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Liz Bourke reviews Ian Tregillis

The Mechanical, Ian Tregillis (Orbit 978-0-316-24800-6, $17.00, 480pp, tp) March 2015.

After his debut trilogy, the Milkweed Triptych, I think it’s safe to say that Ian Tregillis is a writer with a reputation for the bleak and unnerving, but with a reputation for talent, as well. The Mechanical is his fifth novel, after 2013’s standalone Something More Than Night. It’s the opening volume in a new series, and it lives up to Tregillis’ reputation – both parts of it.

The Mechanical opens in the Binnenhof in the Hague, at the site of a public execution. It’s immediately clear that this is a world deeply different from our own: not only is the Hague the seat of a Dutch Empire instead of a Republic (with a queen instead of a Staten-Generaal), but it is an empire whose inhabitants possess mechanical servitors – Clakkers – who are self-aware but constrained from free will by the alchemy and magic that the Guild of Clockmakers puts into their making. We’re introduced to the Clakkers from the point of view of one of their own, Jax, who’s present – despite the geas that compel him – because he wants to witness the execution of several French agents and, more importantly, a rogue Clakker – one of the legendary few who attain free will and flee.

‘‘Clockmakers lie’’ are the rogue Clakker’s dying words.

But – as we come to see – in The Mechanical, everyone lies. The Clockmakers and the Dutch, the Clakkers, and perhaps most especially the Catholic French, whose small besieged territory in New France (somewhere in Canada) is the last holdout against the mighty Dutch, and whose papist doctrine of Free Will – even for mechanicals – is anathema to the Clockmakers. In the Hague, the conscience of priest and undercover French spy Luuk Visser drives him into the very heart of the Clockmakers’ power to commit acts for which he will pay a terrible personal price. While in Marseilles-in-the-West, infamous spymaster Talleyrand – Beatrice Charlotte de Mornay-Périgord – deceives her monarch in the cause of fighting the Dutch, and is deceived in her turn, with bloody and disastrous consequences.

As Jax finds himself suddenly, astonishingly, possessed of free will and Visser finds himself deprived of it, Beatrice – exiled from New France, no longer Talleyrand – sets out on a personal quest for vengeance deep into Dutch territory. If she can fuck up the Dutch war effort along the way, so much the better.

Tregillis screws his characters’ lives up in interestingly horrible ways. The Mechanical is a touch on the gruesome side in parts: if detailed descriptions of eye injuries bother you, or non-consensual brain surgery makes your stomach turn over, you should probably know going in that these are things that occur in The Mechanical, and they might not be the most gruesome things to take place.

The Mechanical is an excellent novel. Truly excellent: I have rarely found myself this gripped by a book which I began knowing full well there could be no happy outcome. (However I did distract myself by wanting to nitpick the logistics of a mechanised workforce: where are all the poor people and what are they doing now? And, for that matter, what happened to everything that wasn’t French or Dutch?) At the climactic points, I had to pause and walk away for moments at a time, because the intensity of the tension became nerve-wrackingly hard to bear. Tregillis has an excellent eye for characterisation, and a master’s grasp of how to build tension to a breaking point: the sheer narrative drive here, the way in which the storylines of the three point-of-view characters support and reinforce the tension in each other, is a thing of beauty.

I can’t escape the feeling that it’s shaping up as a long arc tragedy – in the classic sense of tragedy – for all of its protagonists, but it is immensely well done. I’m very much on board to see what happens next.

Even though it’s probably going to horrify me more.

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-May

A bunch of shorter publications in which I find little to be very enthusiastic about.

Publications Reviewed



Lightspeed, May 2015

Finally ending [or so it seems] Hughes’ “Erm Kaslo” serial, with the rest of the original fiction on the short and weak side.

“Time Bomb Time” by C C Finlay

Hannah’s boyfriend is messing around with his time bomb in her dorm room. Boring relationship argument ensues. The boring argument contains numerous references that would clue in the reader to the nature of the plot twist, if any readers can push through the tedium to pay attention.

“Mouth” by Helena Bell

When Ann was five years old, she slapped her baby brother and his mouth flew off his face. She didn’t know how to put it back and it went bad, so she finally threw it out. When she grew older, she learned how to put stuff back, but she didn’t always do it. There’s a suggestion that some of this is the product of her imagination, but her brother really doesn’t have a natural mouth, so we really do have to take the premise literally. The point of all this absurdity seems to be that people don’t listen to what other people tell them, but it might be something else.

“The Myth of Rain” by Seanan McGuire

Drought has moved north from California as the rich move ahead of it, taking over.

Protection for endangered species and habitats wasn’t as important as space for homes and cities and jobs. Commerce and trade were coming to the Pacific Northwest, whether we wanted them or not, despite our protests that they had been here all along. State legislators looked at a sky that was black with crows and said, “The wildlife is doing fine without our help.”

Julie is part of a team of environmentalists gathering up as many specimens of endangered species as they can before the construction crews move in. She knows her quest is doomed to failure, but she has to try.

An angry, overtly political work in the mode If This Goes On.



Strange Horizons, May 2015

The fiction here is psychological, with some of the insights casting light but not much excitement.

“The Pieces” by Teresa Milbrodt

A relationship story, here mainly the relationship between father and daughter. A short, surreal fantasy in which the narrator’s father has literally fallen apart, his various segments lying around the living room. This doesn’t stop him from being difficult and critical, as usual. His wife says he’s having a mid-life crisis. The narrator takes him, head and torso at least, out for coffee.

Dad has never been good at expressing that concern in a way that makes me want to do anything but push back. And now he’s a head and two blocks of torso stacked on top of each other. For once I am in control.

Minor catharsis ensues in this altogether minor story, in which the realization of the metaphor is about the whole of it.

“Cloth Mother” by Sarah Pauling

Earth died. As resources ran out, authorities rapidly mobilized to send habitats stocked with embryos into orbit where they would be safe until the planet was ready for recolonization. As this time approached, the AIs running the habitats attempt to hatch and raise a child who could raise the others. These efforts didn’t always succeed, but Mazie was more acceptable than most. Now the Revitalization, with the aid of a subroutine filling the function of mother, must raise and educate the child to be as good and empathetic human as possible, consistent with a limited energy budget. As she approaches maturity, Mazie takes a more active role in her own preparation, having studied enough psychology to manipulate her caretakers.

“They did experiments on monkeys,” she said. “Do you know what happens to monkeys when they grow up alone in a pit without other monkeys, Vita?”

An interesting piece about child development. The title, which the author tells us in case we don’t get it on our own, recalls the classic Harlow experiment with baby monkeys; the AI Vita is the wire money who provides sustenance, but the mother simulation is the cloth monkey who approximates love. The conclusion is optimistic; readers can assume the programming succeeded, as Mazie claims.

“By Degrees and Dilatory Time” by S L Huang

Marcus has had bad luck and good luck in his life. Bad luck ended his career as a competitive skater because artificial implants aren’t allowed in sport, and now it’s taken his eyes with cancer. The good luck is the technology that can replace damaged joints and eyes. He undergoes the surgery. He recovers, physically. He recovers mentally, too, but that takes more time. In the end, “It’s just . . . life. Like everything else.”

The plot here is minimal. It’s a contemplative work, following Marcus through the stages of disease and recovery; it’s an insightful work. I’m not sure we learn a whole lot about Marcus, who he was and is, but the insights have value.



Apex Magazine, May 2015

A rather more promising issue, although in all of the stories I keep tripping over facty flaws that prevent them from being what they might have been.

“Remembery Day” by Sarah Pinsker

In the aftermath of a particularly painful war, veterans everywhere have agreed to the imposition of the Veil, a collective mental block that prevents them from remembering. Once a year, however, in fullness of recollection, they gather in parade to revote the issue. The story is told from the point of view of Clara, whose mother is a disabled veteran. We see how carefully and lovingly they prepare her uniform for the event, how proudly they applaud her service, and how eagerly Clara waits for the opportunity to question her about those lost years. “Maybe I’d get to know the other Mama, too: the one who remembered my father, who had died before I was born. The one who could someday tell me whether it had been worth everything she had lost.”

Another story where sentiment predominates, evoking sympathy for veterans and the trauma they’ve suffered in war. The story suggests that this last war’s trauma has finally been the cause of ending all wars; the flags of all nations are flown, and all the old uniforms have been abandoned for common use, reserved for this day alone. But I find myself with more questions than are answered here. The premise seems to be a degree of trauma so universally great that survivors would choose to forget—not only the trauma itself but all that part of their lives. And the text makes clear that this isn’t voluntary, that the Veil isn’t limited to those veterans who choose this drastic amputation of memory. Some, as we see, vote every year to lift the Veil, but they are overruled by the majority. In short, it seems that this treatment must be involuntary, compulsory, universal.

I note that the presence of pressed uniforms and polished boots suggests a 20th-century, 3rd-generation model of warfare, with armies formally-organized and controlled by states. It doesn’t seem likely that any near-future war on that model would have altered the proportion of rear-echelon troops to those relatively few on the front lines, who suffer the brunt of the trauma. And of these, the survivors are relatively few. Yet it would seem that the scenario here condemns even the minimally-traumatized and untraumatized veterans to this compulsory mental amputation, which would be extreme.

