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Lois Tilton reviews Short Fiction, late October

This time, the bonus fiction comes from Beneath Ceaseless Skies, with a sixth anniversary double issue added onto a three-issue month. We also have more of the regular and less regular ezines. I give the high scores for October to BCS and

Publications Reviewed

Beneath Ceaseless Skies #157-159, October 2014

Twice as many stories as a usual month for this zine, with the editor presenting some favorite authors for the anniversary double issue, which introduces us to ghosts and spirits. Issue #158 has tragedy, and #159 is horror, appropriate for the date.


“The Sorrow of Rain” by Richard Parks

A Lord Yamada story. Yamada and his sidekick Kenji have been summoned to a village where unceasing rain threatens the rice harvest. From the local shrine, Yamada sees the rain spirit, watching and waiting for someone who never comes.

She stood about thirty paces from us. The shrine was nestled onto the crown of a wooded hill overlooking the village of Aoiyama. The rain spirit had stationed herself at a spot where there was a gap in the evergreens and one could see the village below and the rice paddies beyond it. ‘Blue Mountain,’ the peak that gave the village its name, towered above all some distance away on the left. There was no sound except for the rain on the roof of the shrine and the clinking and splashing as the water flowed down the rain chains located at the eaves on the four corners of the building. The rain spirit, of course, stood bareheaded in the rainfall and seemed to take little notice of it, except to occasionally lift her hand and delicately lick a few raindrops from her pale fingers.

He has already questioned the village headman, Yoshimasa, but the old man has clearly kept some secret back. And now there is a death spirit at the side of his bed, giving Yamada very little time to uncover the mystery.

A moving, simple story in a setting that evokes a scene on a painted scroll. The Yamada stories can sometimes be dauntingly tricky, as the demon-hunting detective cracks a problem with sharp-edged logic more often than his sword. This is a gentle tale, in which the characters have only to face and accept the inevitable. It requires no prior familiarity with the series to appreciate.


“Heaven Thunders the Truth” by K J Parker

The narrator [who has a good reason for namelessness] is a young doctor, which is to say a wizard, which is to say that one day a supernatural snake crawled into his head and took up residence. The snake is incapable of lying, or so she says, and thus the narrator is also incapable, except at great cost; the king bears the titular title and lies whenever he pleases. The kings in this place have the habit of killing off their relatives, lest they attempt to usurp the throne. The narrator has inadvertently discovered that the current king’s dead brother had a son and a daughter who are still alive. After killing the girl, the king summons the narrator and demands that he find his brother’s missing son. Which of course leads to complications.

The narrator, like all doctors, has many sources of advice in his quest – the snake, of course, but also a vast crowd of ghosts. The ghosts usually tell the truth, but they don’t always reveal everything they know.

It’s in our dreams, though, that we meet and talk to our own kind. There’s actually nothing particularly special about that, we do the same as you but in a different way, but at least we have the advantage that we can consult or spend time with any of our kind, regardless of the trivial constraints of geography, or indeed whether they happen to be alive or dead.

One of these ghosts is the king’s dead brother, whom the narrator rather likes, but who will haunt him if he carries through with the king’s demand. But the king will kill him if he doesn’t.

One reason I was particularly unhappy in learning that the Subterranean online magazine had been discontinued was the prospect of life without new Parker stories. Happily, I find they will now be appearing here in BCS. This one features a magic system with which I’m not otherwise familiar, told in the author’s usual wry and witty narrative voice. The concluding theme turns out to be truth and the utility of a lie, but there are other issues to engage readers. I look forward to more of these.


“The Moon over Red Trees” by Aliette de Bodard

Historical fantasy set in Vietnam [known here as Cochinchina] during the time of French imperialist rule when rich Europeans liked to collect the valuable treasures of the country – ivories and jade and artworks – the valued heritage of families that had no choice in giving them up. The narrator’s family lost many treasures that way, most notably scrolls written in an ancestor’s calligraphy; these, they have vowed to retrieve with the help of a spirit’s magic. The narrator’s sister chose the way of the sword, and failed. The narrator took another path, a French name, and an appearance suitable for seducing the Frenchman who possesses her family treasures. But magic has its own costs.

It was the magic, of course; it was as false as her appearance, as her identity; but she can’t erase the memories; the sweet rush of them, the happiness from other simpler times, a feeling she cannot afford anymore. Her future in Cochinchina will be made of whispers and frowns and speculations, and of a hasty marriage to a man who will prize an alliance with her family above the rumours about her virginity.

There’s dreamlike quality to this one, as the narrator wanders her lover’s house in the night, searching, feeling the magic falling away and her true self returning, now that she has found what was lost. At one point, readers will suspect her of planning revenge, with more than sufficient reason, but the story takes a different path. Readers familiar with the author’s recent work will recognize, despite the shift from SF future to fantasy past, the same concern with ancestral heritage and the gynocentric family structure. Traditionally, the role assigned here to the sister would be played by a brother.

“Butterfly House” by Gwendolyn Clare

Yinghua is a butterfly keeper for the Empress, on a disagreeable mission to collect Corpsewings from enemy dead for the imperial butterfly house. Uniquely, this species feeds on the bodies of the dead, and myth has it that they were created to carry the souls of dead warriors into heaven.

A sea of bodies stretched away to the next hilltop and, she guessed, beyond. Blood stained the trampled earth, and the dark silhouettes of a hundred vultures spun lazy circles against a lapis-blue sky. She wanted to shrink away from the vastness of the carnage. How could he look upon this and wonder if the quantity of death was insufficient?

But after she has collected what she sought, the butterflies come to her dreams, causing Yinghua to doubt her mission.

This is in a way an ambiguous fantasy, although clearly set in a secondary world. The invented myth underlying it may or may not be fact-based, and the ending deliberately leaves matters inconclusive, hinting at sinister possibilities. There are intervals in the text devoted to butterfly lore, which don’t do a lot to advance the plot but add color to the setting.


“The Leaves upon Her Falling Light” by Gregory Norman Bossert

The chase, the hunt, was a very big deal in medieval life; forests were royal hunting reserves, and the noblest beasts of venery were reserved for the noblest hunters. So came the young prince Hugh into the woods to seek out “the hart in his harbouring” for the morrow’s chase. But whom he finds there is Tallys, the Wild Woman of the Wood, who is a lot older than medieval kings.

She seemed of an age with him, though where he was pale, sunlight on stone under open skies, she was every dark shade of the forest, green on brown, brambled hair and eyes like oak leaves. She seemed a girl, though she might have been brambles and oak leaves not long before.

Tallys is concerned about Hugh’s cousin Edouard, who will one day be Duke and Master of Game; she thinks he lacks the proper respect and fear of the wild places. But it isn’t Edouard to whom she gives a crippling vision but Hugh, who never recovers from the fear of that encounter. There is some suggestion that Edouard is involved, that he sent the boy into the woods when he was too young, or in some other manner conspired to weaken the heir to the throne, to take his place. It is Edouard who finds the boy under her spell, protected either by his hound or by the hart he had come to hunt [here is where the story is most unclear and Tallys most ambiguous]. But the ongoing enmity between Edouard and Tallys only grows as Hugh’s mind deteriorates, even with the support of a strong and devoted wife.

There’s a strong mythic tone here. The horned god and the mistress of beasts are among the eldest deities we have had. But Tallys as a goddess of this wood isn’t wise enough, or she makes a fatal error. The story is a tragedy, the destruction of an innocent in the course of a struggle between two greater enemies. Edouard, of course, is guilty by his nature; he is the villain of the piece. But the guilt belongs to Tallys. We find her at the end in a state of penance, which seems proper and right. What isn’t clear is what she thought she was doing with Hugh in the first place.

“The Rugmaker’s Lovers” by Brynne Macnab

The rugmaker is a weaver of magic, who looms her own house and settles in a village where she does a good trade and becomes a respected woman. All is well until a warrior comes through on his way to battle and falls in love with her. The rugmaker’s sight tells her this is not a man of peace, and she cannot marry a man who kills. Although she feels regret, she turns down his proposal of marriage, saying,

“I am a humble woman, and you have paid me a higher compliment than I deserve. Surely it was not the work of my hands but the presence of God in his church that disturbed your dreams. If you are afraid to lose that, do not go to this war, but go home and confess to your priest and ask him to take you into the brotherhood. That way you will follow God in whatever strange paths He may choose for you, and you will never be without what you have felt.”

Some time later, a minstrel comes to the village and asks to marry her, promising only his songs. She accepts, but discontent follows, leading finally to grief.

If this story, like the one above, can be called tragedy, it’s not in the same sense. The rugmaker’s sin is a personal one, a sin of weakness. No one here suffers undeserved; no one is an innocent. The scale is domestic, not dynastic. And some of the characters, at least, manage to find a manner of peace in the end, if not actual happiness or joy.


“Drawn Up from Deep Places” by Gemma Files

A Jerusalem Parry story. Our sorcerous hero is now a pirate ship’s captain, haunted by the ghost of his predecessor. As he was once taken onboard from the sea, he now takes onboard a young woman who calls herself Clione, who is apparently a seer, as she can perceive the ghost who follows him about. But she proves to be much more, and the sexually-innocent Parry is an easy mark for her wiles.

What followed in this maelstrom’s spindrift, however, was pleasure piled on pleasure: laxity, satiation, a deep and pleasant slumber, and for once blessedly dreamless….

…but only to a point.

Sorcerous action/horror. Clione is one of those many denizens of the deep to delight in luring sailors to their deaths, a succubus perhaps more than a siren. Parry, despite his innate power, is naïve and vulnerable to her charms. In fact, too vulnerable, too full of weeping and self-pity. While he is lost in the arms of the demon, it takes a crowd of ghosts to extract and save him. A weak character.

“The Burned Man” by Hannah Strom-Martin

The Burned Man counsels the narrator to avoid the fires of love.

Everyone in Div Kamia knows the Burned Man. Everyone has seen his tower appear. The Burned Man stands before the tower with the white dust both rising and settling around him, and his face and his form are as black as the candles that Sanjiib fortunetellers burn in their tents. He is diminished, also, like a candle, and there are stripes—awful red—on his melted skin. His hands though, when he bares them from his shroud, are lovely: brown and sinuous as the river. No one knows why his hands were spared. No one has ever seen the Burned Man’s shadow.

The Burned Man was once the confidant of Indri Pasha and also procured women for his harem. When he saw the new priestess of Pilara, he was enthralled by love but also know that the pasha would want her for the harem. So it came to pass, but still he burned for her, while they exchanged messages of love. At last she opened her doors to him, but alas, her love was a trap. The pasha, a sorcerer, sentenced him in punishment to endless torment, but the Burned Man was determined to take revenge in his own turn. Now, where the pasha’s palace once stood, he appears every day at the height of noon.

A tale of treachery and vengeance. The author leaves the narrator’s response as a mystery to readers – will he take the lesson or will he continue to pursue his own perilous love?

The Dark, November 2014

Only one tale here is at all horrific, and the rest aren’t really particularly dark.

“Calamity, the Silent Trick” by Sara Saab

An unusual, fanciful premise: “The universe was once an elemental batter, poured out of perfect enameled thimbles. This new universe clung jealously to itself, chemicals clutching like threatened lovers.” For the ninety elements, there are thirty entities, each with three of the cups. Our narrator is Au, whose cups once held gold, zirconium, and sulfur. Now, they are employed in a shell game of life and death. Au is called to deal the cups for a young boxer struck a possibly-fatal blow in a match. Three cups go down and Au picks one; if a ball is beneath it, Luccas Santo will die. There is no ball. But Au, contrary to the ways of the elemental kind, takes an interest in this human and begins to follow his subsequent life. The others don’t approve.

Not so much a dark fantasy as a kind of science fantasy, using the metaphor of the elements. But it makes little sense to me that the elements of the entire universe would be so concerned with the fates of some members of a single marginal species on a backwater rockball. There are two distinct story elements here, and they don’t really fit together into a coherent whole.

“The Three Familiars” by Eric Schaller

An unsuspecting couple give birth to a witch. They indulge the child, who returns their love with abuse and hides in the attic, cultivating spiders as familiars, feeding them on blood.

She also heard his shriek when he, rummaging through the sewing box, pierced his finger on a needle. “Jesus,” he cried. He sucked the blood from his finger. From the corner of his eye he saw a movement in the shadows. He had seen a fungus there earlier. Now the fungus dislocated itself from the ceiling and descended as if suspended on twine.

The power of a witch is in her blood, but she can’t give birth to a child of her own. She cultivates her familiars until she finds a way. The witch may be clever, but she’s not very wise.

Icky dark humor, mocking parental love. I like the suggestion of irony in the narrative.

“Mourning Flags and Wildflowers” by Patricia Russo

Borro didn’t understand when Arrani told him, “When we are married, our children will be wildflowers.”

“Wildflowers,” she said, more softly. “I will sleep in the autumn, but awaken again in the spring. And you will be the father of millions.”

Arrani always had too much wildness in her. She led him into the woods, farther from the village than they should have gone, and he carried her body back. The women planted her.

This one is interestingly weird, original, but not in a very dark way. I like the look at the village structure, the divisions between men and women, who are clearly the ones in charge, the ones who can hear the voices in the world.

“Home at Gloom’s End” by Naim Kabir

This is the sort of piece that usually appears as science fiction. The premise is that a vent on the seafloor has suddenly produced sentience in the denizens of the deep and dark, who are now engaged in producing a civilization. The prophets who live on the sides of the vent have promised a Metamorphosis, a world in which darkness alternates with light, which readers will recognize as daylight. They give a task to the narrator, a squid – to find the Hardwhale and bring it to them, and readers will also recognize it. In fact, much of the interest here is seeing the setting in human terms and conjecturing how this world came to pass. There is also the way the awakened fish [most of whom aren’t actually fish] set about recreating gods and other unnecessary trappings of human societies. But I’ve seen this sort of thing rather too often to be greatly impressed.

Strange Horizons, October 2014

One long story divided in half, one very short one.

“Santos de Sampaguitas” by Alyssa Wong

Tíntín comes from an indigenous Filipino family that sends its daughters to work as maids for rich families in Manila. One night the family god comes to her dreams declaring it is now time for her to become his disciple, because her mother is dead. She was marked at birth with a crippled arm as a sign that she is the heir to the power. Now the dead god will teach her to be a manananggal, to transform herself and fly at night. Tíntín doesn’t feel she is ready for this next step in her life, and she bargains with the god for some extraordinary boon, such as returning her mother to life. What she really wants is the boy who works in the jewelry shop, who has given her a locket as a gift, but in taking it, she has made a fatal mistake, as her god angrily tells her.

I am not the only god in the region. And Manila is an amalgamation of many peoples from many regions. For the first time, the dead god sounds contemptuous. Perhaps you fancy yourself special, Christina Maria Reyes. But there are plenty of other witch-families that would love to stamp you—and me, with you—out completely, and they are much more powerful than an uninitiated girl-child and a stray god without a disciple. It breathes its fetid odor into my face. Maybe I have been too lax on you and have not emphasized the danger your family is in. The danger that you brought into this house!

Several interesting elements here, most notably the Filipino folklore, which is quite rich in demonic figures such as the manananggal, which leaves its legs behind in a hidden place as the rest of it flies around, up to no good. There is also the tension between this sort of magic and the Catholic culture of families such as Tín’s employers, the Calderones; her full name clearly reflects this aspect of the social mix in which she lives.

But I do have to wonder why her mother has sent her to Manila as a maid instead of keeping her at home to learn about her heritage, for which she would then have been better prepared when the time came; her ignorance had fatal consequences. If it had been a matter of needing the money, surely the powers could have provided. Or perhaps the decision had been Tín’s own, to follow her sister, perhaps, but if so, it’s not clear in the text.

The manananggal who is her family’s enemy is definitely shown as an evil creature; folklore suggests that it attacks fetuses. But there is no suggestion that Tín’s mother was likewise malevolent, or that Tín would become so once she came into her powers. This is a potential source of story tension that isn’t explored here.

“Dream Cakes” by Kelly Jennings

Ella cooks the cakes to order, by instinct, for each customer who demands one. The results aren’t always what the customer had in mind.

Ella felt the familiar shiver as the universe reshaped around her: deep within her, the familiar sharp sweet pleasure, laced with the bright razor of guilt. She gripped the bowl of walnuts between her palms.

Neat little piece., October 2014

Some entertaining and enjoyable original stories from this site in October. I had plenty of fun with these.

“Daughter of Necessity” by Marie Brennan

An insightful reinterpretation of Penelope’s story: the real reason she kept weaving and reweaving the shroud for Odysseus.

