Plainly, things are looking up.

Although he employs very clever alternating points-of-view from chapter to chapter, which shed Rashomon-style contrasting lights on matters, our heroine is plainly Starlight Brooking. A beautiful, smart yet somewhat naïve girl from one of the more primitive settlements, she travels to a big trading town, has her mind opened, then falls for the visiting scion of Edenheart, young Greenstone Johnson. They immediately bond out of both romantic and practical inclinations, and soon Starlight is saying goodbye to her kin and making the long dark journey to Edenheart, to become the wife of this young headman (contingent on the eventual natural death of Greenstone’s father). This narrative is to be Starlight’s strange journey, from the depths to the heights and down to the depths of existence again, before finding an ultimate equilibrium. I might also mention at this junction that Beckett’s linguistic experimentation, while still evident and pleasurable, seems somewhat toned down for this outing, as if he were more focused on the all-too-human story rather than the already accomplished worldbuilding.

What Beckett is doing here, in some ways, is giving us a kind of bush-leagues Game of Thrones, all powerplays and betrayals and factions, nobility mixed with scurrilousness. It’s small scale, but none the less impactful for the players—and none the less fascinating to follow, despite its small scale. (Greenstone’s father compares life for the Headsman to an endless game of chess.) Donning Gela’s Ring, a rare talismanic remnant of Earth, Starlight becomes a kind of Evita figure, out to redeem the “small people” of Edenheart, as well as the enslaved native “cutbats.” As is almost inevitable in such legends, she bucks the establishment and the establishment punches back. She is thrown into a fight for survival that brings out her utmost courage and resourcefulness.

Beckett’s themes are societal inequalities, the strengths and dangers of mythmaking, the ways in which knowledge is power. One gets an almost Biblical, early dynastic sense of history here, and something of a foreshadowing that life on Eden will continue to replicate the lines of the history we know. Will the next installment jump forward to find the planet in Medieval or Renaissance conditions? Something along those lines, I bet.

One final aspect of the book to mention: the Romeo and Juliet star-crossed relationship between Starlight and Greenstone. (Starlight even acquires a Nurse figure named Quietstream, to complete the resonance.) When events drive the lovers apart, each to their own separate fate, it’s truly heartbreaking. This added dimension to what might otherwise have been a slightly programmatic lesson in the rise-and-fall of two reformers shows us Beckett’s skill and passion at play.

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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