Furthermore, in more recent wars, both 3rd and 4th generation, trauma has been widely extended to include civilian populations, who are the primary victims of terrorism. Rape, for example, is now acknowledged as a weapon of war. Bombing is randomized and its damage collateralized. Yet we see no sign in this story that these victims are accorded the benefits, such as they might be, of a veiled memory. In short, the entire premise doesn’t seem particularly thought-through.

I also have to consider the well-known axiom: Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it. This suggests that the unremembered war of the story is unlikely to be the last.

“Wildcat (From the Secret Diary of Donna Hooks)” by David Bowles

At the beginning of the 20th century in the American Southwest, the eponymous narrator is a woman outside the prevailing norms, being feminist, divorced, and a practitioner of witchcraft [a gringa santera]. When her farmhands shoot a wild jaguarundi shapeshifter, concern is raised over her kits, who will grow up fully neither human nor cat without intervention.

“Problem is they don’t know they are human. Right now their tonal, their animal soul, it’s in charge. How you’re going to get them to understand, gringa witch? How you’re going to awaken the human soul and get it to take charge? The older they get, the harder it’s going to be to put them down. Can’t release them: their personhood would twist inside them, make them mankillers. So what’s the solution, Miss Donna?”

She succeeds in transforming the two female kits, but the sole male is a harder case.

Overall, this is a successful piece, and for the most part my objections could be characterized as nitpicking. It’s remotely conceivable, for one, that Donna Holt in 1918 could have taken the title of “Ms”, first known to be proposed in 1901, although less conceivable that her farmhands would have used it. And it’s also conceivable that her teacher, an adept in Obeah, might have used the Chinese term chi for the “divine spark”, but I’m dubious. The jaguarundi, on the other hand, is a small cat, in the general size range of the housecat. A chicken-coop raiding cat, certainly, but slaughtering three full-sized horses? Even for a creature of sorcery, I’m not buying it. The cumulative effect of these unlikelihoods diminishes the author’s authority and my acceptance of the story.

“A Sister’s Weight in Stone” by J Y Yang

The setting is a fantasy alternative China in a fantasy late 19th-century, where the livelihood of a silk-farming village is being destroyed by an oceanic infestation of dragon-worms.

. . . the seas across the warmer parts of the world seemed to churn with their gelatinous bodies, serrated teeth destroying everything in their path. Fishermen’s boats went out in the morning and came back empty driftwood torn with holes. Stilt houses fell whole into the sea with their occupants, foundations razored away to nothing. Coastal cities closed their ports to all but airships and erected walls to keep hungry mouths away from the soft flesh of populace.

The old women claim that the dragon-worms are the servants of the great dragon princes of the sea, and indeed we get no other explanation for them. But with the silk trade failing, the young people have been forced to leave the village to seek work elsewhere. Little Phoenix and her sister Jade are on their way to Singapore in an airship when Jade falls overboard and passengers see her taken below the waves by a dragon prince. Once in Singapore and working on a construction crew, Little Phoenix attempts to scry out her sister and discover a way to earn her release.

OK, I’m finding facty problems again. Silkworking is a delicate, skilled occupation. It takes meticulous care to unwind the threads from the cocoons and weave them into fabric, thus an occupation requiring delicate dexterity, not calloused, scraggy hands that would snag the threads, as rough labor produces. The women of the village have devoted their lives to this weaving, to the point of lifelong celibacy. Sitting in front of a loom handling fine, gossamer strands is the very opposite of the heavy labor that the authors suggests they are engaged in, carrying bales of silk, and I really doubt it prepares the women for the heavy labor of hauling bricks and quarried stone.

Aside from this, the author hasn’t laid a groundwork for the eventual conclusion, so that it comes as an unpleasant surprise; readers may feel misled, as viewers might have felt decades ago, seeing Bobby Ewing step out of his shower. And it also leaves us without an explanation for the dragon-worms.



Shimmer, May 2015

Four stories about women in various stages of life. The most interesting one is the Wallace. Readers, however, might prefer more diversity.

“The Proper Motion of Extraordinary Stars” by Kali Wallace

Doing natural history in the far Southern Ocean. Aurelia has come to Asunder Island because her parents once did, as they circumnavigated the globe and explored strange regions while their daughter waited in London for their letters. During that visit, they observed the Summer Star at the observatory on the island, the only one situated sufficiently south for the purpose, and Aurelia is determined to defend their conclusions against fatuous skeptics.

The measurements had to be wrong, said Petterdown, because common adventurers and uneducated sailors had no place mucking about in scientific inquiry. Aurelia found his careless argument offensive to her sense of intellectual rigor, but enticing as well, like a challenge to a duel. She was very much looking forward to proving him wrong.

The setting is apparently some time in the 19th century, and although later than O’Brien’s Stephen Maturin, we can see much of the spirit of that era’s scientific exploration into unknown seas. I note that, as readers of O’Brien know well, sailors of the time, relying on celestial observation for navigation, were far from uneducated in this field. Aurelia, of course, is an early feminist, resolved to go her own way, albeit with the chaperonage of a convenient aunt. As for the Southern Star, from the description of its movements, readers will suspect it to be something like an orbiting spacecraft.

So the story would seem to be a piece of retro science fiction, and as such, I find certain aspects problematic. If the study of this anomalous star were so important, why didn’t the observatory’s builder conduct a proper survey of it, one that would withstand skeptical opposition, rather than leaving it to random travelers who, like Aurelia, come for a single night of observation and then sail away? This behavior on her part is quite inexplicable. She’s sailed thousands of miles to reach this destination, and she only plans to spend a single, very short, night making her measurements of the star’s motion? The text makes it clear it’s not the case that the star is visible for only a single night in a year. She should have come with scientific instruments and sufficient supplies to last the whole season instead of knocking on the door of a hovel and expecting accommodation from their destitute inhabitants. It makes no sense, and if this were all there was to the story, I wouldn’t think so much of it.

But it’s not all there is. There is a fantasy so powerful that Aurelia almost forgets entirely to look through her telescope. Besides the observatory, Asunder Island is the home of a population of Atrox*, fierce black birds of unknown origin [although the text hints they are connected to the star], who live in a volcanic chasm that evokes the subterranean worlds of Jules Verne.

Standing above the crevasse, smoke stinging her eyes, Aurelia was for the first time willing to believe the lurid, far-fetched tales of explorers who had ventured into Atrox colonies: underground landscapes of bottomless pits and lakes of lava, impossible cities carved into stone, wild yellow eyes glowing from towers with predatory intelligence, a thousand black wings rustling in the darkness.

The scant human population is intimately connected to the birds, their huts all the mouths of tunnels leading down into the chasm. The only one who will speak to Aurelia is a girl who is clearly much older than her appearance would imply; one of her limbs is a wing. She tells Aurelia a strange tale that she claims was related to her by Aurelia’s mother when she came to the island, a tale of growing wings and flying away from a world that holds men, only returning for the sake of her daughter. At the end, it’s the truth of her mother that Aurelia discovers on the island, not stars or birds. Still, it’s an awfully long trip to realize she needs to come back again and do it right, as she should have done in the first place.

[*]The name means “fierce”, although it feels like only part of a proper binomial scientific designation, with the genus missing. But that would suggest these birds have a place in the terrestrial chain of life.

“The Mothgate” by J R Troughton

The gate stands between the worlds, opening when night comes, to let the monsters pass through. Mama Rattakin has been teaching Elsa all her life to stand guard and shoot them as they come through the gate to attack humans.

Emerging from the trees, glistening in the moonlight as they danced, came the witika. Sylph-like figures covered in pale robes who spun and twirled as they sang, stepping closer and closer. Their long white hair flowed like rivers of snow, swaying about their hips. Each of their heads nodded along to the song in perfect synchronicity.

It’s a cyclical story with fairy tale elements, although the characters hope one day to end the cycle by learning enough about their enemies to close the gate. Pretty standard stuff.

“Good Girls” by Isabel Yap

Sara’s new roommate at the Good Girls Reformation Retreat is a Filipina named Kaye, who isn’t there because she’s a manananggal, because the authorities don’t know this. Monsters of her sort fly around at night with the lower halves of their bodies left behind, looking to suck the fetus from a pregnant woman’s belly. Sara, in contrast, only fantasizes about killing babies but doesn’t actually do so. Still, the two of them get along pretty well. “Kaye just wants her to pretend everything’s fine. She can do that. She’s had a lot of practice.”

YA horror, more explicit than usual, with the fetus-sucking thing, but this is all from the folklore, not the author’s creation.

“In the Rustle of Pages” by Cassandra Khaw

A fantasy world in which people turn into buildings, a condition called “city-sickness” that confers immortality. Zhang Yong is becoming a bookstore. His wife, Li Jing, is immune to the condition, but they’ve promised each other they’ll remain together until the end. Unfortunately, their interfering grandchildren, full of filial dogoodery, are determined to put her into a care home for her own good.

She knows from experience they won’t relent until she is subdued. So Li Jing nods meekly instead, dispenses ‘maybes’ with shrugs, hoping against reason that indecision will outlast her grandchildren’s persistence. She sighs as they close in on her, allowing the tide of their words to wash over her like foam on a distant shore, carrying away talk of relocation, complex treatments, and futures she stores no interest in.