Night after night, fate after fate. She can only keep trying. Surely somewhere, in all the myriad crossings of the threads, there is a future in which all will be well.

It hints also at the fate of Arachne, with a single glimpse of the jealous and implacable goddess it is wisest not to offend, but who is also her husband’s protector on his homeward journey. In fact, there’s also a faint hint that she may not just be setting up a future but altering the past, and that perhaps the favor of Athena might even be the result of Penelope’s work rather than Odysseus’s own virtue.

[Pedantry Alert] I know of no mythological source that traces Penelope’s ancestry to the Spinners – aka the Fates, even if Plato is correct about their being the daughters of Necessity rather than Themis, which is a pretty good revision in its own right. On the other hand, nothing in the literature says that she isn’t. Still, I doubt that she could be descended from all three.


“Mrs Sorensen and the Sasquatch” by Kelly Barnhill

A love story. Agnes Sorensen loved her husband. She did. But in marrying him, she perforce gave up certain things, like the companionship of animals [he was allergic] and the hope of children [infertile]. He died at an age when his widow was still an attractive woman, so that the eligible men of the town took notice. But she had ideas of her own for living the rest of her life, beginning with his funeral, to which she invited a number of animal friends.

A warmhearted tale that is given a special poignancy by the character of Father Laurence, who has, we discover, secretly and unrequitedly loved Agnes Sorensen since she was a girl. As she comes back to life, so does he.

He rubbed his ever-loosening jowls and cleared his throat. Seeing no one there (except for a family of rabbits that was, en masse, emerging from under the row of box elders), Father Laurence felt a sudden, inexplicable, and unbridled surge of joy—to which he responded with a quick clench of his two fists and a swallowed yes. He nearly bounced.

The tone is mild humor [perhaps straining too much for the effect with the trio of crotchety crones who make up the Parish Council], heartwarming with a touch of melancholy.

“This Chance Planet” by Elizabeth Bear

In an almost-contemporary Moscow, Petra has hooked up with a no-good guy who sponges off her, cheats on her, and cares for nothing but taking his garage band on tour. To this end, he has latched onto a scheme in which people will be paid for using their bodies to grow organs for transplant. Naturally, he wants Petra to do this, not himself, as it would ruin the look of his skinny jeans on stage; this is the sort of man for whom women are there to use.

I should have been suspicious then. He was being much, much too agreeable. But I had gotten distracted by the way that fringe of hair moved across his pale forehead. And the little crinkles of his frown, the way the motion pulled the tip of his nose downward.

Fortunately for Petra, she meets a dog on the subway who sets her straight.

One of the great mysteries of the universe is the way so many women fall for nogoodnik men. The story shines some light onto this problem by way of a lot of neat lines:

This is how women sometimes turn into witches. We come home from work one day too many to discover our partners curled up on the couch like leeches in a nice warm tank, and we decide it’s better to take up with a hut with chicken legs.
A good chicken-legged hut will never disappoint you.

I really did enjoy this one.

Kaleidotrope, Autumn 2014

Some interesting and unusual fiction in this issue, mostly on the dark side.

“Redwing” by Maigen Turner

Set on a world inhabited by both humans and a catlike species possessing both claws and magic, which makes them formidable, especially the forces of the Clawling empire, which is opposed by both humans and rebels of their own species. Kuet is particularly hostile to them since they killed her husband under the colors of a false truce, but her brother has been working with the clawling insurgency. Now a clawling messenger comes with news of his death, urging her to join their forces.

The plot of this one is overly predictable.

“A Gift of Dead Flesh” by Andrew Kaye

Necromancy. Here we have a country where necromancy is a way of life and its weaker neighbor where the practice is forbidden. The necromancer Aurelio, with powerful connections to the Merchants Guild, has been arrested and abused in prison by his jailer, Proximo, who has personal reasons to despise him. Now his release has been arranged, but Aurelio has unfinished business before he leaves town.

Aurelio was only half listening. While the man spoke, he put two fingers into his mouth, then daubed the blood across the floor in a series of arcane symbols. The blood glowed beneath his fingertips, as if smearing fireflies. He whispered a few words, heard the man gurgle, thud to his knees.

The necromancy is quite interesting, as is Aurelio’s vengeful scheme. But the author, perhaps for the sake of the concluding surprise, has left out too much information. For a story this short, there are too many points of view, and other than Aurelio, we have no idea who any of these people actually are or what they want.

“Victoria’s One-way Ticket” by Emily Cataneo

A city, at least, where automatons are commonly made for any number of purposes. Victoria was created by a woman as a companion; she is an artist who specializes in murals, having achieved a considerable renown and royal commendation. But this, as all things, must pass, and she is suffering now from the machine equivalence of old age, for which her society has a humane solution. Victoria comes to accept that her time has come. There is a place, they call it a bathhouse, for this purpose.

Before her, just a few feet away, stretched ice. Ice the color of the collar on Creator-Mum’s Sunday dress, receding so far that Victoria couldn’t see the edge. Steps away, dark water lapped at a hole cut in the ice.

While ostensibly about machines, I find this a story about people of any sort whose lives are coming to an end, gradually overcome by disabilities, overtaken by obsolescence and irrelevancy. There is a heartbreaking quality to Victoria’s final days, as she reluctantly convinces herself that this world has no more need for her, or she no place in it. But it’s hard not to feel that from a human point of view, she is fortunate. Indeed, more fortunate than most here and now, who have no access to such a place as the bathhouse with its considerate attendants. I can’t see the use of the “anointment” she receives there, however; what purpose it is supposed to serve in the process.

“The Glamour” by Eric Schaller

Karen is a fairy with the power to take new bodies. At first, she is a mayfly, a dragonfly, and in such guises she takes Roland as her lover. Together they are crows when she falls in love with the human form, despite Roland’s objection. She also, inexplicably, falls in love with a young boy named Henry who grows up to be a real prick, encouraging Karen to take one new body after another for his sexual titillation.

Despite a Benjamin Braddock scene in which crow Roland flies into the window of the church at her wedding to Henry, he is really only a good match in comparison to the clichéd Henry; the two males are very much alike, only demonstrating that Karen has really lousy taste in mates. There may have been some more profound theme intended, but it’s not coming across.

“Read Shift” by Sharon D King

Whimsically absurd version of classic nursery rhymes, centered on the Hubbard family and their errant cupboard.

“Spinning the Thread” by Gregory Norman Bossert

In noirest old Chicago, Billy O’Fay was a gangster in the protection racket who had a tailor’s shop torched. The tailor’s wife was caught in the fire, and the man came to Billy’s room with a shotgun to force him to “see what you did.” But things went sideways and the tailor blew Billy’s brains out. At which point, the story begins as Billy wakes to a sense of wrongness. It happens that Billy’s lover Bridie is a powerful witch, and when she saw his brains blown all over the place, she started to spin them back together – a difficult, painstaking task. Bridie has her own reasons for doing this, but Billy is fixated on revenge, going to confront Janicki the tailor despite all her warnings that her work is too easily undone.

The tone in her voice was enough to set me staggering back into the dark. But I focused on the stench, and the anger, and the thought that a little longer is what I needed, too. “I’m taking a step now, Bridie,” I said, then I did. I could feel the nerves pulling, another few inches gone for good, I guess, but I was one step closer to the door, and to Pens’s big ugly face.

A striking premise, with an unusual but quite believable use of witchcraft. Although there’s no direct references to the Fates, it’s impossible not to feel them subtly evoked. The tone is noir rather than horror, as it employs the classical first-person narrative with a self-deprecating tone that lightens the atmosphere. Told in a different voice, it would be darkest horror indeed, and the subject matter, the innocent dead woman, keeps pulling it in that direction. But Bridie pulls back, insisting that this is a love story, even among the damned.

Bastion, October 2014

Taking a second look at this ezine, which suffered from excessive newishness in the first issue I read. The eight stories here are all short, clearly sciencefictional, with an overall darkness of tone. I’d say the editors are getting the hang of it.

“Zero’s Hour” by Eric de Carlo

A future in which deceased crime victims can be temporarily resurrected to give evidence to the police – a period lasting only sixty minutes, for reasons we aren’t told. Alfeo Jurado was just murdered, and now his body finds himself a zero, as they are called. The policeman to whom he is assigned is anxious to make the most of the allowable minutes, inexorably counting down while the zero has to come to terms with bodily awkwardness, the uncomfortable rubber suit in which he is encased, the tenuous state of his memory. But every minute that brings him more fully back to humanity is bringing him closer to the end.

Nice conclusion, well felt and expressed.

“When the Wind Blows on Tristan da Cunha” by Meryl Stenhouse

The setting here is real, an isolated island in the South Atlantic inhabited by only three hundred rather inbred individuals. Gemma Glass knows and despises them all, considering herself special because of her mother, who, she alleges, “came in with the tide one day, and one day went away again, before I even learned to say her name.” This makes Gemma special, she believes, and also because she is subject to the visual phenomena known as phosgenes. Gemma has learned that astronauts see these when passing through the radiation belt, so she has come to think the universe has selected her to reveal its secrets. Her lifelong ambition has been to leave the island, and now that she is finished with school at age sixteen, she is determined to put her plan into action by seducing the resident astronomer doing research at the local observatory.

I suspect the author wants readers to have sympathy for Gemma, but I’m not buying in. Even for a teenaged girl, Gemma is a paragon of selfishness, pursuing her own way with no regard for her father or for the astronomer Luca, who knows better than to succumb to her underaged wiles. Strictly speaking, this isn’t science fiction but rather a mainstream piece about a character who believes herself possessed of sciencefictional powers.

“Waterman High Speed Axials” by William R D Wood

Post apocalypse, the cause this time being the escape of lab-bred particles that bind to any available water molecules, thus turning the Earth to dust. In this landscape, Parson guards the water he’s horded inside Waterman’s, the facility where his father used to work; father, who taught him everything he knows.

Why else would everyone who happened along this way try to get in, if not because they thought they’d find water at Waterman’s? People were desperate and the few who remained getting more so every day. The end of the world hadn’t been quick and merciful after all. Folks had had lots of time to suffer. To pillage this and ransack that. Mostly for survival. Sometimes just out of meanness.

For Parson, it’s simply a matter of survival, and he’d resent the suggestion that he’s a sociopath, insisting that all his actions are rational. Which of course sociopaths always say. Yet the author doesn’t believe him and wants us to believe it was his father’s fault. With regard to which, we have insufficient evidence.

“Time Enough” by Salena Casha

Henry’s friend Peter just ran out of time and combusted, and now Henry is suffering an existential crisis and survivor guilt. This is a world where the population except for the very rich and privileged has an implanted timer that measures out the span of their lives. Work or other transactions load minutes onto the timers, but the government encourages expenditure, the squandering of lives. While it isn’t explicit, we get the impression of a population problem.

Henry’s gut lurched. He could picture Peter’s own, his own, with spider web veins that wove around a black timepiece whose digital seconds counted down the years, days, hours, minutes, seconds they had left. Dragging on his cigarette, he wondered what would happen if he ran out before his clock did. Maybe his body would just sit there, a corpse. Someone would have to take him to the Centre so they could deactivate the timer.

This dystopia isn’t fully comprehended. It’s possible that the public combustions are meant as a cautionary display to the population, although I wonder if there might be social consequences when someone flames out in their bed at the hotel. But the story focuses not on the society but Henry, trapped in the system that runs on the ashes of his friend. As in the Wood story above, the primary imperative here is survival, yet Henry recalls Peter’s parents, who gave up all their time for their son.

“A Vision of Paradise” by Alvaro Zinos-Amaro

A small group of refugees has left the imperial human Cohort and settled an isolated planetoid on the edge of known space. The local conditions produce cancers, and the cancers, with the aid of radiation from the local wormhole’s activity, have “hijacked your biochemistry” to keep the hosts from aging so the cancers can survive indefinitely. But the Cohort is in decline and closing down the wormhole, so that the “Blessings” can no longer keep the illness at bay. Sumelyu, a young member of the colony, wants to contact the Cohort and ask for evacuation, but the rest of the members refuse.

This is a dumb idea, poorly worked-through. At one point, a character states, “Your body is riddled with at least nine types of cancer. Yet somehow you haven’t developed malignancies.” Perhaps the author means metastases. The piece concludes with an unfortunate inspirational message.

“Shudder” by Manfred Gabriel

This one begins as military SF but turns psychological. The narrator was born without the ability to fear. He becomes an elite soldier but eventually enters a clinic in hope of a cure.

How would you like it if you could never be happy, or sad, or angry, or in love? Good or bad, they’re all emotions. Part of being human. I feel like, without fear, I’m missing something important.

I like the narrator. He’s self-possessed and confident, decent in his humanity. Like many career soldiers, he distrusts the “Coats”, including his therapist, and with good reason. The military tends to think soldiers without fear could be a good thing. The story is based on the Grimm tale about the boy who could not shudder, which mistakenly conflates shuddering with fear. This story works better.

“In the Space Between” by Jeff Stehman

Stephen is remarkably unruffled for a person whose partner in a survey ship has just thrown him out the airlock.

The view, limited only by the confines of his helmet, impressed even him. In the vastness between stars, without his ship to offer contaminating light, it was spectacular. He was one of the lucky few to have seen it.

Mark has apparently grown tired of Stephen’s “cold-blooded, machine-headed way of doing things”, confident that he is too “cold and uncaring” to panic. At first, he seems only to want to show Stephen that he can intuitively calculate a jump away from and back to his location, but then he expresses the belief that his partner is actually a machine intelligence and a threat to him. As the dialogue between the two continues, readers will be wondering whether Stephen is indeed unhuman or if Mark is just raving insane. A neat dilemma, tied-off well at the end.


“Sympathy for the Download” by Matthew Lyons

As the story begins with Quinn climbing in through his client’s fire escape, we think he’s a contract euthanasiast. The client has been very specific in her requirements, wanting it to happen at home in her bed while she’s asleep. Except that she isn’t asleep, she’s awake and waiting for him, and she has in mind a considerable modification to her requirements. At which point, we realized that Quinn is actually there to download her mind. As he explains the process to the client,

Needle comes out, acts as an interrupt for all neural activity. Freezes it all in place. Downloads everything onto onboard storage, to be reintegrated into a brand-new, vat-grown body: memories, habits, personality, everything. Your body goes comatose, shuts down in about twelve hours.

But she wants more, and what she wants is both illegal and beyond Quinn’s ethical comfort. And the old monster has planned for that, too.

I actually liked the premise better when I thought it was euthanasia. That’s a plausible future. Mind downloading is less original, and this stealth method seems more unlikely than if it were stealthy death in the night. But what’s really wrong here is at the opening, when Quinn opens the window and catches a whiff of the smell. “It’s the rotting-meat-and-sour-milk dumpster stink of months—maybe years—of unwashed flesh and too many uh-ohs in her pants.” Nope, not this 91-year-old. Not only does nothing in the story call for her to be in such a condition, the circumstances are against it. She’s too lucid and calculating, too much in control. She’s just been with Quinn’s agency, which would have had to evaluate her. And she has relatives in her room a lot, who wouldn’t be able to stand the stench. Otherwise, I admire the evil calculation and Quinn’s response.

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.

Adrienne Martini reviews Kaleidoscope

Kaleidoscope, an anthology of YA short stories edited by Alisa Krasnostein & Julia Rios, was born from a WisCon panel. Sort of.

Krasnostein was listening to an episode of The Outer Alliance podcast, which was a rebroadcast of the ‘‘Heteronormativity in YA Dystopian Novels’’ panel. The seeds of an idea were planted and the result is a book full of YA SF/F shorter fiction that better resembles the actual world – you know, one that has more than straight, white people in it. A crowd-funding campaign was launched and the resulting book is now alive.

The first story – Tansy Rayner Roberts’s ‘‘Cookie Cutter Superhero’’ – sets up the idea of how popular culture celebrates only those who fit into very thin slices of humanity. Twice a year, an Australian teen is selected to become a ‘‘superhero,’’ which means he or she is shoved into a box that transforms him or her into one of a few different types of crime fighter, erasing most of the parts of his or her personality that make him or her interesting. The message isn’t subtle but the story about a gay teen about to undergo the process is well told.

The stories move beyond sexual identity, however, and that is what helps make this book truly stand out. There is a teen who reads as somewhere on the autism spectrum in Jim C. Hines fantasy ‘‘Chupacabra’s Song’’. The hero in Faith Mudge’s ‘‘Signature’’ is in a wheelchair. Amal El-Mohtar’s ‘‘The Truth About Owls’’ directs its force onto what it means to be a cultural outsider. Perhaps the strongest story – E. C. Myers’ ‘‘Kiss and Kiss and Kiss and Tell’’ – exquisitely captures the uncertainty of being an older teen with a mental illness.

While a couple of the stories, like Shveta Thakrar’s ‘‘Krishna Blue’’, try to veil their main character’s real world illness (anorexia) with a non-real condition (consuming colors) it doesn’t always work out well and can become a little ham-handed. These stories, however, may ring more true with their intended audience.

That difference is the point of this collection. As Krasnostein wrote in a blog post about this project, ‘‘we want any young adult reader to pick this book up and find a rapport with a character within the pages. And we also want to depict the world as we know it – filled with diversity, and colour and a range of life experiences, that challenge our own view points and perspectives.’’ Based on that rubric, Kaleidoscope exceeds expectations.

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

Lois Tilton reviews Short Fiction, mid-October

The genre’s editors seem to be adding a lot of bonus short fiction for October. More to read, beginning with the year-end issues of Asimov’s and Analog, both among the better of the year.

Publications Reviewed

Asimov’s, December 2014

This zine is wrapping up the publishing year on a strong note.

“Anomaly Station” by Tim Sullivan

The Paneque Anomaly is an eccentric blazar that has been harnessed to feed energy to human worlds. The station transmitting it is operated by a Mind that used to be human but is now essentially an AI, stripped of most of its memories of once being a woman named Hala. Tamara Rix is the longterm station master who was once Hala’s lover, who has taken the job to be in mental contact with her, out of both love and guilt for the accident that killed her. At intervals, Rix goes on leave, when she is replaced by a temporary technician. Meeting Lucien Brainerd, she gets a bad impression; he’s too young, too confident in his training, with no experience. Reluctantly, she makes the transfer of contact with the Mind to him and prepares to leave, but before she can board the shuttle, it explodes. The station recedes rapidly from the hazardous vicinity of the anomaly, carrying the two humans to wait alone for another ship to reach them, whenever that might be.

Tension grows between the two survivors. Tamara Rix is unable to reestablish a connection with Mind, which frustrates her so that she unwisely blurts out her suspicion that Lucien Brainerd sabotaged the shuttle, after which open hostility prevails between them.

She regretted that she had allowed her anger to get the better of her. She had made things worse. If Brainerd was intent on depriving her of Hala’s company, feuding with him would not change his mind. The alternative was finding a way to hook up without his help. There might be a way to do it if she could just figure it out. Without Hala, she felt as though half her soul had gone missing.

This is a tense deep-space thriller and also a story of character that resolves as a psychological one. It slowly becomes clear that Tamara Rix isn’t entirely stable in mind, severed from contact with her longtime partner and dealing badly with Brainerd. Three-quarters of the way into the story, rescue finally arrives, but readers will know at this point that something else is going to happen before the end of this novella, ten pages on.

The blazar is a fairly unusual SFnal premise. There is an additional dimension here as the author presents evidence of the time dilation that increasingly separates Rix from the rest of human society. When Brainerd shows up to relieve her, readers as well as Rix may consider him ignorant because of his speech patterns, but in fact they reflect a natural evolution of the language. This difference can be seen as the thin edge of a divide that grows wider under pressure. When Rix finally sees the officer from the rescue vehicle, she seems almost alien to her, representing the estrangement she feels for everyone but Hala, who originated in her own time. It remains to be seen how far Rix will go to preserve this connection.

“The Cryptic Age” by Robert Reed

A Great Ship story. What this means is vast scope, of both space and time, as not only is the ship billions of years old, but its crew and passengers can have lifetimes of hundreds of thousands. The woman who has been captain for ninety thousand years is a posthuman, as all humans seem to be in this age, and this is her story of taking her current name: Miocene. It is also a story of memory.

The frame: A machine entity has come to Miocene with an object for sale which he represents as uniquely valuable: “a comprehensive, undiluted recording of your world. Of the Earth. An image you have never possessed, certainly not by any accounting that I have seen.” Miocene is unimpressed; the recording is unverifiable. But she makes an offer and backs it up by offering her own story.

When she had another name and was captain of smaller ships, she took on an assignment to deliver an object to Earth. She chose to make this journey of hundreds of years alone. What she received was in some ways what the entity is offering her millennia later, a memory of Earth’s solar system during the Miocene Era, as held in an artificial brain. Memory, not data.

. . . memory turns into something else inside you. Each of us can nourish our secrets, and to a small degree, or large, we can lie. But minds are the ultimate fortresses. What we carry can’t be stolen simply. A brain cannot be divided without killing the soul inside. And the brain refuses to be diluted any faster than one day at a time, which was why a giant gray hunk of semiliving brain is the very best way to hold onto the past.

The alien being who delivered the memory system to her warned her of it – a warning that Miocene suspected as malicious, to stimulate her curiosity. But she took the challenge, the risk. She entered that world of memory and explored there for centuries until she discovered what she had been looking for, a great and portentous secret that challenges all understanding of the nature of the universe. Now, in her turn, she is challenging the entity, although he thinks it is only a simple negotiation over the price of an object.

A Reed story usually offers readers a rich plate of food for thought, but this one is a banquet. Because we know that while minds may be unparalleled in their ability to hold memory, they are also highly fallible, the memories they hold are mutable. And story derived from memory is even moreso.

“Strip the Universe of detail,” Miocene said. “Butcher reality with a cleaver. Hack and hack until nothing real and true remains but mangled pieces. Then let the mind draw lines between those pieces. That is what story is. Story is built from a few survivors and the narrative that we draw between, explaining just enough.

Truth itself may be a fiction, but we will never know, which is quite another thing than believing it. But exploring the evidence in sufficient detail would take multiple millennia, which is Miocene’s project and the scope of the Great Ship stories. The metafictional excursus only makes it richer.


“Kids These Days” by Vernon Hedrick

Jimmy is a middle-aged guy, a failure, a loser, at least in his own mind and in the mind of his soldier father, and that may have been the reason for it, although we don’t really see much wrong with him besides a few drinks. That may be it. At any rate, his wife [or the equivalent] seems to have left him without caring, wouldn’t care now that his father is dying. Sister and brother gather around the hospital bed, the son the old man was proud of, now a cop. In the streets outside are the Kids, linked together by telepathic technology that older people’s minds aren’t plastic enough to adapt to fully; people Jimmy’s age are too old to even attempt it. Humanity is split into past and future.

When my grandmother died, I have been told, she spoke to my dead grandfather—like he had come to get her. It’s a nice thought, but I know everyone dies alone. Everything changes, everything goes away. The sun gets in everyone’s eyes and everyone dies alone. At least they used to. I’m not sure that’s the case anymore.

So Jimmy discovers when he goes to the aid of a Kid dying in a car accident.

A poignant story about a man who sees what he knows he can never have, yet he can be glad for the future and the future generations, that they will have it, “never feel lonely or misunderstood or unloved.” Which makes him better that a lot of his generation who can only feel fear and resentment. Great last line sums this up. The deathbed scenes are depressingly realistic.

“Graduation” by Andrew Miller

A young woman, after preparing all her life, dies so she can live on afterwards to protect and heal the environment. That’s about it. There’s minimal tension here, minimal story, as things happen just as they were supposed to. I’m not sure why this process must involve persons barely adult rather than being an end-of-life thing.

“It Gets Bigger” by Gwendolyn Clare

Alien artifact discovered. As usual in these stories,

After several hours of investigation, they still did not know the object’s composition because they’d failed to acquire a sample to run through the mass spec. The diamond cutter couldn’t scratch it; the laser reflected off its surface. Lori considered throwing her coffee mug across the lab in frustration, but she only had the one mug. On the other hand, it was currently filled with herbal tea—thank you, fetus—so maybe she should give in and throw it, after all.

Then they try tomography, a spectacularly bad decision as the equipment explodes with a strong burst of radiation; Lori’s baby is lost, her husband takes off, and she begins an affair with her co-worker Brian. Oh, and the object inside the containment unit starts to grow and won’t stop, until they have to tow it back out into space, where it starts to destabilize the moon’s orbit.

Another parallel problem story, this one interesting in a way because neither problem is ever solved – the object or Lori’s doomed-to-fail marriage. While readers might suppose the object will turn out to be an egg holding an alien fetus, in the usual way of such stories, this doesn’t happen; no connecting epiphany occurs. It’s a very sciencefictional piece, all about method, which makes the point that there are things we aren’t going to solve – like life, a mystery. Nonetheless, I don’t think the marriage angle adds much to the story.

“Videoville” by Christopher East

In 1986, Tim and his buddy Louie are hanging out in the pizza joint when Nolan the football star shows up and invites them to the video place. Which is weird, because Nolan and his type never notice Tim’s type except when they plan to shove them into the lockers at high school. But tonight, something is different about Nolan. He claims to want their help. And he offers some really powerful weed, which might account for the way reality keeps wavering.

In front, Nolan is a wavery, time-lapse image, quivering spastically. Behind him, Annabeth and Kelley wink into and out of existence. Only Louie is rock solid, grinning ear to ear. The sky behind them is a shimmering tableau of clouds, snow, and stars, as if it can’t decide what night it is.

But readers will realize that Nolan is actually from some probable future when he’s learned a lot about himself, now come back to shift it in a better direction. And Tim learns a lot himself, that night.

An adult story despite the high school setting. Plenty of 1980s references to evoke the decade, which those of us old enough can well remember.

“Summer Home” by Sue Burke

A list story. An alien spacecraft crashes near the narrator’s house. He runs to investigate, as does a neighbor with whom he might have been having an affair; she is killed, he runs away, the government nukes the site. Now he engages in self-recrimination.

A very short piece, and the list format tells the story effectively.

Analog, December 2014

The two long novelettes are perhaps too similar, but the issue overall is, even more than the Asimov’s, the best of this zine I’ve seen this year.

“The Anomaly” by C W Johnson

In a dystopian setting that resembles a future India, complete with caste discrimination and extreme inequality, Ketkam grows up in a sunless concrete warren deep underground, where the overmen’s trash accumulates. He was born into a trash-sorting family, but his native intelligence and curiosity have taught him to repair discarded gizmos so that he becomes a fix-it-wallah. But the more he learns, the more he wants – ultimately, the stars. Yet at the same time, he feels the strong obligation to take care of his family, who tend to suffer from heart disease. With the aid of the local thug, who gets a cut of Ketkam’s earnings, he finds a placement on the moon in a factory where particle accelerators produce knotted anomalies that are captured in magnetic bottles to generate energy. And also produce radiation that will sicken the workers, which is why low-caste can find jobs there. Ketkam, of course, is curious to learn about the process.

He struggled to follow the mathematics of gauged topologies. “Ordinary” matter, electrons, quarks, photons, and so on, were oneknots. Black holes were two-knots. Non-baryonic dark matter, a shadowy substance hiding among the galaxies like a crowd of ghosts, was composed of three-knots. And the anomalies were four-knots.

Ketkam is the archetypical self-made genius-hero of SF, and readers will suppose that he succeeds; they won’t be disappointed. This is also a tale of moral self-realization, in which he struggles with the consequences of his acts. If he steals from his overmen employers and prevails against their hired thugs, we can look at the exploitation and not blame him for it.

“Humans First!” by Kyle Kirkland

Although the setting is quite different, I find the protagonist here a bit too similar to Ketkam. Arlin Brandt is a skilled technician repairing artificial neural networks, multi-purpose nodes that control communications and also are set up to monitor the population in this nanny-state. While working in an isolated area, he is set on by the members of a terrorist nutcase sect. Once he recovers, therapists decide that his trauma may have produced a tendency to revenge and threaten to have him fired for disability. Fortunately, he has a neuroscientist friend who helps him.

“You don’t want to hurt anybody. That is exactly why I am sure I am right about you. But the government’s algorithms are not of the highest quality. Indeed, they are often misguided. My theory is more accurate, but I need more evidence to prove it. If my colleagues and I can show that our ideas are correct, we can much improve mental health treatments and evaluations.”

The political agenda here shows through the story, condemning the surveillance nanny-state as well as the environmental terrorists of conflicting persuasions. Arlin’s discovery is a bit underwhelming in the end.

“Dino Mate” by Rosemary Claire Smith

Time travel. And time travel protesters, concerned about alterations to the timestream, blocking the gate to the time launch facility. Marty’s current trip to the Jurassic doesn’t have a serious scientific purpose, so I have little sympathy for his plight.

Rock’em Sock’em wouldn’t postpone the trip, not when they needed him to send back images of actual dinosaurs right away, images on which they’d base their next holo-cartoons and action figures to be released during the rapidly approaching holiday season.

At which point, I have to wonder why, if these guys can control time, they don’t just shift from another moment when the protesters aren’t there.

A pretty silly, unoriginal and predictable story, with the mating rituals of dinosaurs as a parallel for the male rivalry between Marty and a sneering colleague over the beauteous journalist Julianna. But I do like the line, “It’s never good to take evolution personally.”

“Citizen of the Galaxy” by Evan Dicken

Mizoguchi is a teacher working in a Tokyo now overcrowded with aliens, after contact resulted in Earth joining the Milieu. Like many older humans, she harbors resentment for the rapid erosion of her human history and heritage that has ensued, while her daughter can only think of escaping to the galaxy. A speech from her alien administrator resolves things too easily.

“Mammals” by David D Levine

Surviving the apocalypse. This short piece animates a classic aphorism of the post-human world, where machine intelligence has eradicated the species that created it. Now infrastructure failure threatens this world, and the narrator is a subroutine tasked to find the source of the problem, which one of its own subroutines has eventually accomplished. Readers shouldn’t be surprised at what it has discovered.

This short idea story has a clever core, although it’s pretty wordy, as the angst-filled narrator bemoans its failure.

. . . we are quarantined, infected, pariah. Malware defenses dormant for over sixteen kilogenerations have been revived and directed against the affected—including prime and I and all my siblings and cousins—to prevent the presumed infection from spreading.

What I like here is the idea that the machine intelligence has had to adopt humanlike patterns to comprehend the nature of the problem, to venture beyond its self-limiting definitions, “locked into our code at the very kernel level.” The machine intelligences have forgotten that this is what they are, products of evolution, and the story pits self-directed evolution against the chaotic, random products of natural selection. This is a cautionary tale for those who believe that uploading themselves into a system dependent on a fallible infrastructure are only postponing the inevitable. And in their own perfection.

“Saboteur” by Ken Liu

An old long-haul truck driver wants to throw a wrench into the programming of the driverless cars that are putting his kind out of work. A well-done short-short that manages to make a case on both sides and add a human dimension to it, as well.

“Twist of Coil” by Miki Dare

Jesethay is a young female member of a species with three hearts, multiple lips and numerous specialized coils all over their bodies, rather like a jellyfish. Her dream is to be a dancer, like the older dancer she idolizes, to the displeasure of the priest, who disapproves of idolizing. Her younger brother is deathly ill, and the priest says that if she sacrifices her coils, a miracle will save him. But the priest has an ulterior motive.

I should note that the coils of this species hold their entire sensorium – touch, sight, hearing, sexuality – as well as stingers for defense. It’s a great sacrifice that Jesethay is making, yet it seems to be a common thing, as coilless beggars line the roads. I still have a hard time taking the premise seriously, however. The term “coil” is way overused, and intrusive terms like “fink” shouldn’t be used here at all.

“Racing the Tide” by Craig DeLancey

Tara’s family has always lived on the Florida coast, now sinking as the sea level rises. Their small community has a plan to raise their homes on pylons, but a developer has made them another offer, enough money to let Tara pay for another experimental operation on her son, disabled from years of failed enhancement treatments. The doctor doesn’t hold out a lot of hope.

“When I went to medical school, I imagined that I would work in a clinic like this, and I would cure people, people from neighborhoods like my own. But really, much of the time, it seems I just . . . move them a little farther down their road. One drug has this side effect, so we switch to another drug, and then another. Some treatment does such and such damage, so we add this other additional treatment to fix that, and find yet more side effects. I wish I could make your son a boy again, before he ever started down this road. But I can’t. No one can.”

We tend to think of the apocalypse as a sudden, violent event, the crash of an asteroid into the earth, a plague or a nuclear attack. But a slow apocalypse can come so quietly that people may not recognize it until it’s too late. Tara and her family are drowning in both the rising ocean and the tide of the global economy. There’s a strong affinity between this situation and that of the Liu story, people made obsolete by what is called progress, unable to keep up in the race. Here we see Tara forced to make a choice that she’ll regret, either way.

When we see Tara ignoring Tommy’s phone calls, it’s easy to think she doesn’t care for him, but the situation is more complicated than that. She has given and given before, until she now has nothing left to give. But there is Tommy’s young daughter, who wants to see her father again.