A story of love and family, heartwarming to the extent readers can buy 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 sff.net

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

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

Mad Maxine and Her Marvelous Machines: A Review of Mad Max: Fury Road

by Gary Westfahl

I must begin by acknowledging that my memories of the first three Mad Max films – Mad Max (1979), Mad Max II (aka The Road Warrior) (1981), and Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome (1985) – are fading and fragmentary, so I cannot provide a detailed exegesis on how this fourth film continues, expands upon, or contradicts its precursors. Yet I suspect that most of the people now buying tickets to see Mad Max: Fury Road have never seen the earlier films, as my interactions with contemporary college students indicate that young people are generally unaware of any films released more than twenty years ago. So, George Miller’s new installment of the Mad Max saga must stand entirely on its own, and for the most part it does so remarkably well. The film’s first hour is an enthralling thrill ride featuring men and women rapidly driving a variety of vehicles across the desert while battling with numerous weapons and with their fists, and if the equally well-executed second hour seems less successful, that may simply be because viewers have been exhausted by all of its nonstop action; perhaps this is a film best watched in two sittings. And those seeking intellectual as well as physical stimulation will find that the film’s dystopian future society is interestingly in dialogue with a modern world that no longer shares the concerns that inspired the original series.

The film retains the back story that was first explained fully in the second film: conflicts over diminishing oil reserves have led to a global nuclear war which devastated the landscape and shattered the fabric of civilization; the survivors have mostly gathered into isolated tribes, distinguished by colorful costumes and strange rituals, who employ whatever gasoline they can garner to maintain their rusting cars and motorcycles and violently prey upon outsiders. Max Rockatansky (Tom Hardy), a former police officer maddened by memories of the daughter he could not save from marauders, wanders alone through the countryside, ostensibly devoted solely to his own survival but regularly impelled to assist others. Here, he is captured by the “Warboys” who reside in the Citadel, controlled by ruthless dictator Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne), and he is caged to function as a human blood bank for the ailing Warboy Nux (Nicholas Hoult). But through a series of contrivances, he escapes and joins Immortan Joe’s rebellious driver Furiosa (Charlize Theron) in her effort to escape from the ruler’s clutches, along with the five young women he had imprisoned to serve as his “breeders.”

While staging the film’s intricately choreographed battles was undoubtedly director George Miller’s main priority, he was also attentive to presenting a detailed portrait of a completely transformed world. Each tribe has its own, imaginatively distinctive style of clothing, regalia, and weaponry; indeed, while watching the film, it occurred to me that it had the same narrative structure as L. Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (1900): a woman seeking to return home is assisted by male companions as they journey through strange new realms and encounter diverse characters – the difference being that these diverse characters are all armed to the teeth and poised to slaughter visitors. And the rare quiet moments in the film are often memorable. The opening scene, featuring a two-headed lizard that Max steps on and devours, speaks volumes about the grim realities of living in an irradiated world. (Later, Nux drives home the same point by eating a bug.) Because cows are presumably unavailable, Immortan Joe obtains milk by pumping it out of large-breasted women, a scene that will remind a few viewers of the similar setup in Piers Anthony’s story “In the Barn” (1972). While Max and Furiosa are traveling through a murky landscape haunted by crows, we briefly observe two people walking on stilts attached to their arms and legs, making them resemble elevated four-legged creatures. And when their vehicle is bogged down in mud, Nux tells his comrades that there is dry land “just beyond that thing”; a woman explains, “he means ‘tree’” – telling us that people are now growing up without any knowledge of trees.

While Mad Max: Fury Road is thus successful on many levels, one had to question, when the repeatedly postponed fourth Mad Max film finally began filming in 2011, whether its story would still resonate with twenty-first century audiences. After all, the earlier films had arguably succeeded by merging two of the nightmare scenarios that had haunted the 1970s. First was the fear of a global nuclear war, which had diminished since the 1950s but had never entirely vanished; second was the realization, after the oil crisis of 1973, that the world was utterly dependent upon a finite resource, oil, that might be depleted in the future, so that civilization might someday collapse if we did not begin to aggressively exploit alternate sources of energy. These are the problems that primarily afflicted Mad Max and his compatriots in the earlier films, as the atomic bombs had destroyed most of humanity’s structures and technology and rendered much of the land uninhabitable, and survivors had to fight for increasingly scarce supplies of oil in order to maintain a semblance of civilized society.

Today, few people are actively worried about a nuclear war or an energy crisis: the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s seemingly eliminated the possibility of a World War III, and even if Vladimir Putin sometimes behaves badly, no one imagines that this will inspire world leaders to launch their nuclear weapons. And scientists proved unexpectedly resourceful in locating new reserves of oil, and unexpectedly ingenious in devising new methods for extracting oil from the ground, so our supplies of oil remain ample, and most people are confident that the energy crisis has been indefinitely postponed. These shifting attitudes necessarily influenced the film: there are no overt references to nuclear war, and signs of the effects of radiation are minimal – the tiny lizard (and many viewers will not notice its two heads), the tumors on Nux’s shoulder, a tiny dwarf, and people with missing limbs (perhaps due to war wounds, not mutations). And no one in the film seems particularly worried about lacking gasoline, which seems much more plentiful than it was in the other films. True, Furiosa at one point seeks to obtain safe passage through dangerous territory by giving its residents a tanker full of oil, indicating that the fuel is still valued, but none of the innumerable vehicles that crisscross the landscape ever run out of gas, and Immortan Joe is positively profligate in wasting oil, as his forces are accompanied by an electric guitar player whose instrument periodically spews out flames solely as an arresting visual effect.

So, if we no longer worry about a nuclear holocaust or an energy crisis, what should we be worrying about, according to this film? As Californians begin to endure unprecedentedly severe restrictions of their water usage due a prolonged drought, they will relate to the fact that the people in Mad Max: Fury Road are mainly worried about running out of drinking water, not running out of oil. Immortan Joe maintains control over the citizens of the Citadel largely because he periodically supplies them with a flood of fresh water; having developed mechanisms for extracting substances from deep underground, he employs them to pump water, not oil, to the surface. We further learn that the residents of Furiosa’s former home were forced to leave when changing conditions left them with insufficient water for their crops. Immortan Joe even warns his subjects, “Do not become addicted to water. It will take hold of you and you will resent its absence,” making him an unlikely spokesperson for the need to conserve water. (It is true, however, that Furiosa and the breeders later display no worries about wasting water when they freely employ a hose to wash themselves.)

As surveys indicate that increasing numbers of people are no longer affiliated with organized religions, the film is willing to explicitly indict religion as a false tool used to oppress and manipulate the masses. Seeking a belief system that validates warfare, Immortan Joe has turned to Norse mythology, telling his Warboys that if they die in battle, they will be transported to “Valhalla”; however, this revived religion is tied to the culture’s fixation with gasoline-driven machinery by its new name, “V8,” referencing the V8 engine. When they believe they are about to be killed, Warboys spray their mouths with silver paint, probably to provide them with a more metallic voice and appearance when they join the company of gods that are devoted to machines. Mad Max, Furiosa, and their friends naturally recognize that this religion is bogus, telling Nux that Immortan Joe is a “lying old man,” yet when a distressed breeder is later mumbling, she says that she is “praying.” “Praying to who?” another breeder asks. “Anyone who’s listening.” Thus, even as they turn away from religion, it seems, people still feel a need for its comforts in times of need.

More so than the previous Mad Max films, Mad Max: Fury Road depicts future individuals who are fiercely devoted to possessing and operating an amazing variety of advanced weapons, and as the number of guns owned by American citizens continues to rise, this undoubtedly represents a trait that many filmgoers can relate to. In Mad Max’s society, everybody owns and operates at least one gun, and the film’s combatants also employ grenades, flame throwers, chainsaws, mines, dart guns, and explosive spears, among other weapons. Granted, owning firearms might seem a necessity in a world lacking organized governments, and these beleaguered denizens do refrain at least from arming their children, as Immortan Joe, after leaving the Citadel in the hands of his young “Warpups,” comments that his stronghold is now “undefended.” (In general, though, defense does not seem to be these warriors’ strong suit: the bare-chested Warboys are needlessly vulnerable to enemy fire, and watching several vehicles set on fire, one wonders why nobody brought along a fire extinguisher.)

Another issue that comes to the forefront in this film is the mistreatment of women. There is a long and sorry tradition in science fiction of imagining that post-apocalyptic societies would be dominated by men, as the frail womenfolk would necessarily depend on the protection of strong, manly men to survive in anarchic conditions, and one could detect glimmerings of that attitude in the first two Mad Max films. Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome gestured toward feminism by featuring a strong female leader, played by Tina Turner, but her Auntie Entity did depend upon male henchmen to enforce her orders. In this film, all of the women resist being pushed around by men, and they are all able to defend themselves. The breeders are willing to risk their lives in order to get away from Immortan Joe so that their “babies will not be warlords,” and although they initially appear to be helpless, they eventually pick up guns and actively participate in slaughtering Immortan Joe’s minions. When Furiosa encounters some elderly women from her former homeland, they prove to be pistol-packing grandmas, capable allies in her final battle against Immortan Joe.