Lightspeed, October 2014

The prevailing tone of the stories this month is dark.

“Dust” by Daniel José Older

We’re on asteroid Post 7Quad9 with Jax, Chief Engineer, and a bunch of hardass, dusty miners who aren’t happy that they’re going to die because the asteroid is on course to impact Earth. [Why did they send out a crew to it in the first place, because the trajectory of an asteroid isn’t the kind of thing that becomes apparent at the last minute?] Earth itself is of no matter because the Chemical Barons have long since killed it, but the Barons have taken an interest in the asteroid and its ubiquitous dust, which seems to be both artificial and sentient, although it seems that only Jax is aware of the latter.

I catch hold and we do breathe as one, the asteroid and I, taking in the immensity of space. In the moment between, when the air lingers inside, I ask it to shift course. I don’t ask, I plead. Because time is running out. Swerve, goes my prayer. One word: swerve. Because a full turn just seems like too much to ask. A U-turn? Come now: These are celestial bodies, not space ships. So, a, I whisper silently. And when we exhale, together, we release that tiny prayer and mountains and mountains of dust.

It seems there is also a ruling Triumvirate which has sent its agents to the asteroid to save the miners, I think, but they have been infiltrated by agents of the Chemical Barons. Riots and violence ensue.

The author creates a gritty, desperate atmosphere, riddled with corruption and distrust. This is all very well, but the action and motivation is murky. Who are these Barons and why do they want to crash the asteroid into Earth? Nominally, the piece is science fiction, but science fiction doesn’t have sentient asteroids that communicate telepathically and can determine their own direction. That’s the domain of fantasy.

Then there is sex. It’s not that Jax engages in frequent sex with the miners. It’s that Jax seems to flip sexes from male to female on a daily, involuntary basis, while still retaining the same face and clothing size. This isn’t the doing of the asteroid; apparently Jax has been like this since at least college days. Now, there are several possible explanations. There is biology, which would take a long evolutionary timespan we don’t have here. There is a highly advanced biotechnology, which likewise; also the scientists don’t understand what goes on with Jax, who is apparently the only individual known to mutate in this way. That leaves fantasy. But what I wonder is: why does the author want to introduce such an element into this gritty space action story? What’s the point? We’re not dealing with a world in which people are normally like this; Jax is an anomaly – a gratuitous anomaly that has no real impact on the story or action, which would be a great deal more clear and direct without it, as well as more scientifically credible.

“The Quality of Descent” by Megan Kurashiga

I believe this one is listed as fantasy, but if it is, it’s a very ambiguous fantasy, which is all the point. It’s a simple one: the narrator’s business involves acquiring items used by magicians. One day Ava comes to him; she has wings. She found his name in the phone book.

“I understand if you have nothing to say,” she said. “You haven’t prepared a speech for this situation because you never expected to come across a woman with a pair of wings. It’s not like it’s part of the ordinary repertoire. You want to know: Is this a trick? Are they real? is probably the first question that comes to mind, but you might try something else because that would be kind of rude.”

Ava moves in with the [nameless] narrator. He falls in love with her, and with the wings. He gets her a job with a magician, a friend of his.

There’s a definite metafictional aspect to this one. The narrator speaks to the readers:

Where is this headed? Somewhere predictable. Not that there’s anything wrong with a story because you think you can see the ending from across the room, from a mile away, from the other side of the world.

Well, sometimes. When the story has something else to it that justifies the predictability or makes the reading worthwhile despite it. As this story does, in its character voices. It’s not always easy to do something this simple.

“The Herd” by Steve Hockensmith

Western horror. The narrator addresses a listener, who looks like the kind of man who could profit by it, who reminds him of himself, a cowhand. It seems he was working a herd when a sudden strange storm came up, and when the sky cleared again, the terrain was nowhere what anyone could recognize and an unknown town lay in the near distance. First, the trail boss rides down there to find out where they are. Then, when he doesn’t come back, the number two follows him, taking the narrator and one other fellow along for protection. But the danger in the town isn’t anything that can be faced with firearms.

It’s a story with a moral, and this is what the narrator wishes to impart to his listener. There’s a clear analogy between the town’s victims and the kind of livestock who crowd into a feed lot, indifferent to their eventual fate. I’m not sure it applies to the sort of fractious cattle like the longhorns on an overland drive, who have to forage their own grass while on the move.

“Jupiter Wrestlerama” by Marie Vibbert

Karen’s lover had earned the name Two-Ton Tony the hard way.

Artificial gravity made most station folk skinny, flabby, or flabby and skinny, but Tony had worked on his body all his life, stealing and cheating extra rations wherever he could, lifting whatever heavy objects ended up near him, doing push-ups with conveyor gears on his back. His body was his big accomplishment in life, his ticket out.

She recognizes the knife in his chest as Joey’s, from the gym, but the cops call it “Accidental Death”, a fall on the stairs. Corporate doesn’t want open cases on the station. But Karen is determined to get to find who killed her Tony.

A murder mystery in a dismal setting. This might suggest the noir subgenre, but it’s a different tone, one of resignation. Everyone on the station knows they aren’t getting off, that there will be no justice. Some want to blame it on the tourists, because then it won’t be a person they know. Even Karen doesn’t know just what she’ll do if she confirms her suspicions. The cops won’t listen and nothing will bring her Tony back. A depressing tale.

Fantasy Magazine, October 2014

A special issue of this once-independent ezine long since folded into Lightspeed, a loss I have always regretted. It seems that the popular Women Destroy campaign raised so much extra cash that it was able to fund this Women Destroy Fantasy bonus issue guest-edited by Cat Rambo. Alas, reading the four stories here makes me think the cash had better been spent elsewhere. This is certainly not the best that women can do with fantasy and certainly not worthy of fine fiction produced in the original magazine of this name, much of it by talented women.

“The Scrimshaw and the Scream” by Kate Hall

A town where people are so socially repressed they turn into birds. Everyone is in denial about this; everyone pretends not to see the feathers that sprout on every face, or the scars from plucking them out. It’s impossible to be good enough, to sufficiently quash all natural desires, although Felicity tries, letting her nasty mother throw away her beloved scrimshaw art.

“Lying won’t help, my dear. Don’t forget what happened to the von Moren girl. Do you want to shame me like she shamed her mother? Tell me what you’ve done!”

Irritated by the heavy-handed attempt at emotional manipulation in this predictable piece.

“Making the Cut” by H E Roulo

The narrator is a superhero, apparently the only woman in the League because her mission is recruiting others to join her. She finds Aisha, repressed by her society and robbed of her self-worth. Naturally, the story fixes this and ends with warm fuzzy feelings, it being even more predictable and clichéd than the above.

“The Dryad’s Shoe” by T Kingfisher

Fairy tale, lite subversive mashup of Cinderella and something like The Juniper Tree. Our heroine is Hannah, who acquires a stepmother in the usual way of things in such tales, after her mother dies.

If anyone had asked Hannah herself, she would have shrugged. She had no particular interest in her stepmother or her stepsisters. The older stepsister was rude, the younger one kind, in a vague, hen-witted way, and obsessed with clothing. Neither understood about plants or dirt or bees, and were therefore, to Hannah’s way of thinking, people of no particular consequence.

Hannah’s mother is buried under the chestnut tree beyond her garden, and either she animates the tree or there really is a dryad; Hannah doesn’t care. The tree wants Hannah to marry the Duke’s son, in which she has no interest.

This one is better, which is to say readable. Hannah unsurprisingly finds self-actualization and independence in her garden instead of depending on marriage, but this standard plot is leavened by wit in the narrative. There’s a considerable lack of tension, as no one is murdered and the stepmother is more neglectful than cruel; Hannah and one of the stepsisters actually befriend each other.

Typically in this fairy tale, the sentient tree is animated by the dead mother. There are reasons for this, usually involving the love between mother and child, the wish of a mother to protect her child even from beyond the grave. By substituting an unrelated, unseen dryad, the author removes this factor from her story, thus eradicating its emotional force. Why does the dryad care about this daughter, why does she want her to go to balls and marry dukes? Not even the dryad seems to know, or at least its spokesbird can’t say. But because these wishes aren’t those of her dear departed mother, Hannah is free to blow them off without guilt. In fact, Hannah has essentially wiped her mother’s memory out of her life. So: no love, no cruelty, no feeling, no passion, no crisis, no catharsis. A few lines of witty feminist narrative are all we get in exchange for the story’s excised heart.

I’m also bit irked by the inaccuracies. An author’s note informs us that the titmouse spokesbird for the tree isn’t a native European species; I don’t know why the error wasn’t simply corrected in the text, instead, to an appropriate bird. And Hannah says things like “Okay”, which isn’t.

“Drowning in Sky” by Julia August

A mashed-up setting involving a pseudo-classical-Greece and pseudo-renaissance-Italy with a place where women are named Ann, who seems to be a sort of demigod whose power is linked to the world’s bedrock. Ann is fleeing Florens where she caused a problem by animating the numerous dead of a plague. She makes a deal with Tethys, a sea-goddess, for transportation elsewhere and arrives in a pseudo-Greek town where she is recognized by a local witch who has designs on her power. Ann seems to be deeply oblivious about most human matters and allows herself to be led when it ought to be obvious that her hostess is up to no good.

She tried to find her way through the fog while the conversation swam around her. Sharp Dorikan words flashed backwards and forwards and Arakhnë, halfway down another cup of wine, gestured with both hands, and Ann thought it might all be a dream. She might really be asleep still in Arakhnë’s bed.

This one actually has some interest and originality. In a way, Ann doesn’t need self-actualization, being already highly potent, but she seriously needs to get a clue. Everyone wants to take advantage of her, including Tethys the goddess. But we don’t actually know who Ann is, her origin, what her purpose is, if she has one. At the end, she has woken up a little, but she has a long way to go.

On Spec, Summer 2014

An enjoyable issue of this little zine from Canada. The tone starts out kind of manic/comic, then grows serious.

“Bugzapper” by Mikey Hamm

Teenage geek love. Joshy has recently “broken the sound barrier with nothing but a pair of apocalypse-powered jet shoes, a narrow-band frequency scatter-hedge, and a few lines of code.” In the process, he has fallen in love with a metaterrestrial princess for whom he has defeated “a marauding army of trigger-happy planar fugitives named Nathan.” Of course, being fifteen, he still lives at home with his parents and has never actually been on a date, but now Rani wants to meet him. The problem being, besides his best jeans not being done in the dryer, that in zapping the Nathans he inadvertently released a horde of marrow-sucking bloodwhips onto the scene.

Gonzo silliness that actually works pretty well.

“The Glorious Aerybeth” by Jason Fischer

The characters here belong to an alien species obsessed with personal status, as measured by their plumage, and their technology is biological. Gannet is a high-status ship-breeder who has suffered a career setback, for which he is sent on a mission to report on the possibility of alien life that may have been discovered by the eponymous blood-ship. Gannet’s people and their creations are not very nice.

A knotted muscle far below would iris open when the ship sighted prey, opening a hole in the belly of the ship the size of a small country. Thousands of snatchers lay curled up on their enormous reels, barbed limbs that could stretch out through space and rake across the surface of planets, scouring them for flesh and blood.

Gannet’s arrival is not welcomed by the ship’s captain, who sees his presence as a threat to his authority – not without reason, as Gannet immediately turfs him out of his cabin. Conflict ensues.

This one could have read as either horror or humor, but the humor prevails, making it difficult to take the horrific aspects of the tale seriously. Those not overly-sensitive should find it imaginatively entertaining.

“Handcrafting” by Anita Dolman

Sylvia and George are immortal beings who were once worshipped as gods. Their mission is to oversee the evolution of the human race, nudging it in optimal directions. They see the current generation as their grandchildren and are concerned for their welfare. While not active, they go dormant for periods of time, thus they have to reconnect and acclimate whenever they reenter the world.

A heartwarming, positive tale. I particularly like George and Sylvia’s speech patterns, not quite of here and now, although they’re working on it.

“One of these days,” he says, “I go call the stupid little science magazines and I explain. I show them what their Darwin and their Mendel did not understand. What they will not understand, with their equipment and their ideas.”

“Snapshots of American Scenes” by Simon Habegger

Solrun lived originally in fairyland, which is a pretty boring place, so one day he decides to see what lay beyond and ended up on post-global-warming Earth, where Indiana’s Limberlost is once again a swamp and New York City is slowly being submerged. In Brooklyn, he meets up with a woman named Anna who salvages pieces of ancient civilization, like a Roneo machine, for reasons she can’t articulate.

A rumination on trying to make sense of the irretrievable past. It’s a strange post setting, where we see the waters rising yet some aspects of civilization, government and bureaucracy seem to remain. What I find unusual is the way Sol keeps running into random nutcases who lecture him on the Uncertainty Principle. What Sol really takes from his experiences is the value of making personal connections, which is different for him, being immortal, for whom personal connections must be ephemeral.

“Piece of History” by Karl Johanson

The narrator is a cynical killjoy, poorly matched with Terry on their mission to salvage an artifact from the Apollo 14 lander, as Terry is all voluble enthusiasm. Terry’s enthusiasm pays off, however, even for the narrator, who can’t even be mad about it in the end. A lite, good-natured piece – fun for space enthusiasts.

“Traveller, Take Me” by Kate Heartfield

A ghost story, a historical piece, largely based on the fact that prospector Tom Creighton named the town sprung up by his copper strike for a character in a dime science fiction novel. The story purports to be the story behind that story, when Tom and a few companions are prospecting for gold up around the border between Manitoba and Saskatchewan. They find the book in a cabin on the trail, with the note: Traveller, take me and leave another. This is the custom among the prospectors in the wilderness. The book is The Sunless City, by J E Preston Muddock, and a previous owner’s name is on the flyleaf. But as Tom reads from it to the others, this seems to recall the ghost of Joshua Hartnell.

He was leaning against a tree. I knew he was a ghost right away, because there was a great gaping hole in his ribs, with blood dripping down to the ground, and it didn’t seem to be bothering him at all. He was lit up well enough in the moonlight and the starlight.

The prospectors know that the first Canadians have just landed in Europe, it being 1914, and surmise that Hartnell was recently killed in the fighting over there, and his spirit is somehow tied to the book., although he never seems to notice the prospectors, being totally absorbed in communing with his loved ones, whom they never see.

A poignant tale of loss and self-reflection, as the appearances of the ghost cause the prospectors reflect on their own lives. This, I think, relies rather too much on conjecture. But the uncanny encounter is well-done.

“Empty Heat” by Agnes Cadieux

A fantasy setting, where dragon hatchlings are raised for meat [it’s not clear why, or if there are other sources of meat in this world]. Trouble comes to Jessie when the hatchling barn catches fire and the adult breeding dragons need to be subdued. This leads to an epiphany for Jessie, because this is one of those tiresome formula stories where the protagonist has a personal problem that parallels the story-problem.

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 Christopher Fowler

Given humanity’s long reliance on some kind of artificial structure to shelter us from the elements and predators and enemies, it is not surprising that houses and other buildings figure greatly in our legends, myths, dreams and fictions. Home is where the heart is, after all, as the cliché faithfully reports. The great site TV Tropes has an entire page of entries on various sorts of constructions that have been employed in storytelling as plot devices, motifs, macguffins or symbols. (I particularly like their nomenclature for the familiar Mordoresque spire: “Evil Tower of Ominousness.”) Constructing a tale around a haunted house or other spooky structure is almost a default mode for fantastika.

In his new book, Nyctophobia, Christopher Fowler has managed to come up with some very neat twists and frissons on this archetypical theme. The novel provides lots of quiet discomfort without gratuitous splatter or nastiness, and that’s rare in today’s marketplace. I might also mention at this juncture that Fowler has done two previous books recently in the horror vein for Solaris, an excellent publisher whose titles fly too much under the radar, I think. Those earlier titles are Hell Train and Plastic, and I intend to look them up, now that I’ve enjoyed Nyctophobia.

One might expect a novel concerned with “fear of darkness” to take place in some twilit, northern, Germanic clime, a place where daylight hours are short and fleeting. But right away we sense Fowler’s inclination to mess with our expectations in his choice of settings: sunny Spain. (Graham Joyce did something similar with his House of Lost Dreams, which took place in sun-drenched Greece.) We encounter our narrator/heroine Callie as she is house-hunting in that Mediterranean nation, having relocated there after her recent marriage to Mateo, a native. A real estate agent brings Callie to abandoned Hyperion House, she falls in love with the place, and the deal is sealed.