The film’s preeminent woman warrior, of course, is Furiosa; and while Tom Hardy emerges as a suitable replacement for Mel Gibson, and while his Max is responsible for more than his share of the film’s carnage, Mad Max: Fury Road is really Furiosa’s film, and this is not simply because of Charlize Theron’s superior acting ability. Even though periodic flashbacks of his deceased daughter are designed to make the tormented Max a sympathetic figure, audiences will more likely be intrigued by Furiosa’s background and mainly concerned about her fate. The film is essentially her story – a woman who successfully escapes from, and eventually defeats, the evil man who had long oppressed her and her friends; the character of Mad Max, her most effective assistant, could have easily been written entirely out of the film. At one point, demonstrating her superior ability, Furiosa watches as Max is unable to hit a distant target with a powerful rifle running out of ammunition; he hands her the gun and she hits it with the last bullet. And one way to unambiguously identify a film’s true protagonist is to ask: who gets to kill the main bad guy? Here, it is not Mad Max, but Furiosa. All things considered, then, it is not surprising that George Miller, having become enamored of the character, at one point announced that this film would be followed by a sequel, called Mad Max: Furiosa, which would have featured her as its protagonist. But a bolder and better strategy would have been for Miller to reimagine his iconic hero as a woman, merge the characters of Mad Max and Furiosa, and christen the new protagonist and her film Mad Maxine.

By minimizing some old issues, and foregrounding some new issues, Mad Max: Fury Road might be regarded as appropriately modernized; yet there is one aspect of the Mad Max saga that can never be altered, even if it seems outdated, and that is its obsession with motorized transportation. All post-holocaust stories, in describing where the survivors focus their energies, identify one aspect of human civilization as most central. In Walter M. Miller, Jr.’s A Canticle for Leibowitz (1960), for example, the protagonists are dedicated to restoring and promoting literacy, whereas the younger generation of George R. Stewart’s Earth Abides (1949) rejects book learning for lives of hunting, fishing, and physical exercise. In the Mad Max films, in addition to their weapons, people seek above all else to maintain and use their cars, trucks, and motorcycles, suggesting that the power to travel long distances, not reading and writing or communing with nature, is what defines a true modern civilization. And they have calmly adjusted to the loss of the twentieth century’s other major innovation, long-distance communication. As conveyed by Furiosa’s rediscovered countrywoman, the Keeper of the Seeds (Melissa Jaffer), people are aware that the Earth-orbiting satellites they observe at night once broadcast messages and shows throughout the world, but they are making no effort to restore that technology. Instead, to find out what is happening far away, they rely on telescopes and binoculars; to determine if his breeders are missing, Immortan Joe must run to the chamber where they were held captive, unable to call them or look at a monitor; and in order to communicate with his lead driver Furiosa, a Warboy must leap from his own car to the top of her vehicle and then, while clinging to her door, shout questions through her window.

At first, one thinks that few people today would agree with these people’s priorities; for example, if asked to choose between a world without motorized vehicles, and a world without computers and smartphones, I am confident that almost all of my students would choose the former option. Still, more so than getting one’s first smartphone, getting a driver’s license and gaining the ability to travel long distances remains a key turning point in the lives of young people, a rite of passage signaling their increased maturity; and if they actually experienced months of being confined to their immediate neighborhoods, young people might again long for the freedoms they now take for granted – to travel to and experience different environments, visit with distant friends, and simply enjoy the sensation of rapid movement. If today’s civilization did fall apart, then, it remains possible that people would mostly dedicate themselves to rebuilding their cars, not to rebuilding the internet.

Overall, one might have wished for a Mad Max: Fury Road that was a little calmer, a little less violent, a little more willing to give its characters time to breathe, and its audiences time to sedately appreciate its imaginative world-building. But considering the realities governing contemporary filmmaking, no one can expect ideal films to emerge, and considering all of the obstacles that were placed in his way, one must compliment George Miller for his unwavering dedication to finally getting this fourth Mad Max film completed, and for doing an excellent job. One hopes we will not have to wait another thirty years for the next installment.

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

Russell Letson reviews Kit Reed

Where, Kit Reed (Tor 978-0-7653-7982-5, $25.99, 236pp, hc) May 2015.

No single voice dominates Kit Reed’s Where, certainly not the kind of low-key Midwestern tone that Arnason gives to her Icelanders. Instead, the internal voices of Reed’s various viewpoint characters range from on-edge, to anxious, to frantic. These are people stretched thin by the tensions of family history and the weight of personal failings, and especially by a mind-boggling event: early one morning, everyone at home in the island village of Kraventown SC disappears, as if taken in mid-stride or -shave or -breakfast-bite. Local communications channels are down and police and the military cordon off access to the island, causing traffic jams and inspiring all manner of upset and speculation. Meanwhile, the vanished townsfolk find themselves in a strange, all-white replica of their village, dotted with surveillance cameras and surrounded by a blinding desert that is searingly hot by day and sub-arctic cold by night.

In the outside world, Davy Ribault is frantic not only because his lover Merrill Poulnot is among the missing but because he regrets matters left unsettled the night before, and he needs to the resolve the tensions and repair their relationship. The immediate cause of the rift was Davy’s personal and professional suspicions about slick Yankee real estate developer Rawson Steele, and Davy had left the island early in the morning to confront Steele about his business intentions for the town and his attentions to Merrill.

The story alternates between Davy’s efforts to evade the roadblocks and guards to get home and the Poulnot family’s trials in the white faux village, and both threads are salted with bits of back-story that help explain why these people were so wound up even before they found themselves in their bizarre situations. Merrill’s emotional life is driven by her relationship with her violent, alcoholic, whited-sepulcher of a father. Hampton Poulnot’s bullying and abuse drove away his wife (unless something worse happened to her), then drove away Merrill, and has caused his teenaged son Ned to take refuge in an immersive, interactive on-line video game, where he is not a beat-upon kid but the Hydra Destroyer, fighting monsters with the rest of his fighting team.

After a spasm of violent near-rioting, the hundred displaced Kraventowners subside into a stunned passivity, remaining inside their replica homes, accepting the meals and clean coveralls that appear daily. Only Merrill and Ray Powell, the town’s unofficial keeper of sense and sanity, are willing and able to go outside at night and explore the village – until Merrill meets up again with Rawson Steele, whose presence is more than anomalous. What they find does not answer questions about Where or Why or Who, but it is clear that this is not, as some fear, a supernatural event.

The literal and the metaphoric bleed into one another, starting, of course, with the landscape and extending to the social and psychological environments. The featureless structures of the village are as blank as an early-generation videogame environment. Ned sees

White shutters on every window closed tight…. the grainy white sidewalks lead out to white, white houses laid out like blocks on a Monopoly board with no colors and no printing and no squares so you can’t tell whether you’re moving, just the bleached streets spreading out to the cement rim surrounding…. Even the barrier dune beyond it is smooth and perfect, like a giant potter threw a porcelain bowl to put us in and the wheel stopped.

Merrill sees it is as a trap: ‘‘Whoever did this to us built the compound with security and comfort in mind…. Uproot a group and while you’ve got them flailing and terrified, enclose them. Keep them clean and fed… so we’ll forget our wants.’’ And just a few pages later, out in the ordinary world, Davy looks at a perfectly restored plantation house and thinks that it looks like ‘‘one of those high-end resort islands where everything runs smoothly and nothing goes wrong.’’

The townspeople are also imprisoned inside themselves, by anger, hurt, jealousy, and craziness. The book has a large dose of Southern Gothic – Faulkner in 21st-century South Carolina. Kraventown and environs have held onto the past in the form not only of carefully preserved architecture but of family ties and rivalries and perquisites that go back to the Civil War. This side is clearest in Hampton, a violent, possessive, obsessive man who sees himself as Moses sidelined and ignored. His Faulknerian internal monologue, an entire chapter near the center of the book, combines half-crazed Old Testament wannabe-prophet and failed Confederate general.

Understand, I am Hampton Calhoun Poulnot of the Poulnot family out of Charleston and Kraven island and nobody takes that away from me! I will go forth, and my people will rise up!… Then my people and I will march out and get Them or I or He who extracted us and dumped us here, and we will get out of this place and I will get even, no matter who or what I have to destroy.

This book requires not so much a Spoiler Curtain as a Spoiler Matryoshka Doll. In fact, even a consideration of its genre identity might be a discussion too far. Nevertheless: Where sits along one of those inter-generic fault lines, or (to shift metaphors) it is contained in a literary Schrödinger box, waiting for some categorical function to collapse it into a definite condition of fantasy or science fiction or magic-realism or expressionism, or any number of half-sibling traditions and forms.

Allow me to approach cautiously. At the end of the book Reed appends ‘‘Military Secrets’’, the short story from which the novel grew and which, she writes, shares its world: children orphaned by warfare are singled out at school and put aboard a bus filled with similar orphans from across history. The story is only slightly less enigmatic than its longer sibling, and despite its initial appearance in Asimov’s, it does not feel quite like SF. Nor does it feel quite like a supernatural fantasy, which posits an agency that operates beyond or despite material physical laws. As with the white village of Where, everything about the gray bus says, ‘‘This is made; this operates according to the rules of the material world, however miraculous or impossible it might appear.’’

There is no sense of continuity of intelligibility between the ordinary and contrafactual worlds. Instead, it is reminiscent of the kind of uncanny tale that first appeared in the nineteenth century at the same time that both SF and what we now would call fantasy were evolving into distinct genres. It might be called the naked fantastic: not dressed up in half-believed or fully abandoned metaphysics or supernaturalism, not re-rigged and rationalized and metaphorically transformed into science fiction, but flat-out contrafactuality that somehow resonates with feelings, suspicions, fears, and desire, untethered to and uncushioned by any particular rationalizing framework.