With that setup quickly out of the way, Fowler begins a dual-track campaign. First, he is going to give us Callie’s backstory (rather tragic) and a portrait of her unexpectedly happy marriage to dream guy Mateo (she even quickly and easily becomes a companion and guardian to Bobbie, Mateo’s charming nine-year-old daughter). Rendering these personalities and their relationships into something visceral and solid is ultimately necessary to explain the weirdness to come. But unlike many horror tales, no bottled-up marital psycho-sexual angst propels the plot. Instead, the triggers will prove to be a queer mix of solipsism, many-worlds theory, doppelgangers, ghosts, and Aleister-Crowley-style occultism. It’s a potent blend, the exact lineaments of which you will not guess.

Second, Fowler is going to make the curious history and architecture of Hyperion House tangible and fraught with arcane melodrama. Soon the place will be as real to the reader as their own home. We learn—gradually, in bits and pieces, as Callie does her clever and meticulous research—that Hyperion House was the sole accomplishment of an eccentric architect, originally meant as a celestial observatory (it seems at first, though the truth proves stranger). And the structure’s blind and sequestered rear half, almost butted up against a cliff face, gives it a chthonic aspect that counterbalances its outward focus on the heavens. Half perpetually sunny, half perpetually dark, the house, belonging to a single family for a century, is an objective correlative to many uncanny desires and events. For Callie, it soon begins to mirror both her worst fears and her highest hopes.

Fowler builds up the two intertwined and codependent halves of his story—house’s purpose and the lives of its inhabitants—in beautifully balanced counterpoise. There are also many moments of calm and peace (the portrait of the nearby Spanish town and its citizens is of engaging and whimsical travel memoir quality) to contrast with the equal number of grotesque incidents, such as when a man appears to be stung to death by hornets, or when Callie finally meets the dwellers in the dark—described by Fowler with precise gory gusto.

In the end, two traits distinguish this book from lesser, more traditional works of horror. First is a quasi-science fictional ambiance. Callie acts as a scientist seeking to unravel a riddle which, albeit not “natural,” is still of nature. The house is not an organic thing, but a machine designed to produce certain effects. Callie becomes almost like an astronaut exploring a Big Dumb Object. Second is Callie’s attitude toward the specters. Yes, she’s frightened. But above that emotion is a sense of pity, a desire to help. In working towards the liberation of Hyperion House’s ghostly tenants, she is also engaged on her own inner voyage of discovery, confrontation and healing.

Fowler delivers a useful message couched in thriller guise: only by empathizing with demons can we conquer them and relieve both them and ourselves of our uncertainty and pain. The opposite of nyctophobia is photophilia: the love of light.

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.

Russell Letson reviews William Gibson

William Gibson’s The Peripheral offers a now-familiar blending of close-textured SF and noir/thriller modes, an evolution of the Gibson recipe that reaches back to the very beginning of his career. While Pattern Recognition, Spook Country, and Zero History were minimally science-fictional in their furniture (however much SF feeling they might have wrung out of their could-be-next-week settings), the world evoked by this new book is deliberately and progressively estranged, not only by its genre furniture (around to which we will get eventually), but by the writerly craft with which everything in the story is delivered.

In fact, that craft was the first thing I noticed. The novel is built on a pair of alternating-viewpoint threads. Flynne Bishop is living in a down-at-the-heels semi-rural USA, perhaps a decade or two from now; and Wilf Netherton is a publicist operating in a much more technologically sophisticated and wealthy London. But their viewpoints operate in what an MFA student would recognize as very-close-third-person mode: we know what the viewpoint character does and thinks and no more. Nor is expository data delivered via any of the customary narrative dodges – explanatory injections, as-you-know-Bob conversations, unnecessary briefings – though the first page does take some mercy on us by offering some minimally-orienting information that Flynne would be aware of: that she has a military-veteran brother, Burton, on partial disability; that the munged-up 1977 Airstream trailer he occupies is a valuable, collectible antique. Similarly, a few chapters along, Wilf recalls a conversation that explains part of the strange relationship between his London and Flynne’s America.

But for the most part, sights, sounds, events, and internal reflections are rooted in the right-now, and their contexts, backstories, associations, and significance just accumulate, un-annotated. Wilf’s second chapter, for example, opens with him viewing the camera feed from a ‘‘moby,’’ which has an ‘‘uppermost forward deck.’’ From various cues and clues, we can gather, eventually, that a moby is an airship, though it is not explicitly defined as such. Other lexical items – stub, jackpot, haptics, klept – are similarly left for their natures to become clear through operation or context, or to be worked out via etymology and allusion. (Hint: The ears of connoisseurs of older SF should prick up on ‘‘jackpot.’’)

The world that Gibson has invented here is reasonably intricate, though not so exotic that an experienced reader cannot eventually work out the Ideas behind it and point to examples of similar Ideas from other stories. But understanding must grow gradually, built on a series of hints, observations, and actions. More than 300 pages in, a reasonably synoptic account of some of the background puts most of the pieces together, but by that time it is more a matter of confirmation than revelation. One of the pleasures of this book is the unpacking and assembly of the clues into a coherent world picture: it is a puzzle to be solved, which means that some topics, plot-points, and relationships must remain behind the Spoiler Curtain.

But many other pleasures are available for pointing out and admiring. Chief among them is the noir/thriller/crime-novel side of the book. Looking back through my Gibson files, I see that I have been comparing him to the likes of Charles Willeford, Elmore Leonard, and Carl Hiaasen for a couple decades now. This book does nothing to change my mind about that, and the non-SF spirit that hovers most closely over this book is that of Elmore Leonard, whose demotic, telegraphic style of dialogue it echoes. Here is Flynne being informed by a friend about Burton’s whereabouts after he has gone out to confront something called Luke 4:5:

‘‘Where is he,’’ she asked.

‘‘Homes,’’ he said, ‘‘protective custody.’’


‘‘No. Locked up.’’

‘‘What did he do?’’

‘‘Acted out. Homes were all grinning and shit later. They liked it. Gave him a Chinese tailor-made cigarette.’’

‘‘He doesn’t smoke.’’

‘‘He can swap it for something.’’

‘‘Took his phone?’’

‘‘Homes takes everybody’s phone.’’

This exchange is packed with glimpses of the nature of Flynne’s world that become clearer later. ‘‘Homes’’ is Homeland Security; Luke 4:5 is a band of Westboro Baptist Church-style zealots. These, along with the treatment of tobacco products and phones, the (later) mention of engine exhaust that smells of buttered popcorn or fried chicken, and a dozen other items mentioned in passing, form a mosaic that does not need an expository lump to be effective.

To return to the linear: The storyline is strung across a series of assassinations, attempted or successful, and the efforts to understand and counter who or whatever lurks behind them. It starts when Flynne, filling in for Burton as (she believes) a beta-tester for an on-line game, becomes a virtual – and, as it turns out, the sole – witness to a real murder, in an environment that turns out not to be a game at all. On the other side of the world, Wilf, remote-monitoring an event devised by a celebrity client, is also virtually present at a violent death. When the victim in Flynne’s murder turns out to be the sister of Wilf’s client, their connection brings them to the attention of mysterious forces with opaque agendas as well as London’s potent (and nearly as opaque) law-enforcement establishment.

The protagonists’ connection is entirely virtual, mediated by computational and communication technologies that allow Flynne to inhabit a peripheral – a mindless artificial human body that allows her full sensory access to Wilf’s London. (Wilf at first has to be content with a smartphone connection.) The two clearly inhabit very different worlds. Hers is an unnamed hardscrabble rural town somewhere in the southern US, where the mainstay of the local economy is illegal drug manufacture. (There’s a tempting similarity to the Harlan KY of the Elmore Leonard-inspired Justified.) What commerce remains is dominated by corporate chains with wonderfully tacky trade names (Hefty Mart, Coffee Jones, Pharma Jon, Fabbit), though small businesses do manage to hang on (Jimmy’s Bar, Forever Fab, the Sushi Barn). Lawful employment is available at Hefty Mart or the locally owned fabbing (3D printing) shop, and disabled war vets scrape along on VA benefits. Big brother Burton is one of the latter, physically uninjured but clearly emotionally marked by his tour as a Marine Haptic Scout. His friend Conner, now minus a couple of limbs, wasn’t so lucky.

Wilf’s London is sleek and rich and emphatically science-fictional, with total body modification, nanotechnology, implanted smartphones – in fact, smart everything, from cars to bars, right up to shape-shifting robots called Michikoids – and a power structure that seems to consist mainly of ‘‘klept’’ families (kleptocrats – organized-crime clans like his friend Lev’s) and the cops (in the form of the scarily powerful Detective Inspector Ainsley Lowbeer). This world unfolds just as gradually and indirectly through Wilf’s eyes, as well as through Flynne’s encounters with its strangenesses.

Flynne might be a country mouse, but she’s a very smart one, and from what she sees and hears she is able to piece together an operational understanding of the machineries in which she is caught up. Nor should the street smarts and toughness of her family and friends and neighbors be underestimated, or the military experience of her brother and his fellow vets, even (or especially) the maimed Conner. That back-country ingenuity and determination combine well with the technological resources and special knowledge available from Wilf’s side (though Wilf is mostly dragged along, mystified and wishing for a drink or three), and the result is a series of dramatic, scary, creepy,violent, and finally satisfying confrontations in both settings.

That satisfaction does not depend solely on the winding up of the plot machine (though that machine is admirably devious and its windup is ingeniously definitive) but also on how every scene, every page of the novel is filled with textures and details and observations and inventions and turns of phrase that delight. (Also, lots of those Gibsonian visual images that have become a kind of signature: ‘‘Inside, the trailer was the color of Vaseline.’’) We can enjoy the strenuous fun of decoding the world in which Gibson’s prose deposits us, though without the hazards of dodging the unwelcome attentions of assassins and criminals in high places. And like any really well-designed thrill ride or mystery tour (or sonnet or string quartet), as soon as you get off, you want to get right on for another go-round.

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Paul Di Filippo reviews Peter F. Hamilton

The case of Peter F. Hamilton is a curious one. His books are ambitious and intelligent and serve to advance the field, as well as to entertain. He has numerous passionate fans whose support earns him best-seller status. And yet despite this, his profile in the field among his peers and the critics and the fans who vote for awards is oddly low. His novels have never been nominated for a Hugo or Nebula, as one can see from studying the ballot archives. He did get on the Clarke Award ballot—once—and has won a BSFA award and one from Interzone. He is seldom the subject of long dissertations. As I said, a curious mystery. Perhaps he is simply too popular, his books too lush and sprawling and insufficiently high-minded or trendy or grimdark. Oh, well, the lack of attention from these quarters luckily does not seem to dissuade Hamilton from writing, so no harm done.

I must confess at the outset that despite enjoying all the Hamilton books I’ve read and reviewed, I am not utterly current with his voluminous output. And so I approach this new book, which forms part of his Commonwealth saga and serves as a prequel to the Void trilogy, with less-than-perfect backstory knowledge. But then again, many readers encountering this novel are probably in the same boat, so my partial ignorance might prove useful as a measure of the book’s welcoming or forbidding attitude.

Upon opening the book, we immediately find a handy timeline of Hamilton’s future history, a cast of characters and a map, always useful aids to entering a new fictional world. And our entrance is surely dramatic and gripping. On a colonizing starship bound for a new home, our first protagonist, Laura Brandt, is yanked from suspended animation to help deal with a crisis. She and her ship have fallen into the Void, that strange sector of anomalous space that lives at the heart of our galaxy. In this zone, technology begins to break down, to be replaced by “magic” and ESP powers. Tasked with investigating a nearby artificial construct while the main ship heads towards what seems to be a refuge planet, Laura and her few companions encounter strange monsters in a tautly suspenseful Aliens-style scenario. Hamilton will mercilessly make us wait hundreds of pages to learn Laura’s fate, in a beautifully circular climax.

We next cut to Nigel Sheldon, immortal founder of the post-scarcity galactic realm, the Commonwealth. Nigel has been around for some 1400 years, since the era when humanity was confined to the solar system. He currently has several personal schemes and plans afoot when he is asked by the Raiels—the elephantine aliens who have been patrolling the Void for a million years—to help deal with new and disturbing developments inside the Void. He accommodates his two paths by cloning himself and sending that avatar inside.

Our third track concerns the planet Bienvenido, inside the Void. There we meet a military man, Slvasta, a member of the guardian corps that hunts down and exterminates the Fallers. These creatures prove to be the same kind of horror that attacked Laura Brandt. They come from space, landing as eggs which lure and absorb any living creature in range, producing a perverted Faller duplicate of such unlucky beings. (Any similarity to Jack Finney’s Invasion of the Bodysnatchers is delightfully exploited and ramified.) The portrait of Bienvenido is built up in thick anthropological detail, and Slvasta’s career and personal life is likewise deeply engaged.

Staying on Bienvenido in yet another track, we catch up with Nigel and his companion and partner, a young woman named Kysandra whom he initiates into Commonwealth ways and technologies. Together they intend to stop the Fallers, and perhaps even accomplish much bigger things. This of course brings them into Slvasta’s sphere of political action.

With most of the story taking place inside the Void, we don’t see much of the Commonwealth, but it’s always in the background, and its tenets and lifestyles and abilities are of course represented by Nigel. The Commonwealth is a fascinating instance of a post-scarcity culture, different from anything promulgated by Charles Stross and others. Hamilton seems to believe that mere extinction of physical and biological wants will hardly be conducive to any form of competition-free utopia. The very existence of his crime-fighting character Paula Myo is proof of that.

As for the adventures on Bienvenido, they are incredibly robust and exciting and rousing, sharing flavors of Jack Vance, John Wright, China Miéville, Orson Scott Card, and A. E. van Vogt. Hamilton’s deployment of lots of grand super-science ideas is utterly deft and convincing, and his word-hoard of potent neologisms reflects this. I find his character-building equally worthy. Perhaps the most effective arc is that of Kysandra, who goes from ignorant, abused teenager to a figure approaching the stature of Nigel himself—although Slvasta’s biography is nearly as astonishing.

The book ends with a very satisfying tying up of loose ends, but also opens out for the sequel that will conclude this duology: Night Without Stars.

Peter Hamilton’s new novel stands shoulder-to-shoulder with the Culture books of Iain Banks and the Kefahuchi Tract saga of M. John Harrison, but rotated through the looking glass of a totally different, resolutely non-postmodern worldview, to produce a book that is paradoxically both old-school and totally au courant: the best of two worlds.

A nice pendant to the publication of this book is an accompanying soundtrack by some folks named Evokescape. You can listen to samples at their site. I found the music agreeably interstellar and eerie, stirring and brooding, but in a kind of universal way. In other words, I could conceive of it being a soundtrack to a book by Vernor Vinge or Greg Bear or Alistair Reynolds just as easily as to Hamilton’s.

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

Gary K. Wolfe reviews Jonathan Carroll

Jonathan Carroll’s greatest charm as a writer may well be simply that no one has yet been able to pin him down. The blurbs alone on his new novel Bathing the Lion invoke everyone from Philip K. Dick to Kafka, the Brothers Grimm, Michael Chabon, and Garcia Marquez, and while it’s not difficult to find bits here and there that suggest all these writers and more, the full effect of his fiction remains maddeningly elusive. In a key scene in Bathing the Lion, the main characters find themselves sharing a dream in which a giant, bright red elephant named Muba saunters down the road toward them, sporting an oversized wristwatch (how many adult writers would even try to bring that off?), and a mysterious design on his side that may be some sort of map or key to what’s really going on. But each of the characters sees a different map or design, and ascribes a different meaning to it based on their own experiences. They might as well be reading the novel they’re in. As usual, though, Carroll manages to weave his colorful imagery into a surreal tapestry which, if not quite seamless, is immensely appealing in its generosity and good humor.

There has been a good deal of discussion lately, some of it from these quarters, about the permeability of genre boundaries, but Carroll has been playing this game since the beginning of his career, and he remains almost unique in his ability to shift codes not only within a story or novel, but sometimes even from one sentence to the next. Dogs, for example, almost a trademark feature of his fiction, show up here in the form of D Train, a ‘‘cheerful screwball’’ of a pit bull who nevertheless doesn’t take well to obedience training; ‘‘D befriended all the other dogs in his class while never learning to obey even one command.’’ A charming detail of domestic realism, to be sure, but only a sentence later we learn the reason: ‘‘In his last life, the pit bull had been a zgloz on Ater, a smelly, dreadful planet,’’ so that ‘‘in this new life on Earth he was just showing how happy he was to be away from such a miasma of misery.’’ Then Carroll yanks us back into domesticity with an anecdote about how the dog was randomly shot (not fatally, as it turns out) during an evening walk.