What would seem to drive both Where and ‘‘Military Secrets’’ is not ‘‘what might happen if we had a machine that could do X?’’ (SF and some kinds of fantasy) but ‘‘what would it feel like to have inexplicable Y happen to you?’’ Or, from the writer’s-technique side: ‘‘What narrative or dramatic situation can best represent emotional and psychological complex Z?’’ If that is the case, then Where, How, By Whom, and even Why matter much less than That: the naked fantastic. Where possesses what the most haunting dreams do: the relentless combination of actuality and impossibility, of an awareness of the impossible-true.

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

Lois Tilton reviews Short Fiction, early May

The best fiction this time comes from The Dark, which is free from the taint of sentimentality that I find all too frequently in the other publications.

Publications Reviewed



The Dark, May 2015

A particularly good issue of this dark fantasy zine. The four stories divide into two groups: one darkly horror, the other more fantastic and less shaded. Yet across three of them is a theme of new fatherhood.

“The Ghost of You Lingers” by Kevin McNeil

A real estate agent is showing houses to a young couple, but there is a sinister impediment to every prospective home: a ghost, a neighborhood serial killer, a recent murder-suicide. The 2nd-person narrator expresses determination to find the right house, one where he can start over and shed the dark burdens of his past with a new family. But it increasingly becomes obvious that the narrator is the real problem.

This would seem to be straight horror in a mundane setting until the narrator pushes aside a wardrobe in the basement of one house to reveal a menacing cavity in the wall, radiating heat like an inflammation, or perhaps a gate into hell.

A strong desire to climb into the hole comes over you as you squat in front of it, gently stroking its moist edge. Right now, in this moment, climbing in seems like the most important thing you could do—to travel deep into the darkness and curl up in its heart. You somehow understand that the hole only leads in one direction, and there is no way back. This is incredibly scary, but it is also incredibly exciting.

Taken literally, this is a clear fantastic element, but for some reason I hesitate to take it literally; it seems like more of a hallucination, projected by the narrator’s imagination. But whether or not this is the case, it’s definitely a representation of the narrator’s inner demons and his weakening resolve to turn away from them. The final scene, in which he nails up a picture drawn by an innocent child, is especially ominous. I can’t help recalling how many serial killers have hidden behind the façade of a happy family, all unknown to them. It’s a chilling picture, effectively drawn.

“An Ocean of Eyes” by Cassandra Khaw

Another sinister opening, as a stranger accosts a woman waiting at a bus stop in a city named Ulthar. We see “the scythe of his mouth, his milk-pale skin, his eyes like tatters of the noon sky. A foreigner, most definitely.” We expect the worst but suspect it may not come in the most likely form. Frederic is odd, but Sigrid is equally so. He repels her, but she tries only half-heartedly to put him off. Telling him, bluntly at last when it’s much too late, to leave is a warning calculated to be unheeded.

The reveal at the conclusion, the exact nature of Ulthar’s wrongness, comes as a bit of a disappointment, as the explicit usually does in horror. There’s a subtlety to it, as least, and a care to avoid splatter. But the real interest is in the play of responsibility between the characters, the mutual seduction.

“A Shot of Salt Water” by Lisa L Hannett

While I enjoyed all the stories in the issue, this one is my clear favorite. The setting is a fishing village with a strange heritage, where brine as well as blood flows in their veins, where the young women take ship every year for voyages of adventure and reveling while the men stay home and tend to the children their mermaids bring home. Their return is always cause for celebration.

The shore party leapt overboard, hauled tired skiffs from hard-packed to soft sand. Their hair was dreadlocked, rimed with spray. Ten months at sea had staved in their cheeks, chiselled the roundness from hips and breasts. Blubber-treated packs were slung cross-body, leaving their arms free for fighting. Several hefted short-swords, others had daggers—though weapons weren’t needed for this landing. There were no screams at the seafarers’ approach, no terror at the sight of harpoons. Instead a baritone chorus whooped its greetings, singing tunes that beckoned them, one and all, inland.

Billy Rideout has been especially anxious for their return because his own lass, Beetie, has been gone on her first voyage. He’s now dismayed to find that she’s come back with a baby, and when he gets his first look at the bub, he knows it can’t be his own. It’s much more than a matter of webbed fingers and toes, or a bit of gill-slit. According to custom, none of that matters. It shouldn’t matter to Billy. But it does.

What I’m most pleased with here is the colorful language; it makes the setting glow vividly and the characters leap off the page. I’m also liking the hippocampus reference, as the seahorse is notable for the father’s care of the young after birth.

–RECOMMENDED

“Momentary Sage” by Erik Schwitzgebel

In the final scene of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the fairy king blesses the eventual issue of the young lovers’ marriages, that their children will be without defects. Which goes to prove once again that you can’t trust fairies. Because, in this account,

That midsummer’s night, after we four collapsed in fairy sleep beneath boughs and moon, I roused to see a sprite looping through the flowers. Carrying a single seed in his ant-leg fingers, he ducked beneath Hermia’s skirts. She turned once, in dream.

The changeling issue of this seed is born with a preternaturally sharp spike in place of his left hand, and a precocity focused on suicide, for which purpose the sharp tusk is intended: “Non-existence,” he says, “sets a floor beneath suffering. But milk is also good.” The parents, Hermia and Lysander, have been bespelled to love the child Sage unreservedly, so they immediately begin spoiling him in order to extinguish this desire for self-destruction, even to the point of dosing him with opium. Or it could all be yet another dream, as the scenario is related by a bitter and jealous Demetrius, who announces his narrative as unreliable from the outset, like the sensations of love generated by fairy mischief.

A weird rebuttal of the Bard and one of his weakest works, albeit much-beloved by fantasy fans. I rather like the philosophical debates between Demetrius and the infant Sage, but the heart of the story is the repudiation of coerced love.



Interzone, May/June 2015

Not enthusiastic about the fiction in this issue.

“a shout is a prayer/for the waiting centuries” by T R Napper

Two stories alternating, that join at the end, but it’s really all one. In the first, we have a refugee family attempting to escape a war zone in Vietnam. With death-dealing Chinese bots on their trail, the father sends wife and daughter on ahead, promising to join them when he can. In the second is another family of parents and young daughter, in somewhat better circumstances: they have food to eat, they have a regular income, they have peace if they can avoid the attention of the cops. The father is a former prize fighter, now working as a waiter, enduring the imperiousness of the wealthy whose faces he would love to smash in for their arrogance.

I’m reminded of a school exam: compare and contrast. Both stories deal with desperation, sacrifice and hope held out against the odds. The promise in both is the same:

Trung nodded and picked his daughter up. He was about to walk away when Phuong said: “But you’ll follow us? You promise?”

“I promise. Nothing can keep us apart,” he replied. But there was a sadness in his eyes as he said the words, a sadness that twisted in Phuong’s chest.

On the contrast side, the level of desperation differs. The circumstances facing Trung and Phuong are more extreme, their immediate prospects more dire, starvation and annihilation. There is little room for ethical choice, and if Trung commits what we might call an atrocity in order to survive, we may be tempted to excuse him. George and Nhung are materially better off despite their poverty in the affluent milieu where they live, and one measure of this is that they have the luxury of limited choices; George in particular has the luxury of caring for his self-respect. The overwhelming impression of both, however, is deeply dystopian. In this future, if there’s any hope for the downtrodden masses, it’s scant and unlikely; still, they grasp for it.

“The Re’em Song” by Julie C Day

Life in Norumbega rests on the bones and blood of the unicorn re’em. First the settlers slaughtered the wild herds, then gathered the bones.

Harvesting unicorn bones wasn’t easy work. With death, re’em bones condensed God’s blessing inside their hollows, little bone-trapped bolts of His holy spirit just waiting for an opportunity to jab through a digger’s flesh and find the living bone underneath. The entire Kerill Valley was charged with ghosts.

Sunnifa wants out, wants away, and that includes away from her husband Orri. But life in the city’s knackeryard slaughtering domesticated re’em is even worse. Sunnifa comes home to confront her ghosts.

There’s a powerful—powerfully disturbing—central image here, but the story built around it is scanted in a number of ways. The background is theological, but unclearly so. We can see there is some reality to the belief in the potency of the unicorn bone and blood, but otherwise it’s a mystery. Are the re’em holy or diabolical? How sentient are they? Are we dealing with an animal slaughter or a genocide? As for Sunnifa, exactly what is she running away from, and what has changed between her and Orri? We come to her only after her decision to leave is made, which gives us limited knowledge of her motivation. The conclusion sheds some light, but insufficient.

“Doors” by Bonnie Jo Stufflebeam

I’m not at all sure why Nikki takes her developmentally disabled adult brother to the fair, when he doesn’t really want to go, when she doesn’t have the money to pay for all the treats he’ll want as soon as he sees them, when he won’t take No for an answer and she can’t control him. I think she feels guilty about not taking him anywhere since their mother died and she was left alone as Zack’s caretaker, the end of her own dreams. One of the only attractions she can afford is something called the Space Bender, which the attendants call the hub of the multiverse. Before Nikki can stop him, Zack disappears through one of the doors.

It’s a story of choices, and Nikki is offered several—a universe where her father never left them, one where her mother doesn’t die, one where Zack lives happily without her in an institution. And one other. The choices can all be seen as temptations, holding out the possibility of life without the burden of her brother, a life of self-fulfillment that fate has closed off in this time and place. Since it’s a sentimental piece, there’s little doubt about what she’ll eventually choose. I feel little connection to the story because Nikki is fairly blank as a character. The others in the story seem to think she’s something kind of special, but I don’t see this in her.