Carroll does this sort of thing all the time, and practically no one else does it at all. His novels are cluttered with unexpected exit ramps leading to bizarre byways which, more often than not, reveal what the tale is really about. Bathing the Lion begins with a couple discovering that their marriage is failing; the husband, Dean Corbin, who owns a high-end men’s clothing store in the small Vermont town where they live, is acting out his midlife crisis by buying a high-tech sled, while his wife Vanessa, a singer at a local club, has been having a clandestine affair with Dean’s business partner Kaspar Benn. For the first couple of chapters, we might easily be in an Updike or Cheever story – until we meet a mysterious little girl named Josephine, who has a habit of running across the rooftops of the town. When a photographer takes pictures of her, they come out only as beautifully composed shots of vegetables, and when she speaks to Kaspar, it’s to warn him that ‘‘After today I go away forever,’’ and that ‘‘It’s the last day I can help you.’’ Not long after, she appears to the guilt-ridden widower William Edmonds with similarly cryptic messages about ‘‘these things called mechanics,’’ and not long after that, Vanessa and Dean meet at his clothing store to find that it’s disappeared and been replaced by the magazine shop that had been there decades earlier.

Episodes like these are a key to Carroll’s unique approach to the fantastic, and to what makes his novels so consistently surprising. Rather than introducing a succession of clearly linked clues that lead us deeper into the fantasy world – like, say, a lamppost in a wood – he offers apparently random jigsaw pieces that initially seem to leave the assembly to us. Some of these pieces seem to belong to a finely tuned account of a group of troubled but largely sympathetic characters in a realistic Vermont town, while others may involve cosmic mechanics trying to save the universe from, literally, the forces of Chaos. We learn of blips in reality like ‘‘flips,’’ in which people may be returned to any point in their earlier lives, but with all their later memories intact, or ‘‘somersaults,’’ which seem to involve a sudden and drastic reordering of reality itself. The fantastic isn’t something we enter through a familiar portal, but rather a part of the fabric of daily life – or, more accurately, daily life is part of the fabric of it.

It’s not long before we learn that nearly all these main characters, and others, have, in fact, been those very cosmic mechanics – something they learn in that shared dream in which the red elephant appears (along with a talking black lounge chair) – and that their memories of their lives as reality cops have been erased upon their retirement. But now all the retired mechanics in the universe are being called back to service in the face of a resurgent threat from the agents of Chaos, who have informed one of them that – now that Somersault has arrived – they must choose whether to ‘‘bathe their lion or try to fight it.’’ While this clearly seems to evoke the familiar Secret Masters theme we’ve seen everywhere from Chesterton to Dick, Carroll refrains from turning his characters into symbols once they’ve discovered their true identities. Though they may have worked in other eras or even other galaxies, they remain fully themselves, with Vanessa’s spoiled selfishness, her boss Jane’s joyful love for her partner Felice, Edmond’s lingering anguish over his wife’s death from cancer, even the dog’s abiding good nature. Carroll’s familiar themes of love, regret, memory, and – well – dogs, are as fully realized here as in any of his novels, and even when his wisdom sounds disarmingly simple or even sentimental, he seems to genuinely wish well for his characters and for us. Humans, he points out, are neither quite mechanics nor agents of chaos, but by ‘‘using their imaginations they have the ability to keep order, or create, or cause mayhem and confusion. Most importantly, it’s usually a conscious choice which one we do.’’ It’s something of an achievement that the very structure of this intricate and lovely tale serves to remind us of that.

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

Paul Di Filippo reviews Norman Spinrad

Whenever discussion turns to candidates for the next SFWA Grandmaster Award, the name of one author who is fully entitled to such a distinction is notably missing. I refer to Norman Spinrad. After a career that began in 1963—that’s fifty-plus years and counting, folks—and which includes epochal work during the seminal New Wave movement; a continuing stream of top-notch, impassioned, always varied novels and stories thereafter; two stints as SFWA President; and a wealth of critical essays that have helped to elucidate the intellectual and narrative storyspace occupied by fantastika—well, one would think such credits would render the possessor a shoe-in for the honor.

But giving Norman Spinrad the Grandmaster title would be like sitting the court jester on the throne; like taking a rebel leader from the jungle and putting him in the Presidential palace; like making Mother Teresa the Pope. Institutions would be upended, black would be white, and hogs would grow pinions.

Although, come to think of it, this barrier of propriety and conventionality has already been busted with the annointment of Harlan Ellison, a coeval bombthrower and gadfly. So what is SFWA waiting for?

In any case, until that date we shall have to content ourselves with new books from Spinrad—although even that recourse is problematical, since he’s had trouble getting traditional publishing deals lately, and had to self-publish his last novel, Osama the Gun.

But at PM Press, Spinrad has found a congenial home, due to that firm’s progressive politics. His latest offering is part of PM’s Outspoken Authors imprint. Helmed by Terry Bisson, this series now runs to fourteen volumes, and includes work from such luminaries as Ursula K. LeGuin, Rudy Rucker and Bisson himself. Each volume features some particular arrangement of stories, novellas, non-fiction and other material, serving as a good introduction to the oeuvre of each “outspoken author.”

In Spinrad’s case, we open up with a galloping and pugnacious novella titled “Raising Hell.” Plunged as abruptly as the protagonist into the scenario, we discover that union organizer Dirty Jimmy DiAngelo has died and gone to the quintessential Hell of Christendom. Manned by large scarlet demons with taser pitchforks, and ruled over by a discontented Satan, aka Lucifer, the place is fully virtual these days, a kind of MUD with an infinite number of rooms wherein individual tortures can be enacted. For his earthly sins, DiAngelo is sent to an infinite boiler room to shovel coal uselessly for all eternity. He finds himself working shoulder-to-shoulder with Jimmy Hoffa and other labor organizer mentors and peers. In a short time, DiAngelo has convinced his fellow souls to go on strike, enlisted the demon guards in his cause, and, not without a struggle, brought Satan onboard as well. We leave the tale trembling on the edge of further posthumous revolutions.

I seem to recall a story that featured a similar premise, titled “The Devil and Democracy” by Brian Cleeve, appearing long ago in the November 1966 issue of F&SF (where, curiously enough, young Spinrad had a piece as well). But even if the two stories share a humorous theme, Spinrad does something new here, and that is to offer an existential quandary with broader, real-world implications.

DiAngelo has trouble motivating the demons to strike, since they are content with their lot and desire nothing. But then he conceives of teaching them “to want to want.” In other words, to ask for the endowment of free will. At the end, even Lucifer is infected with this new and dangerous meme, and endorses the rebellion.

As the next piece, “The Abnormal New Normal,” makes explicit, Spinrad is offering in his fiction his allegorical take on real life matters, and a prescription for change. This essay is a trenchant analysis of the roots of the planet’s current economic malaise and inequality; a characterization of our current fix as an unsustainable “economic singularity;” and a spotlight on a way out. But that way out involves first a mental paradigm shift: wanting to want to change. We will always live in Hell until we decide otherwise, Spinrad avows.

The third item that rounds out the volume is a dialogue between Spinrad and Bisson fittingly dubbed “No Regrets, No Retreat, No Surrender.” We see Spinrad recalling with pleasure certain glorious highlights of his past, but looking around at the present and the future with equal zest. In his seventies, he remains as feisty, energetic and dedicated to his vision as ever.

If we cast a critical eye back at Spinrad’s career, we see a portrait of an artist-agitator, someone engaged with topical issues and bent on encapsulating them in dramatic form. With novels such as Bug Jack Barron and The Iron Dream and Greenhouse Summer, Spinrad has repeatedly raised his voice to focus our attention on important societal matters. Likewise in his critical essays, where he has held the feet of fantastika to the fire of relevance and craft. But he has not been content to write mere propaganda, because that would dishonor the medium itself. And so he delivers the best of both worlds: engaging tales populated with flesh and blood people that leave seeds of doubt and speculation buried deep in our minds.

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 October

The crushing noise you don’t hear is the sound of the fiction avalanche that’s come down on my head over the last month. I’m trying to read myself out from under, but it looks like I just may not get to everything in a timely manner.

This column features the anthology Hieroglyph, from which I give the Good Story award to the Doctorow. Also several regular periodicals.

Publications Reviewed

Hieroglyph, edited by Ed Finn and Kathryn Cramer

Subtitled: Stories and Visions for a Better Future. Looking at the introductory and promotional material, we can see right away that we have more than a theme, but a mission. Two of them, in fact. First is a call for “techno-optimism”: positive, achievable future visions. Also the goal of saving science fiction from the “stale and repetitive” rut it’s dug itself into in recent years. Editor Finn speaks of “a limited pool of metaphors”.

The fact that we are all so steeped in the same shorthand of the future (intelligent robots; warp drive; retinal displays) is a hint that we’ve become complacent about our dreams. The stories we tell about the near future have become homogeneous and standardized. There are a handful of persistent narratives in Hollywood films and genre fiction about what the world will look like, much like the futuristic guns, helmets, and other props that get recycled from set to set.

This second cause speaks strongly to me. But I do have to dissent on the optimism and reject any contention that the current stagnation in the genre is specifically due to negativity. To take one prominent example, Paolo Bacigalupi’s dystopian visions are as dire as anything horror can produce, yet there is no denying their strong originality.

But if there’s one thing I’ve noticed about anthologies, it’s that the editorial guidelines may prescribe, but the stories will always have the last word. And in this collection of stories, I’m seeing some pretty unhappy futures – many of them the consequence of misused technological advances, notably in information analysis and surveillance. In fact, if I were to pick a defining trope for this anthology, it would be “drone”. Or maybe “spybot”. And definitely “free”. These stories, generally, are set in relatively near futures, and perhaps for this reason we see not so many really novel ideas but advances and development of ideas already in circulation.

The directors of this project have assembled a team of authors, many of whom have serious scientific chops, chief among them Neal Stephenson, who largely initiated it. Unfortunately, his fiction contribution, the first story in the book, is one of a small number previously published. Given Stephenson’s prominent influence on the current volume, I really wish he had contributed an original story, or, perhaps better, reserved this one, which strongly reflects its themes. What’s unusual here is how these writers have been gathered into a collective, collaborative enterprise, along with scientists and science journalists, who all seem to have been brainstorming and critiquing each others’ ideas. This has produced some consensus among them, and readers will be able to see common tropes and concerns connecting the stories, such as automated fabrication and global climate change. Most notably, I find the common theme of information technologies affecting the level of freedom in society, both for better and worse.

Such factors aren’t why I like this anthology, however. It’s simply that I’ve been looking for well-written, real science fiction, unalloyed with the fantastic in the usual venues that claim to be publishing science fiction, and finding it only rarely. There’s a place in the genre for space opera, for aliens, for alternate histories, for pure imagination. But the field of science fiction without well-conceived stories about actually plausible futures, optimistic or otherwise, simply doesn’t deserve the name.

“Girl in Wave : Wave in Girl” by Kathleen Ann Goonan

The first original piece. This one is framed in an idyllic future when humanity has reached a higher potential. Teenaged Alia learns the personal history of her many-great grandmother, for whom an experimental nano-neurological treatment proved transformative and led to the improved humanity of which Alia is a representative.

I find this one a disappointing opener. Rather than exploring the details of the neuroscientific advance featured, the author resorts to vague handwavium involving nanobots – one of those overused recycled tropes this anthology is supposed to be sweeping away. Further, the author seems unclear about where her actual target lies, unable to decide if it’s the current educational system or faulty brain wiring. Melody as a girl had severe dyslexia and dyscalculia, which disappointed her parents and subjected her to bullying in school as well as frustration that she couldn’t learn what seemed so easy to everyone else. This is one thing; it’s another to suggest that nano-optimization of everyone’s brains can be achieved by the same process. Nor is it clear that the idyllic state is more the product of the treatment or of the new educational system that features mentored self-directed learning. I have to wonder if the improvement in the human condition is a permanent alteration in the genes in consequence of the universal treatment, or if the population would revert to its currently primitive state without it. The optimism of the piece is ungrounded.

“By the Time We Get to Arizona” by Madeline Ashby

An altered approach to national borders. Ulicez and his wife Elena are moving to the new instant city [Just add water!] straddling the US/Mexico line, where they hope to begin a new life. Mariposa seems to be a sort of upscale, benevolent-totalitarian maquiladora, where the inhabitants are under constant surveillance by cameras, implants, smart toilets, drones, and spybots known and unknown. Everyone seems to have advanced degrees not actually required by the work they do; this system is clearly skimming off the top. But Elena’s pregnancy threatens their new future.

Aspects of this scenario may seem to support optimism; the material level of the living conditions is apparently higher than Ulicez and Elena enjoy at home. But in other respects, I see a capitalist dystopia of darkest dye, with the ubiquitous surveillance backed up by armed rent-a-cops.

Corporate surveillance flutterbys zoomed over and around them, automatically alerting the Border Patrol when they spotted a human darting northward whose gait, temperature, expression, and other secret factors did not fit the proprietary algorithmic definition of “employee”.

And add temporary, disposable. Many of the stories here feature societies gone down this road, often with the aid of technology. Here, the protagonists have to use naked ingenuity, not counter-technology, to survive.

“The Man Who Sold the Moon” by Cory Doctorow

With this novella, Doctorow provides the anthology’s real original showpiece. The title immediately compels a comparison with the Heinlein classic. The most prominent difference is in the characters, giving us anarchistic, postcapitalist burners in place of powerful billionaires, free lunches in place of the motives of profit and power. Greg Harrison is our narrator, a hacker who once sold out for enough to support his modest lifestyle of tinkering. He meets Pug, who’s been developing a mobile 3D printer that sucks up dust, sinters it with sunlight focused through a lens, and shits out building tiles that snap into place with each other. They try it out with success at Burning Man, where they get together with a woman named Blight and, eventually, her daughter, who has a pretty clear-eyed vision of their lifestyle: “‘Look at you three. You’ve organized your whole lives around this weird-ass gift-economy thing where you take care of yourself and you take care of everyone else.’” When Pug gets incurable cancer, they decide to do one last big project to memorialize his life. Using Kickstarter financing, they’ll send a Gadget to the moon where it will continue to produce tiles enough for any future colonists to use to build housing.

“When our kids get to the moon, or maybe Maya’s kids, or maybe their kids, they’ll find a gift from their ancestors. Something for nothing. A free goddamned lunch, from the first days of a better nation.”

All of which proves easier said than done.

This one has it all. The premise is a pretty neat twist on 3D printing, a practical proposal mated to the free economy that the author is high on, as signaled by the successive names the protagonists give to their projects: Freelunch, Freebeer, Freebird, Freepress, Freerunner. Here is pure techno-optimism: a new gadget that will make a better life possible for humanity, without the corruption of the profit motive. It also expresses a strong, idealistic optimism for the human spirit, whether or not this is justified.


“Johnny Appledrone vs the FAA” by Lee Konstantinou

Here’s one of those unpleasant futures, a post-employment US controlled by a totalitarian surveillance state using threats of terrorism to further suppress freedom. ["Another day, another domestic drone strike."] This suppression is enabled by technology, including control of electronic communication media.

You run illegal encryption software, say, or watch a movie without paying, and your phone knows, and the network you’re on knows, and the platform you’re using knows, and the servers those platforms are running on know, and soon enough the US Department of Intellectual Property Protection, the National Security Agency, and the Federal Bureau of Investigation know.

Johnny Appledrone is a lone-wolf activist, a dronepunk who uses technology from his camper HQ to strike back by means of home-fabricated micro-drones, automated routers and servers that run the Drone Commons, a free communications network.

Our protagonist Arun works at a truck stop where the truckers grumble about the ongoing automation that’s slowly putting them all out of work. One day, a trucker sets off a bomb at the regional headquarters of the Dept of Transportation, an act of terrorism that the government seizes as their excuse for further crackdowns, shutting down all human-driven trucking. Arun finds himself not only unemployed but under suspicion, having once unjammed a vending machine for the man. [It would seem that the only source of employment in this economy is with the government.] Some of Appledrone’s girl interns have also come into his truckstop, and they solicit him to assist the activist with PR on social media, as Arun has a degree in this subject, in which there are no jobs. Unfortunately, his naiveté leads to tragedy.

If This Goes On. The author has exaggerated the degree of suppression in his future, but not unrealistically so. Readers will be able to recognize a lot of our own world in Arun’s. But Johnny is no flawless hero. Even his interns are frustrated with his refusal to see reason and changes in the society around him. Ultimately, I find this a deeply pessimistic work, and realistically so. Arun may find his own personal mission, but in the larger world, the FAA has won this round.