“Angel Fire” by Christien Gholson

The narrator is a self-hating rich bastard who has given up on capitalism’s creative destruction. Below him, the poor and ordinary folks are lighting bonfires to call down angels of the apocalypse. The narrator thinks they’d be better off burning people like himself. His self-pity is pretty boring.

“Her First Harvest” by Malcolm Devlin

Purportedly science fiction on a world where the people of idle society grow mushrooms on their bodies, to be harvested at a ball in the governor’s mansion. Nina has come from the country and is worried because this is her first crop, and it seems sparse, and because people might look down on her as provincial. It’s supposed to be a story of manners, but the premise is too ridiculous while the rest is entirely clichéd. Will the ingénue get the nice boy by the end of the ball? Wanna guess?



Clarkesworld, May 2015

This online publication keeps expanding its offerings. I count five pieces of original fiction here, counting new translations as original. Alas, the tone overall is awfully heavy on the sentimentality.

“The Garden Beyond Her Infinite Skies” by Matthew Kressel

A cosmic tale, set in the long early instants of the universe’s first expansion. The universe, it seems, grows like a tree, with branches sprouting new branches, swaying in the gravitron wind. And among the branches are a multitude of Farmers, pruning out anomalies so the branches will grow in the approved manner without giving rise to cancers, such as metastasize into things like life. Aya is a skillful Farmer, but she has come to doubt the rightness of her task, finding the pruned branches sterile.

The sparks from the snuffed world fell. Where the first sparks touched the ground, new realms were born. They flashed, inflated, and slowed, their quark-gluon plasma too hot for solid matter. It would take an eon before galaxies formed. Two or three more before animal life arose. The Farmer folk sang ballads about the sparks of dead realms. The dust, forever alive, the lyrics went. Death, an illusion, just forms changing.

The plot here is of little interest; we know from the outset what decision Aya will make by the end. The real neatness is in the setting and the story’s conception. In essence, it’s a fantasy using the material of cosmology to build with. Some readers will be wanting to match up the author’s rather fanciful, metaphorical descriptions with the current version of the ever-mutating theories of the cosmic birth:

Yi herself was one of sixty four ova gestating inside Delicate Womb, the reproductive organ of Mother Lily, who gloriously blossomed inside the 501-dimensional field, Sky of Skies, who accelerated madly inside the meditating Z-space, Incomprehensible Mind, who lived inside another being who had a billion names and even more descriptions, none of which sufficed to circumscribe it.

So is it turtles all the way down or if the being in question is someone we might have heard of? But what I really wonder is, who hired Aya and all her fellow Farmers? Who gave them their instructions? Me, I’m thinking of the Demiurge must fit in here somewhere. At any rate, what we have here is a conflict between the dead and sterile universe of Central Planning, and the wild, chaotic cosmos of evolution; the formal French garden vs the weeds. We are meant by the plot to be on the side of the weeds, as weeds ourselves, but sometimes I wonder about us.

“For the Love of Sylvia City” by Andrea M Pawley

Actual science fiction, apocalyptic type. The land surface of Earth has been overtaken by wars, with the consequence that overwhelming numbers of refugees seek out the safety of underwater cities—far more than they can absorb. The nameless narrator was lucky; her parents had vital engineering skills, so they were let into Sylvia City along with their child, now the last dryland refugee. Because of her background, she can function closer to the light than those born to the benthos, so she’s been assigned to monitor and repair a communications cable that links the city with the drylands. But an incident with falling debris reveals that war has broken out again; the sky is on fire, turning everything to ash. The narrator knows the consequences, and she knows what she has to do to save her home.

The ocean will suffer greater injustice than ashes though. Carbon weapons release vast amounts of carbon dioxide into the air. So do survivors willing to burn anything they can find for warmth and cooking fuel. Like the last time, the ocean will attempt to absorb it all. The water’s acidity will shoot up. Great colonies of plants and animals will die. New, sickly species will add to the ranks of mutated sharks, thin-shelled snails and algae that grows where algae shouldn’t be able to grow.

Hard-hearted, anti-sentimental reader that I am, I really wish the author hadn’t chosen to drop a vulnerable child into the deeps. The story could have gotten along quite well without him. Further, the text makes it clear that stuff is constantly drifting down to the ocean floor, burying the cable in debris. In a war, there ought to be thousands of corpses in the water. What, then, alerted the narrator’s proximity alarm to this one particular bit of organic debris?

“Mrs Griffin Prepares to Commit Suicide Tonight” by A Que, translated by John Chu

Alas, we’ve seen this one too often before. Mrs Griffin has outlived everyone who once loved her. She’s lonely and doesn’t want to live alone any longer. Her helpful domestic robot advises her on the least painful, least messy methods. Pretty mawkish, albeit well-wrote.

“Ossuary” by Ian Muneshwar

A rather familiar scene: an automated facility out in trackless space where wrecked spacecraft are brought for recycling, although They speak to the AI in charge in terms of graveyards and bones. While Magdelena is ostensibly no more than a collection of chips and circuits, she has dreamlike memories of another form of life.

It always ended with the image of a small, hard planet spinning circles around a star. It was covered by green waters, oceans more vast and deep than Magdalena had ever thought possible. The vision would fade as quickly as it had come.

There’s a coincidence here that I find very hard to credit, that a creature from Magdalena’s world of origin would somehow manage to find its way to the very remote facility where she works. Or, if not a coincidence, still unexplained.

“An Evolutionary Myth” by Bo Young Kim, translated by Gord Sellar and Jihyun Park

Historical fantasy set in a fratricidal era of the Korean kingdom, with the universal theme that as the king does, so goes the kingdom. The current king does not do well at all, being a megalomaniac tyrant. The kingdom, accordingly, is afflicted by drought and the people are suffering, which puts them in hope of a hero come to deliver them. Our narrator happens to be a surviving son of the previous king, and he has good reason to suspect his tyrant uncle will seek his life. Seeking anonymity and concealment, he ruminates on the nature of evolution.

This tendency of creatures to metamorphose into the complete opposite of that which they long to become is also fascinating. Do you realize that the widely-credited notion that sunflowers follow the sun, is actually mere fantasy? They certainly do grow large flowers out of admiration for the sun, but then they bend their faces down toward the ground. They do this because they cannot bear the weight of those flowers. I thought then that perhaps I was like these others: since I wished nothing so much as to flap my wings and fly far away, maybe I would die instead with a heavy body, its belly stuck to the ground as it crawled about.

Thus, as he flees from the tyrant’s reach, he takes on a succession of different forms. So portents come into being, like the white fish with red wings of legend.

My favorite piece in the issue. I like the weirdly fanciful nature of this transformative story, even when the narrator gets a bit talky and moral. Metamorphosis is a central theme in folklore and myth, but the narrator here attempts a general theory to explain it, and that’s a neat fantastic thing. The piece opens epigraphically with reports of portents regarded as having significance. This, too, is a universal theme: the birth of two-headed calves or turtles with the face of Jesus on their shells have always attracted popular attention as having some great meaning or predicting some great event. I also note that the term “monster” comes from the verb “to show”, a thing made manifest. But the monster himself may have more personal motives, such as the narrator here, who wishes only to fly away.

–RECOMMENDED



Uncanny, May/June 2015

The editorial introduction responds to certain criticism by declaring that the zine means to publish stories that “make you think and feel.” But I find that the feeling part predominates in this issue, with too much of it being goodfeel. Other than the humor pieces, only the Valente takes a clear, hard look at a tragic situation without making a positive spin or succumbing to sentimentality; it certainly takes thought, which I prefer.

“Planet Lion” by Catherynne M Valente

A military survey vessel happens on a planetary system with a single Earthlike world and a host of gas giants—nothing of great economic value. Certain officers, however, consider it of significant strategic value, and they set up an outpost intended to draw out the enemy, staffing it with disposable organic constructs modeled on actual troops. The constructs were designed to operate telepathically through a mental matrix; on devouring them, the native carnivores, called lions, absorb the matrix as well as elements of the human personalities they were modeled on.

All lions hunt in the watering hole. The watering hole networks the heart of every lion to the heart of every other lion into a cooperative real–time engagement matrix. The smallgod inside one lion lays down the words cooperative real–time engagement matrix in the den of one lion’s brain. One lion called Yttrium accepts the words though they have no more importance than the teeth and hooves left over after a kill. The words mean the watering hole.

The text includes several short reports from the humans involved in the ensuing disaster, but the main narrative belongs to the lions, and we see these events from the lions’ point of view. This results in confusion, since the lions, understandably, don’t comprehend the strategic motives of the humans, and they interpret the consequences in their own terms. The main reason for the confusion as far as readers go is that the military reports aren’t in the same chronology as the lions’ story, which takes place in the aftermath of the conflict, while most of the reports are written prior to it. So when we first see the lions, immediately after the initial survey report describing them, it’s impossible to tell if this is their native condition, if the watering hole is or is not a native telepathic matrix. We see that they have absorbed information from humans they’ve consumed, but the initial survey mentions casualties; perhaps they have killed and devoured members of the survey team. Other terms, most notably the “steelveldt”, have no clear reference at this point in the text.