“Degrees of Freedom” by Karl Schroeder

As minister of aboriginal affairs in Ottawa, Robert Sky [originally Skaay] has made a career of blocking land-claims settlements with the First Nations. He doesn’t consider this a conflict with his Haida tribal origins; he’s personally loyal to the ideals of his political party, which seems to be the Conservative or its future equivalent. He’s also an expert in information analysis. So when the Haida use an oil tanker accident to block ratification of an oil pipeline treaty, he feels confident in his ability to blindside them. But Robert has fallen behind the times and quickly finds himself the one with the short end of the information-analysis stick, with his own son and tribe on the other side.

There, laid out in graphic boxes joined by lines – a kind of flowchart – were the problems the Haida and related stakeholders had identified, organized according to which problems caused which. The chart formed a tree, with issues like suicide rates and drug use and abuse clustered at the top. They connected down into poverty, schooling issues, cultural genocide, and so on. Tree continued through these too, down to the single root cause that the exercise has shown underlay almost everything else. That flowchart box contained the words The Haida Do Not Control Their Land.

The neat thing here is the software, the programs for analysis of information and consensus-building that drive the story. It’s interesting to compare this one with the Konstantinou above. In both futures, we see an erosion of personal freedoms and the control of information by the political power, largely in both cases for the benefit of the moneyed interests to which the political class is tied. Schroeder’s is the more realistic future in many respects, but I have to agree that Konstantinou’s more pessimistic outcome is the more likely. Agreement on concepts is all very well, but I can’t see it uprooting vested interests holding power.

“A Hotel in Antarctica” by Geoffrey A Landis

Zak Cerny is a failed young entrepreneur who believes in getting right back on the horse that threw him off. One of his dreams has always been the colonization of Mars, but he’s heeded the naysaying voice of a rival that demanded if Mars were so easy, “how come we don’t have condos on Antarctica?” He decides to take the challenge and build a hotel on Antarctica, hitting up an audacious hotel mogul for funding. Gajadhar Mistry takes him on – on his terms, which include the supervision of Mrs Binder, his accountant and generally efficient person, whose aid Zak badly needs [we get some sense of how Zak’s previous venture failed].

“He informs me that you are going to design a hotel in Antarctica. Quite a desolate place, I’m told. I’m not sure that it’s much better than outer space. How many units are you projecting to build? What capacity fraction do you think you can fill? What are your estimates for projected profit margin per unit?”

Naturally, complications ensue, including environmental protesters and the consequences of glacier melting.

Another audacious, stirring tale of adventurous enterprise in an extreme setting. And this one definitely is an adventure, as Zak and company’s lives are threatened by Antarctic conditions. But I recommend it primarily as a well-written story featuring well-done characters wrestling with a Neat Idea. The usual cliché in this sort of situation casts the environmental activists as the idiot/villains, brought on scene to obstruct progress and science. Landis upends this assumption, making his activists reasonable people who prove to make a positive contribution.


“Periapsis” by James L Cambias

An idea contest on Deimos, gem of the solar system, and the winner gets to stay. Only the top eight applicants are selected to compete for a single residential slot; Wu Ying is the only candidate from Mars, a promising young rocket scientist at age seventeen. Unfortunately, he bumps into one of the young female candidates in the hallway and suffers an immediate, distracting attraction.

This was going to be harder than I’d thought. I’d been approaching the competition as a project. Show what you know, solve the problems, work hard, produce good results. I could do that. Sofia understood the event was a performance.

This is one of several works here that make use of advanced fabricators, what people now tend to call 3D printing. The thing of real interest here are the ideas, like the several approaches to the challenge of making an omelet without breaking an egg. There’s also a scene of deep-space peril and a sudden moment of insight into starship propulsion that the author doesn’t reveal to us.

“Entanglement” by Vandana Singh

Otherwise, connections. A series of individuals around the world find themselves linked through a simple piece of technology, enabling one to assist another in time of need. Of course this bit of technology depends on pre-existing links and networks. We also see in these cases the different ways the physical and social world have altered and the ways that individuals are attempting to help heal the Earth; also several other technological advances that enable them.

This is as much a series of linked vignettes as a story, although it comes round at the end to connection in a satisfactory way. It’s also perhaps the most optimistic work here, relying, as several of the others do, on a fundamental good-will among the individuals involved, human and otherwise. This, as I have already suggested, isn’t something in which I fully believe. There is only one really disagreeable individual, epitomizing the problem instead of the solution, and he is safely already dead.

“Elephant Angels” by Brenda Cooper

A short piece showing surveillance technology used for good, to protect the world’s remaining elephants from poachers.

“Covenant” by Elizabeth Bear

A change of pace here, with the concentration on criminal rehabilitation and neuroscience. Science has developed an effective treatment for psychopathy. The narrator, a serial killer, has been offered it. Being a psychopath, he thinks he can beat the treatment.

He stayed silent. Impulse control had never been his problem.

“It’s not psychopathy you’re remanded for,” she said. “It’s murder.”

“Mind control,” he said.

“Mind repair, she said. “You can’t be sentenced to the medical procedure. But you can volunteer. It’s usually interpreted as evidence of remorse and desire to be rehabilitated. Your sentencing judge will probably take that into account.”

In fact, the procedure does work and he does become remorseful, haunted by the guilt of his past self. To repudiate that psychopath, he takes a female body.

The plot is suspense-thriller while the premise is science-fictional. It covers much the same neurological ground as the Goonan piece, above, but this one has a stronger specificity to the treatment and a much more realistically conceived outcome. The story is quite short. An online blurb called it “creepy”, but I find the story a positive one of rehabilitation. This much optimism, I can buy.

“Transition Generation” by David Brin

Carmody isn’t having a good day. His accounts are down. His wife is nagging him in augmented reality and he can’t shut her off. And his skuzzy young rival is hovering around to gloat. Carmody has had enough. He jerks open the office window and jumps. Fortunately, people in his future can fly. Also fortunately, he feels better after seeing his 2nd grader at school.

Seems to me that someone with a kid in 2nd grade is too young to be having Carmody’s midlife crisis. Otherwise, fairly amusing humor based on fairly conventional VR tech.

“The Day It All Ended” by Charlie Jane Anders

Bruce Grinnard works for the flashiest, most wasteful consumer products company and has just had enough. He storms into the boss’s office and resigns.

“Your products are pure evil. You build these sleek little pieces of shit that are designed with all this excess capacity and redundant systems. . . .You’ve been able to convince everybody with disposable income to buy your crap, because people love anything that’s ostentatiously pointless.”

Whereupon his boss congratulates him for finally getting around to it. Seems this all was a Plan.

Very short and very unlikely.

“Tall Tower” by Bruce Sterling

The anthology both begins and ends with Tall Tower stories. Stephenson’s [see link above for review] describes the High Adventure of constructing the tower. Sterling visits the structure in its obsolescence, when Cody Jennings arrives with his horse, Levi. His wife Gretchen has left for orbit and superhumanity but Cody can’t see leaving his Levi behind.

So I settled my affairs. I sold off the spread, and I gave away my earthly possessions. I took a last farewell look around, and I saddled him up. The two of us headed for the Tall Tower to meet our destiny.

And adventures ensue, along with some philosophical meanders. I do wonder how Levi manages to sire a new generation of horses if he’s the only one on the Tower, but science can do wonders. Cody, however, doesn’t emulate him in this.

More warmhearted than humorous.

F&SF, November/December 2014

This issue features two novellas, one much longer than the other, but the theme is set by the Di Filippo story, the first of several pieces of transgressive fiction contrary to the spirit of 2014’s political correctness, according to the editorial blurb. Undoubtedly some of these will offend various parties; this is clearly the intent. Perhaps this spirit also accounts for the female-free authorship. I’m rather fond of transgression as a general thing, as long as it’s cleverly done and directed against worthy targets.

“The Judging” by Rand B Lee

A sequel to the author’s earlier story in this universe where change storms have confounded all reality and turned the world into a mosaic of different probabilities, some involving only minor alterations and some monstrous ones. Wandering this chaotic landscape is Thomas Whitsun, a sort of mendicant friar from an order devoted to reducing the disorder as far as it can. To this end, the members have been endowed with a power they call wealfire, which seems to emanate from some divine source; its function often involves the sacrifice of the members’ blood, which becomes a problem in itself.

As this episode begins, we find Whitsun passing through the arcane barrier surrounding the town of Valleverde, having first noted the crucified bodies of the townspeople on the other side. In this side of reality, however, they are alive, well, and welcoming to both Whitsun and his animals – a circumstance that I find suspicious, as they have no way of knowing these are telepathic creatures with a higher sentience than the usual run of mules and dogs. In fact, the residents of Valleverde appear so uniformly benevolent and saintly there obviously must be something wrong.

“What I mean is, in all my years of traveling since the big Change first hit, I’ve never encountered a community so normal. Everywhere else I’ve gone, I’d say a good third to a half of the people I’ve encountered have sustained some level of physical, mental, or historical mutation as a result of the probability squalls. Yet I look around me here,” the red-robed man said, waving a long-fingered hand at the crowd, “and all I see is happy, healthy people. No evidence of Change at all, and no evidence of obvious emotional trauma, either. And these days, that is a miracle without a parallel in my experience.”

The problem is, it takes well over half the text of the novella to get to this point, as Whitsun meanders through the streets tediously greeting everyone, being introduced, and listening to their unremarkable stories. It takes too long for the action to commence and the plot to get into gear. After which, matters get more interesting and we encounter some potentially insights into the nature of the supernatural force behind the wealfire, which may just as likely be the Opposition as God. I’m suspecting there to be additional episodes that may answer this question. The editorial blurb is correct in saying this one can be read independently, but I’m not sure how far that can be carried on.

“Hollywood North” by Michael Libling

The longer novella. Based, as they say, on a true story, on a true place: Trenton, Ontario. It’s classic suspense from the archetypical point of view of a twelve year old boy, Gus – as in Gloomy.

From the beginning of me, I sensed the town would be the end of me — as if my designated bogeyman had vacated his lair beneath my bed, preferring to lie in wait in less patent territory. I saw neither streets nor avenues, only dead ends and dead endings. While other kids made do with stamps and coins and baseball cards, I collected fears.

Gus has two friends, one being Annie, whose relationship seems based largely on pity. Then there is Jack, who enjoyed a brief notoriety as a boy because he always found things, got written up in the local paper for it, until the other kids decided he must be a phony. But what Jack actually uncovers were secrets, and Trenton seems to be full of them.

In this case, the history includes the fact that the town was once a center of the silent film industry, before progress passed it by. But when Jack and Gus come across a box filled with old movie intertitles, no one is willing to talk about it. In fact, the local newspaperman, McGrath, insists that they burn the title cards and never mention them on pain of death. The boys spend the next several years in fear of McGrath, particularly after they do mention the intertitles to old Mr Blackhurst, who now runs the cleaners but once was a filmmaker – in fact, as we learn, the title cards were made for several of his productions. But the secret is only exposed after the old man’s death, when the boys finally see his films.

The author has worked history seamlessly into his fiction so that we can’t tell exactly where it leaves off, although a quick check will confirm the factuality of some of the most notorious incidents. While this might seem to justify Gus’s sense of pervading dread, a moment of reflection will point out that eventually everyone in a town will die, and some horrifically, as a matter of course. When a boy, Gus’s worst fear was that his mother would die, which, in her time, she duly did. But the secret of the Blackhurst films is on another order, as we find in a slow, leisurely reveal that leaves plenty of time for a coming-of-age story within it. At the end, the true horror is revealed to lie in Gus’s own heart, leaving the story to conclude on a sinister note of ambiguity.

In a nice touch, the story is illustrated with several images of the title cards.


“I’ll Follow the Sun” by Paul Di Filippo

Time travel. In 1964 Dan Wishcup is a graduate student in math at Toronto, working with his mentor, who’d been blacklisted in the US for subversive thoughts. Tragedy looms when Dan receives his draft notice, but Professor Davis has an idea based on his research “attempting to map the ordinary correspondence between the path-integral formulation of quantum mechanics and the formulation in terms of unitary evolution of states in Hilbert space with an eye toward plotting closed timelike curves.” Also based on science fiction, of which he is a fan, particularly Doctor Dormammu. His notion is for Dan to hide out in the future until the war in Vietnam is over. Dan agrees, but first he goes back to 1914 to save his namesake great-uncle from WWI by transporting him to 1964. Things do not go too well for Dan in the future – our own present – which is corrupted by smartphones, social justice, and banal slogans – that PC stuff to which the editorial refers.

One of the story’s transgressive heroes is the antiwar activist professor, but what I mostly see here is the author channeling Heinlein. The Door into Summer is one of Dan’s introductory texts to time-hopping. The multiplicity of Competent Man Dan Wishcups and beautiful breeding Marigolds is strongly Heinleinesque, and not really in a good way, as these persons seem not to be involved with the generality of society but stand apart in their superiority. I do wonder how 1914 Danny, taking the place of Dan while on his time travels, manages to avoid the Vietnam draft, even if this was a frying pan compared to the fire of his own time.

“Golden Girl” by Albert E Cowdrey

Doreen has an ulterior motive for taking a job cataloging the antique library of the antique Lucien Valois; she wonders if he might have murdered her grandmother, along with the other elderly owners of the adjoining antique townhouses on McCarty Row. All the deaths involved insects in one way or another, and Valois is an entomologist. At first, she sees no real grounds for suspicion, except for some antique French editions of de Sade. But then the old man fires his household staff, resigns his positions at the university, and retreats from public view. Doreen unwisely seeks him out.

In the introductory blurb, the editor claims that Cowdrey’s work is “sometimes favorably compared to that of James Tiptree, Jr.” To which I can only say, No. Emphatically. Certainly this piece, a rather conventional horror-with-insects, deserves no such comparison to Tiptree’s brilliant, original and insightful work.

“Yeshua’s Dog” by Tim Sullivan

A revisionist gospel. The villagers always enjoyed listening to the stories, tall tales and lies told by Yeshua. But then the old man got a swelled head when a Greek came along and wrote them down.

I guessed that they didn’t have storytellers like old Yeshua in Antioch. In the big city, they must have been too busy to enjoy such a simple pleasure. But people along the Sea of Galilee’s shore enjoyed sitting around listening to an old man dream aloud while the fire crackled and a dog slept at his feet. It was cheaper than the whorehouse, and you couldn’t catch anything from it. There was even wine to wash down the harmless lies Yeshua so loved to tell.

But their favorite was the old man’s loyal dog Judas, who becomes the center of a possibly-real miracle.

Amusing lite blasphemy, nicely subversive. I suspect this one may be grouped among the transgressive pieces, but I found it charming, rather than offensive. Opinions may vary.


“Nanabojou at the World’s Fair” by Justin Barbeau

St Louis, 1904. Nanabojou is otherwise known to the various tribes as the Trickster, but here he is living with the Ojibway in a tar-paper shack, “for though Nanabojou is a mythological being, he never puts on airs or acts as if he’s better than the rest of the Indians.” The government has put his lumber royalties in trust, for his own good, so Nanabojou doesn’t have money to buy tobacco or food. When he learns that the big fair is hiring Indians, he decides to hitch a ride out there, see the sights for himself, and get an ice-cream cone. But when he looks for a job, he is informed he lacks authenticity.

“Just look at him!” said the professor dismissively. “A bandana instead of a headdress, trousers instead of a breechclout! It’s inappropriate, inauthentic. No one would believe he was Indian.”

Cutting irony, pointed truth. Nanobojou explores the concepts of progress and authenticity and finds both to be largely facades in a world where no one seems to know the difference between the hall of anthropology and the wild west show. But there is ice-cream.

“Feral Frolics” by Scott Baker

Greg goes from wild animal control to domestic cat control to domestic cat extermination. This was originally because it was easier, paid better and smelled less bad. But

I found I liked killing cats. Loved it even, which was the whole problem; it was like getting high, and that made me stupid. One time when I was off in some light woods where I didn’t think anyone was around to see me, some teenage girl was there to see me, though I never saw her. She got a ninety-second video of me zapping some woman’s prize doll-face Persian with my baton.

Just like that, he becomes notorious and unable to get a job even after his release from Soledad. So he really doesn’t want to lose his furniture delivery gig, even when it turns out he’s supposed to deliver some couches to a Cat Lover’s Café.

Baker pulls out all the stops to offend ailurophiles and persons of common decency, using a smartass darkly humorous voice. It counts, certainly, among the transgressive offerings in this issue. Alas, it all comes to a flabby, conventional conclusion, not a bit of clever in it, which something as offensive as this really needs.