As consequences accumulate from the lions’ point of view, aided by additional reports, the situation clarifies somewhat, and we see that what initially seems a carnivore’s idyll is in fact the early stages of an ongoing tragedy, the collateral damage of an ill-conceived military adventure in which the possible fate of indigenous sentients is callously dismissed: As for the lions, honestly, I will lose precisely zero sleep over it. Let our jacked–up boys and girls play Hemingway down there with the big cats, they won’t be a problem for long. By the end, we see that the planet has been trashed, its native ecology devastated. I find the final scene heartbreaking: one lion called Yttrium has mated and now looks forward to the arrival of new cubs, not realizing that the world they will inherit is a ruin that may not be able to sustain their species’ population; the lions are doomed.

At least, that’s one interpretation. There’s also the possibility that with their new hybrid human/lion consciousness, the next generation of lions will evolve a different civilization, perhaps leading them eventually to conquer space and devastate the worlds of other species. But that’s not where I imagine they’re going.

“The Practical Witch’s Guide to Acquiring Real Estate” by A C Wise

Humor. Beginning with methods mundane [Zillow] and moving on to methods more arcane, most of which are concerned with the house’s independent will:

The house is not your antagonist in this process. It is also not your friend. You are each working toward an abstract point in your future, one that may never come to pass. Gain its trust, let it win yours. Accept that you will break its heart one day and be open to having yours broken in return. Prove yourself worthy and make it do the same.

“Restore the Heart into Love” by John Chu

After xenophobic violence breaks out across Earth, the Byzantium Library launches into space with a complete archive of the world’s cultural heritage, its sponsors hoping that by the time the ship returns the world will have returned to sanity. It’s been a long voyage, with the crew spending most of its time in hibernation, being waked only when necessary, when something goes wrong. Which, lately, is happening more and more often as the archival media and backups fail.

The ship had an alternate archive grade medium. It rendered data in the crystalline and amorphous states of chalcogenide glass. His team had planned to maintain a copy of the archive in each medium, but they didn’t have the funding to build a ship that large. Instead, the Byzantium Library had just the one copy. Max had chosen to use the proven technology, the organic dye, then stuffed the ship with as much blank chalcogenide glass as they could, just in case.

Here’s the making for a potentially interesting SFnal problem story in space. But the author makes it personal. In this case Max suspects sabotage, as the entire batch of corrupted files are in the traditional Chinese archive, files from Taiwan, which had been in conflict with China. Not only is the medium degrading, the characters in the files have been altered from the complex traditional form to the 20th-century simplified form. OK, that’s one thing. But the author goes much further in making the situation personal, by flashing back to his relationship with his mother, portrayed as a stereotype for whom Max can’t ever do anything good enough. Max had learned Chinese to please her, to be able to communicate fully with her, and it’s from her that he’d learned the value of the traditional forms of the characters, including the word for “love” including the radical for “heart”. [The text is partly in Chinese, illustrating these differences.] Which is really way, way more sentimental than I like.

There’s another troublesome aspect of this piece. The author makes it clear that the ship is failing generally. Hibernation pods have failed; members of the crew have died. And lifesupport supplies were always planned to be minimal. There are decades remaining in the voyage. Is Max, by remaining awake to restore the corrupted texts by hand, using up resources that might doom the rest of the crew? Are any others of the crew now still alive? It’s an odd thing that, while Max wants to make sure their deaths haven’t been in vain, the story has no references to any other individual crewmembers, almost as if Max has been alone on the ship all along [which we know isn’t the case]. Or is Max deliberately sacrificing his own life, the last life, for the sake of the archive’s integrity?

“In Libres” by Elizabeth Bear

“Into the books!” This spell is dreaded throughout the university of sorcery in which Euclavia has almost finished her dissertation. In fact, she’d believed she already had finished it, were in not for her tutor’s insistence that she cite one additional source, to be found, alas, in the library, a labyrinthine institution reaching into other planes of existence. Worse, in Special Collections. Her quest would be hopeless except for the aid of the librarians.

Librarians, with their overdeveloped hippocampi, their furled cloaks, their swords and wands sheathed swaggeringly across their backs. The university bureaucracy was nightmarish, Byzantine, and largely ornamental. But those caveats did not apply to the Librarians, an elite informational force second to none. They were lean, organized, and they knew when to turn left and when to turn right.

Following the glowing sigil on her pull slip, Eu and her faithful centaur companion make their way into the maze with a ball of twine to show them the way back.

This piece fills me with a happy nostalgia for the sub-sub-basement stacks in the graduate library, the air thick with book mold, the fitful lighting. I suspect the author has likewise once inhabited such a place.

“Three Voices” by Lisa Bolekaja

Dark fantasy with music. Andre’s father was an immigrant from Mali whose masterwork was a song, originally written for his son, so difficult that no one could sing it properly, not even himself. He destroyed the ending, then disappeared. Now Andre is a composer himself, and his quest is to find a singer worthy of the song, which he has recreated. He thinks he’s found this singer in Tye, a talented performer from Mali who even sings in his father’s language. What he fails to mention to Tye is that every singer who previously attempted the song has developed throat abnormalities, including cancer in one case.

I’m seeing considerable problems here. First, the story is from Andre’s point of view. Well, Andre is a selfish bastard and I’ve got no sympathy for him. We see this at the story’s opening, with his superficial judgment of women, but it’s very clear when he fails to warn Tye about the dangers of the song.

“But do you fucking care if anything happens to me? That’s my question to you,” she said. Sullen, he didn’t say anything for a few minutes and continued playing the keys until she started gathering her things.

Tye knows, we know what Andre cares about—his stoopid song. She recognizes that it’s an obsession with him. Now the question is, knowing the danger, why does she keep singing it? Is it for the challenge? Is the song that good, good enough that she’d sacrifice her voice for it, or even more? We don’t really know, because we don’t have Tye’s point of view. We don’t know why she chooses, at last, to appear onstage as she does. Knowing what’s going to happen? Choosing what’s going to happen? If it were her own story, we might know, but it’s not, it’s that SOB Andre’s.

Which brings me to the ending. This piece is dark fantasy. Might even be considered horror. The song, very clearly, is a curse, and this is undoubtedly why Andre’s father destroyed it, to keep it from ruining more lives. Andre himself is probably under the power of the curse, which would explain his obsession and his mendacity; the son wants to be sung, and it will do anything to have its way, no matter how many people it destroys. I can only wonder if Tye recognized the curse, if she perhaps thought she could defeat it, which could account for her appearance onstage. But after it all works through to the conclusion, when the evil ought to be most manifest, the author chooses to turn it into an optimistic, feelgood closing scene, a piece of pure wishfulthinkium, denying the horror. And ruining the whole thing.



Fingerbones by Erzebet Yellowboy

In a promising opening, we meet Nusht on the island graveyard where her mother is buried, facing imminent death from the plague that haunts the place. Immediately, the prose pleases:

This is Karbesh, the island of ghosts, one of a crescent of islands in the Karbashi archipelago, the farthest island from Karbashi itself and the only one inhabited. One large, parabolic dune borders the west-facing beach like the half-hump of a sunken camel. Sparse, brown grass spears through its slip-face; between its horns are the graves. Bones wash out to sea and back again. Some never return. This is freedom. This is what the women want. Wash us away, they sing. Wash us clean.

In Karbashi, it seems, a sect of quasi-scientific priests hold a large amount of power. Some time ago, there were false rumors that a plague, once eradicated, had returned to a remote village. The priests descended with their test tubes and samples and succeeded in infecting some of the women. To cover up their error, they moved all the pregnant women to the island and eradicated the rest of the population. The boatmen who still come bringing supplies have all had their tongues cut out to keep the secret.

Nusht dreams of escape and makes fanciful constructs with bones and feathers that wash ashore. Because of some latent magic in her, these come briefly alive. Her latest construct is made from finger bones:

one proximal, one intermediate, and one distal phalange—one for every year her mother has been gone. She knots everything together in the shape of a bird. The distal phalange is its head, the proximal its body, and the intermediate is its tail. The shell becomes its breastbone, and the feathers its wings.

It takes flight in the direction of Karbashi, where Fairka is about to be sacrificed by the priests. She has been their ward since childhood, when a street vendor cut off her fingers for stealing a peach. Fairka prays for salvation to the Divine of Plague, offering the lives of the priests in exchange for her own. Just before the fatal injection is made, a strange bird made of feathers and bones flies into the temple. Fairka reaches for it, and her fingers are suddenly regrown. The priests are eager to study this miracle, and their excitement multiplies when Fairka touches another ward and the girl is suddenly cured of a skin disease.

So far, this is all very well indeed, but then the plot-thread for Fairka becomes the primary one and takes an unfortunate turn onto improbable paths, where she falls into the hands of unlikely villains and remains there entirely too long. I find it especially vexing that the priests, highly motivated to recover their missing ward, are clueless about her whereabouts, which every street vendor seems to know. Eventually, she finds her way onto the right path and matters resolve almost satisfactorily, but there’s still that long dead spot in the story’s center, where much of its early promise dissipates, including, alas, Nusht, whom I regard as the more interesting character.

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

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

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

Gary K. Wolfe reviews Robert Charles Wilson

The Affinities, Robert Charles Wilson (Tor 978-0-7653-3262-2, $25.99, 302pp, hc) April 2015.