“The Bomb-Thing” by K J Kabza

The 1960s again, with the same Professor Davis as in the Di Filippo story. Blaine and his best friend Mason are sort of losers, although Mason insists that he’s a genius even if he works as a janitor in the University’s math department. Blaine slings tacos and doesn’t make any claims, except for admiration of Mason, whom he’d follow anywhere. When a sexy young woman with a pair of big bombs, in Mason’s parlance, shows up on campus, he lets her into the labs in an attempt to get laid. Phyllis, however, turns out to be an alien come to take away the time machine.

“My job is to monitor and neutralize certain potentially dangerous technological developments made by your species until you, as a race, can demonstrate that you are mature enough to handle their applications.” She gestured behind her, at Mason, in disgust. “Which you, at this point in time, are obviously not.”

Mason’s reaction reveals him to be a consummate horses’s ass, but Blaine still loves him anyway. Not that he’s gay or anything like that.

The most notable thing about this one is that when we shift in time from 2014 to 1964, nothing appears to have changed. Which is quite unlike the Di Filippo story, in which the temporal disconnect is critical, as it ought to be.

“The Old Science Fiction Writer” by David Gerrold

Young Danny-Marie [unsettled in pronoun before opting for adolescence] asks Grampa to tell about the olden days before the Big Think. At which, Grampa flashes on Father William. At which, I wonder how many readers will know Father William. [Be off, or I’ll kick you downstairs.]

I think this is supposed to be transgressive mockery of current trends in pronouns, but it’s not really funny.

Clarkesworld, October 2014

A lite dark fantasy issue full of ghosts. Must be Samhain coming on.

“Taxidermist in the Underworld” by Maria Dahvana Headley

The Devil abducts Louis from the museum because he claims to need a taxidermist to stuff his ghosts. Ghosts are hard to stuff. Time passes with no success at ghost-stuffing, while Louis mourns his lost life and wonders what his lover Carl is doing without him.

“You can leave Carl a note,” says the Devil, and so Louis cribs out a message to his lover: Wait for me, I had to leave town, I won’t be gone long, I’ll explain, it’s something about my soul.

But Louis is wrong about that, as he discovers when Carl shows up in hell.

Dark humor. Clever, twisted love story. Poor Louis, ending up with the consolation prize. This one is largely about relationships and complications among lovers, with neat lines like “kisses him on the cheek in the prickly way one kisses the lover of one’s love.”

“Lovecraft” by Helena Bell

As a history student, Ann is sent to interview an old woman named Luzenberg, whose ancestors have a long a sinister residency in New Orleans. She eventually becomes her paid companion and surrogate family. Her employer has an unusual trait, which may be a hereditary curse: on irregular occasions an orifice opens in her flesh and baby cthulhus emerge.

She does not seem to notice their slithering, nor does she acknowledge the quiet, quick barks in rapid succession as they tumble over each other, biting and scrabbling at their siblings while Ann picks them up with a pair of tongs and drops them, one by one, into the garbage disposal and then turns it on.

But one small monster has escaped and taken up residence in the house, where Ann comes to consider it a kind of pet, eventually taking it on a leash for walks in the cemetery, where she encounters a young man named Howard from New England, who takes an interest in which Ann is deceived.

This is a neat weird premise. I think I’m overthinking it, wondering if Howard is the Howard from Providence, and if so, how did he come to be in this time. But I suspect this doesn’t really matter. The heart of the story is in the relationship between the two women, the life of single women in this milieu and the attachments they form in lieu of men, who are only after one thing and Ann is better off without them. Except that Howard was actually after something else that Ann valued more highly. The conclusion is weirdly uplifting with both expiation and revenge, although we can suspect no good will come of it.


“Seeking boarder for rm/attached bathroom, must be willing to live with ghosts ($500/Berkeley)” by Rahul Kanakia

There’s always a catch:

Sole caveat: The living room, garage, basement, and third bedroom are used primarily for ectoplasmic storage. Don’t know if you’ve ever seen them, but ghost flasks are small, unobtrusive, and thoroughly safe. However, mine do emit a slight noise. The previous boarder, a twenty-seven-year-old medical student, is leaving due to excessive emotional involvement with the ghosts, and I’d prefer if my next boarder attempted to leave them alone as much as possible.

The owner, you see, is in the ghost removal/storage business. Now an overly literal-minded reader might want to suggest to the character that it would be better to rent an offsite storage unit, but that would be missing the point, which is the owner’s negative history with his former boarder. This is a person who has difficulty with his self-concept. While he writes that, “if his listeners are right-minded people, they’ll sense the truth pouring out of him”, this isn’t true in the sense that he intends. But it’s up to readers to decide whether he’s more to be pitied than censured.

“Pithing Needle” by E Catherine Tobler

The author has this story that seems to obsess her: a ship full of alien prisoners crash-lands on Earth, where the starving captives escape and begin to devour the human soldiers sent to confront them. This is the second version of it that I’ve seen, although chronologically prior; it’s shorter and less complicated than the first version but still highly opaque. The ensuing war is shown both times as horrific on both sides, for the humans seeing their comrades being eaten, for the aliens being stranded on a hostile alien world, but the two species originally have no ability to communicate, not even the same sensorium for communication. Here, our narrator is a soldier who is swallowed into the alien hive and subjected to an intrusive mental process that allows understanding.

Language is patterns, repetitions; pauses and stops and resumptions, and this, this is what the alien is doing. It’s talking to me. Trying to tell me something. I understand none of the words, but the structure becomes familiar. The alien repeats itself, clicking, and then there are two aliens, and three, and more. They have no eyes, but they absolutely watch me as I drip saliva and mud into the cup of this room.

In consequence the narrator becomes a chimera, with a part-alien mind, a link between the species.

Of all the stories in the issue, this SF is the truly dark one. The intention seems to be creating the atmosphere of total incomprehension that prevails between the totally alien; in consequence the story itself is shrouded in incomprehensibility, confusion — blooming and buzzing. The melding that occurs doesn’t create the glow of mutual intelligibility or lead to peace and harmony. Matters are still hopeless and dismal. Even if comprehension is possible, the two species are too alien to one another. All of which leaves the narrator suspended between, neither one nor the other, no longer individual, no longer her* own self.

[*] It’s not clear, as little in this turbid landscape is clear, if the narrator here is the same soldier from the previously-published story, but I’ll assume by default that she is.

Apex Magazine, October 2014

I’m shaking my head here after reading this issue’s editorial.

These stories and poems are fiction and don’t contain the answers that solve GamerGate; they don’t explain how to include transpeople in feminist circles; they don’t broker peace between misogynist fans and women.

What I find odd is that the editor seems to feel the need to apologize for this, for publishing fiction, in a fiction magazine.

“Primrose or Return to Il’maril” by Mary McMyne

Our narrator is called out of retirement because the Il’maril’s sun is about to go supernova and most of the population refuses to evacuate. She confronts the chief shaman, who tells her that the supernova will be the culmination of their evolution, bestowing on them eternal life. At which point, readers will realize that, although the shaman is called a “man” and described as if he were human, the Il’maril are in fact entirely alien. This is not intended as a surprise, but is rather unclarity on the part of the author. The primrose of the title is a strained metaphor.

“Coins for their Eyes” by Kris Millering

Death is the great mystery, from which have sprung innumerable myths, which the author has gathered up and formed into this story. We begin in vagueness, with the narrator making dolls based on photographs. We follow her as she places the dolls on the graves of the people they represent, where comes the explanation.

I don’t even know how people know that the service I provide is available. I can’t exactly ask anyone, hey, do you happen to remember where you first heard of the ghost dolls? But what I do know is this: the payment is for the propitiation of the restless dead, those who died young, or violently. The dolls are vehicles, conveyances to elsewhere.

The dead get stuck sometimes. The dolls help them unstick.

As the story continues, we learn more of the narrator as she regains the lost bits of her memory, that she passed through the door to elsewhere but chose not to go on, instead acting as a psychopomp under the direction of the crossroads man.

The author makes pretty good use of all the mythical material she employs here, but the story seems rather crowded. I’m not sure both a crossroads man and a ghost doll are necessary for the passage of the dead. Still, it’s stronger stuff than the revenge subplot, which is pretty conventional horror.

“The House in Winter” by Jessica Sirkin

An imaginative variation on the Hansel and Gretel tale. Here the narrator is an old woman who isn’t a witch but is possessed by the dark presence of the house itself. Every winter when the hunger comes, cast-out children come freezing and starving to the house, where its keeper welcomes them. But eventually, they will end up in the basement, either willingly or by force.

He is looking at the children in the wall. Their eyes glow yellow in the light of his candle. Their mouths form silent warnings as they struggle and writhe against the bricks. The places where flesh becomes stone stretch and distend, pulling their skin across their faces, closing their eyes and working their jaws. Pain rolls off of them in waves, smelling sickly sweet, like too much sugar.

There is one alternative for the children, however.

Nicely done twist, although I’m not sure the fangs fit into the premise

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 Peter Watts

Maybe this represents some sort of watershed in the development of hard SF: Arthur C. Clarke’s famous and annoyingly overquoted dictum that any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic has given way to ‘‘any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from nature’’ (italics mine). That comes from Peter Watts’s Echopraxia, where he attributes it to Stella Rossiter, but exactly the same thought appears in Hannu Rajaniemi’s The Causal Angel (‘‘sufficiently advanced technology should be indistinguishable from nature’’). Likely a coincidence, unless they talked on the phone before coming to school, but it’s an interesting shift. Clarke’s quip seemed to give hard SF license to go wonky whenever it felt like it, including Clarke’s own occasional fits of reluctant mysticism; his more purely hard SF novels, like The Sands of Mars, didn’t give him that wiggle room, and they haven’t lasted as long as, say, Childhood’s End. We can hear some faint echoes of Childhood’s End by the time we get done with Echopraxia, but Watts couldn’t be less interested in magic and the supernatural, despite a novel packed with vampires, zombies, Heaven, and the quaintly transgressive conceit that religion might turn out to be as predictively valid as science. But more about that in a moment.

What I think is particularly interesting about that magic vs. nature question is that it may help explain why so many of us get tangled up when trying to even decide what hard SF is: we’ve almost always tried to discuss it solely in terms of its conceptual parameters rather than by how it works as fiction. Theoretically, those parameters are, simply, nature – physics, astronomy, biology, etc. – suggesting that Watts and Rajaniemi’s formulation is closer to the mark than Clarke’s. But in practice, almost since the beginning of SF, that ‘‘sufficiently advanced technology’’ rubric has served writers as a Get Out of Jail Free card not all that far removed from Clarke’s magic, so the argument becomes circular: we can’t distinguish advanced technology from a natural process, and we can’t distinguish an unknown natural process from magic, so we’re back to square one.

Except for one thing: replacing magic with nature substantially reduces the degree of pure handwaving permitted in hard SF, and as a result writers have for the past few decades been developing strategies for incorporating cutting-edge science and technology into their narratives, making them part of the aesthetic fabric, and that takes us back to that question of how this all works as fiction. In addition to the traditional weaving of character, plot, setting, style, etc., the literary hard SF writer needs to weave information into the fabric as well, and how they do this looks very much like a set of artistic decisions.

By coincidence – and in fact what set off this ramble – three of the works we’re looking at this month represent three distinct such artistic strategies. Nancy Kress’s Yesterday’s Kin follows the more traditional Heinleinian model, offering just enough science to power the issues she wants to address – mostly evolutionary biology – while pretty much ignoring less relevant questions (such as how her alien spacecraft operate). Peter Watts, on the other hand, is fascinated by the science behind all aspects of his constructed world in Echopraxia, and wants you to sit still for some dauntingly dense asides about it, almost as the price for getting to enjoy what turns out to be a pretty solid space adventure. Hannu Rajaniemi’s strategy in The Quantum Thief trilogy is to work out all that science and information theory, pack it into an initially bewildering array of neologisms and images, and then explain nothing at all, lest it slow down the kinetic pace of what is at heart a romantic adventure tale.

Put another way, Kress’s scientific rhetoric is in support of her plot, Watts’s is in dialogue with his plot, and Rajaniemi’s is the backdrop of his plot. Which is the more effective strategy is at least partly a function of how much work the reader is willing to put in, but all are good examples of how the rhetoric of science becomes part of the rhetoric of fiction in a way that is unique to hard SF.

The famously dismal brilliance of Watts’s imagination as it shows up in Echopraxia – more of a companion piece than a sequel to 2006’s Blindsight – at first stuns you with its barrage of smart ideas and cutting-edge research, then disarms you with its grim determinism and unsympathetic, semi-posthuman characters, and ends up, pretty much, by just making you want to crawl under a rock. This is not a novel that wants to invite anyone in for tea. But while, on the one hand, it’s SF hard enough to break a tooth on, it also challenges some of the very tenets of hard SF by questioning whether religion might turn out to be as useful as science, at least in terms of predictive power. There’s a fair amount of discussion (perhaps a bit too much, and that’s not counting the appendix with its 139 footnotes) about how supernatural beliefs serve biologically adaptive functions, how neurology governs perception (not only in the echopraxia of the title, but with side bits about misophonia, agnosia, pareidolia, cognitive filters, and the ingenious ‘‘Crucifix glitch’’ which explains why vampires are allergic to crosses), how distributed minds might work, and about the possible varieties of posthumanism. Watts is not as openly concerned with questions of consciousness as in Blindsight, but he’s still just as fascinated with questions of identity, and, in the case of the main character, of responsibility.

To help us keep our bearings in this transfigured world, that main character is Daniel Brüks, a ‘‘baseline human’’ – without various perceptual and neurological enhancements – working as a field biologist in the Oregon desert, long after most science has left such work behind in favor of mechanized observations and simulations. The setting is 2096, some 14 years after the first contact event described in Blindsight, when thousands of lights appearing in the skies resulted in the ambitious project to send the spacecraft Theseus into the outer solar system to see what was going on. When his array of automated research stations start going dark in a pattern heading straight toward him, Brüks takes refuge in a nearby monastery run by the sort-of-but-not-quite hive mind of the Bicamerals, who among other things have mastered a very neat sort of weaponized tornado.

They also have their own spaceship, the Crown of Thorns, and since they seem to be the target of the attack, they head out on a mission, initially toward the sun but really to discover what happened to Theseus, and they take an unwilling and pretty useless Brüks with them – along with the unexpected guest Valerie, a vampire who eventually comes across as a cross between the world’s baddest dominatrix and Giger’s indefatigable Alien. She’s about the most compelling creation in the novel, and her role takes on an unexpected complexity toward the end. And to make her even scarier, she’s accompanied by a retinue of zombies (Watts makes sure we understand the biology and neurology behind both vampirism and zombieism, whether we want to or not.)

Throughout the novel, there is an uneasy tension between the speculative biologist Watts, the Watts who can write sentences of startling lyricism, and the Watts who wants to write a good space opera. For example, one of the threats faced by the Crown of Thorns is a mold-like organism which, like the spider that Brüks names it after, ‘‘had learned to partition its cognitive processes, almost as if it were emulating a larger brain piece by piece, saving the results of one module to feed into the next.’’ We get nearly a full page on the behavior of this precocious spider, but a few chapters later, Brüks calls out the threat for what it is in purely pulp SF terms – ‘‘an intelligent slime mold from outer space.’’ For every speed bump like this

Streptococcal subroutines lifted from necrotizing myelitis; viral encephalitides laterally promoted from their usual supporting role in limbic encephalitis; a polysaccharide in the cell wall with a special affinity for the nasal mucosa

or this

Hypomethylation, CpG islands, methylcytosine – black magic, all of it. The precise and deliberate rape of certain methylating groups to turn interneurons cancerous, just so: a synaptic superbloom that multiplied every circuit a thousandfold

we get a sharp and succinct image of almost brutalist poetry like ‘‘They’d turned their brains into cancer,’’ or a waggish wisecrack that the folk belief of distracting vampires by throwing salt in their paths was ‘‘probably not peer reviewed.’’

In the end, Watts the storyteller wins out, with Brüks coming to terms with a dark secret from his own past and his companions on the journey – his almost-girlfriend Lianna, the pilot Sengupta, the military veteran Jim Moore, and that spectacular vampire Valerie – acting out their own obsessions and vengeful motives. Almost unwillingly, we come to care about these mostly unsympathetic folks, and when the mission finally returns to a devastated Earth, an almost elegiac ending somehow evokes both Clarke’s novel and Matheson’s I Am Legend. It’s not quite where we expected to be in a novel that sometimes reads like a graduate seminar for which we lack the prerequisites, but it’s undeniably powerful, and surprisingly humane.

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