I suppose it’s pretty unlikely that Robert Charles Wilson had Goethe in mind when he titled his new novel The Affinities, but the fact is that Goethe’s 1809 romantic melodrama Elective Affinities stands a good chance of being the ur-text for stories which try to find connections between measurable scientific principles and the mysteries of human bonding. In Goethe’s case, the science was chemistry (a metaphor which has never died away, even though it has never quite worked), but then he lived long before the era of ACTs and Match.com, and his novel is really about the affinities between individuals, not whole groups. A version of eugenics was used to divide people into castes in Huxley’s Brave New World, but by the time we got to stories like Asimov’s ‘‘Profession’’ (1957), and much more recently to Veronica Roth’s YA Divergent series, standardized aptitude tests had pretty much taken over, just as they’ve pretty much taken over the lives of anyone under 18. Apart from ramping up the testing procedures to include neurology and brain-mapping, Wilson’s main variations on this theme, drawn mostly from social media, are that the testing is purely voluntary (and not cheap), that it’s run by a private corporation called InterAlia, and that only about 60% of the testees end up qualifying for any of the twenty-two ‘‘Affinity groups’’ that the company has identified through its research. It’s tempting to say the novel is a grown-up version of the Divergent series, but that would overlook one of the novel’s main insights: if the government pigeonholes you on the basis of required tests, it’s pretty much a dystopia to begin with, but if you choose to be tested and join a group, the dystopia or utopia is what you and the group make of it.

Frankly, this idea of affinity groups is not the most powerful of Wilson’s conceits, but his novels have always straddled a line between compelling stories of character and complex family relationships on the one hand, and Big Reveals on the other. To the extent that The Affinities is successful – and I think it is – depends far more on the former than the latter. Adam Fisk is a struggling art student in Toronto, his tuition paid by a loving grandmother even though his hardnosed father and politically ambitious brother disapprove. After a painful confrontation with the police during a demonstration he isn’t even part of, he decides to take the InterAlia tests, and finds himself assigned to the largest and most powerful of the Affinities, called Tau. His first meeting with members of the group is almost utopian, leading not only to a group of friends on the same wavelength, but to a romantic attachment and even a job.

At this point, many writers, and probably many readers, would find it hard to resist the paranoid thriller in the making – Tau is ominous! Tau is vampires! It’s a cookbook! – but to his credit Wilson doesn’t want to go there. The folks at Tau, from the Indian-American woman that he falls in love with to the aging ladies who run a kind of safe house to the burly gay man who serves as the local group’s muscle, are mostly ingratiating and humane characters. There are some conspiracies afoot, however, from the real purpose of the affinity groups (learned from a meeting with the original designer of ‘‘teleodynamics,’’ who turns out to be a kind of Hari Seldon with his predictions of future developments) to a competing group called Het – far more hierarchical and militaristic than Tau – which seeks to leverage political power through its members. Wilson never really makes how all the other affinity groups operate quite convincing, or what their different personalities are, or what’s supposed to happen to the 40% who never qualify for any group, but his central notion that such groups can find ‘‘new ways to model the boundary between consciousness and culture,’’ with the potential to reorganize human society along lines that might threaten traditional corporate, government, or ethnic loyalties, is intriguing. But without Wilson’s sharp character studies, ranging from Fisk to his ex-girlfriend to his rather unpleasant family members and his more likeable affinity mates, intriguing is all that it would be. Wilson has always written strongly humanistic tales of relationships within SF frameworks, and sometimes the SF itself is mostly a way of exploring the ways in which we cope, or fail to cope, with change. This may be Wilson’s grand theme, and it’s no less skillfully handled here than in his more spectacular slingshot novels.

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Paul Di Filippo reviews Dale Bailey

The End of the End of Everything, Dale Bailey (Arche Press 978-1630230074, $16.00, 240pp, hc) April 7, 2015.

Much like a moderately more prolific Ted Chiang, Dale Bailey is one of those figures in the field whose every appearance, however distantly spaced, is cause for immediate attention and rejoicing, given the high quality of his writing and the freshness of his ideas and worldview. Since his first sale in 1993, the subsequent two decades have seen three novels and a story collection issued under his byline. Not exactly a Harry Turtledovian rate of production. But please see the opening sentences of this review for why this should not matter.

But the year 2015 bids fair to become a Baileyian Climacteric. Not only do we have this second story collection in hand, but his new novel, The Subterranean Season, appears in November from Underland. Huzzah!

This volume holds nine stories of obvious excellence. Let’s have a look.

“The End of the World As We Know It” features a protagonist named Wyndham and an explicit reference to apocalypse by carnivorous plants. The savvy reader immediately apprehends a metatextual edge to the tale. And, indeed, Bailey is out to deconstruct the very notion and tradition of the armageddon narrative. In interstitial paragraphs he surveys both literary and real-life disasters, times when the world seemed about to end, with the clear eye of some observer from outside mere mortal affairs. But Bailey is not content with any kind of semi-arid historical metafiction. Instead, using Wyndham’s life as the only human on Earth, he digs deeply and bravely into the painful skin and bones of how such an existence would actually feel, without any of the clichéd pulp trappings. Needless to say, the result is existentially bracing, like falling off the top of Mount Everest might be.

We are in patented Stephen King territory with “The Bluehole,” but Bailey makes the mode his own. It’s the 1980s, an era Bailey evokes with plenty of tight pop-cultural referents that add metaphorical weight to the events. Two teens, Jeremy—our narrator, a hapless but bright and sensitive lad flailing in a dysfunctional family—and Jimmy, the new cool kid, begin to pal around one summer. Emotional dynamics and balances shift and sway, but at the center of everything is the mysterious deadly lake alluded to in the title. The climax finds Jimmy and Jeremy there alone—or is a monster with them; and if present, has the monster surfaced out of its own urges, or because they called it?

“The Creature Recants” finds Bailey channeling, to some small degree, Howard Waldrop, with marvelous results fully worthy of the elder role model. We learn that the amphibian monster star of the fabled The Creature from the Black Lagoon was not a man in a rubber suit, but a real sapient being whose life story is being filmed—more or less accurately, given Hollywood’s sleazy predilections. Inhabiting his consciousness, the reader gets a lesson in prejudice, love and artistry—with some droll black laughs as well.

There have always been two schools of time travel fiction. The larger school revels in paradoxes and messing about with history, closer to a kind of adventure fiction. The other school, much smaller, uses the trope to explore the psychology and spirituality of its characters. I’m thinking Silverberg’s Up the Line and Moorcock’s Behold the Man and Aldiss’s Cryptozoic. Bailey mines this latter vein with exquisite delicacy in “Mating Habits of the Late Cretaceous.” A couple on the outs with each other, Peter and Gwyneth, go on a dino-safari to save their marriage, but the events at the resort start to resemble a certain Hemingway tale rather than a second honeymoon.

The stark mimetic power of “A Rumor of Angels,” with its dusty, Steinbeckian heat and poverty, climaxes in a totally organic but still unexpected supernatural fashion. Runaway boy Tom Carver finds himself uneasily adopted by the Overton family, whose own son Charlie begins to dote on Tom. But Tom’s destiny seems to take him away from all he loves and those who love him in return.

Bailey melds the kind of Warner Brothers pre-code grittiness of those “career girl encounters the sordid details of life” films with the New Weird ambiance of a China Miéville tale in “Eating at the End-of-the-World Café.” The city of Acheron, full of damned souls, hosts our stressed and desperate heroine, Eleanor, a waitress struggling to keep her life together and to care for her sick child. Pushed to the wall, Eleanor eventually visits the infernal pit at the center of the city, where a certain bargain awaits, to be taken or disdained.

“Lightning Jack’s Last Ride” reminds me of primo Roger Zelazny crossed with Ellison’s “Along the Scenic Route.” In a crumbling future, gasoline is at a premium and organized gangs go after tankers. Narrated by Gus, a fellow who is “sidekick” to Lightning Jack (an always productive strategy, the off-center POV), the tale blends action-movie thrills with more intimate matters of the heart.

If Kit Reed had collaborated with Steve Aylett, the result might resemble “Troop 9,” Bailey’s account of a Girl Scout squad that goes dingo. Unapologetically presenting the irrationality of the girls as a given, the story plays mercilessly with Tarzan riffs and has resonance with all those tales of angry survivalists eluding authorities in the wilderness.

Finally, in a piece that neatly bookends the opener, I detect a masterful homage to J.G. Ballard’s Vermilion Sands in the title story, which takes place in a decadent art community named “Cerulean Cliffs.” A slow entropic fadeout besieges the folks gathered in the resort, causing them to face their true motivations for the first time.

Throughout all these fictions, however varied their subject matter or atmosphere, Bailey exhibits his compassion for and comprehension of his characters, his inerrant sense of choosing just the right words, and his determination to make all the matter of fantastika over afresh. Such a book makes one hope that our genre still has a future.

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

Lois Tilton reviews Short Fiction, late April

Giving the Good Story award this time to the Malik piece at Tor.com, where I found a couple near-misses as well.

Publications Reviewed



Tor.com, April 2015

A fine novella here from Usman T Malik. I wanted to enjoy the other two stories, but couldn’t get over some stumbling blocks.

“Ballroom Blitz” by Veronica Schanoes

A contemporary variation on the Twelve Dancing Princesses fairy tale, featuring twelve brothers “cursed to remain in a rock punk club for their bad behavior.” Which might not, to a certain set of youth, seem much like a curse at all, but after a long while, it begins to wear.

I remember the rest of it, too, waking up wanting to die, the hacking coughs, the bleak despair driving me—driving us—to drown ourselves in the neon darkness, the impossible wish to see sunshine just once more, the imprisonment. But when I look back, everything glows with false freedom, and I remember us always laughing.

Yet Jake, the oldest brother and the one responsible for their situation, makes it clear that the bar is indeed an outpost of hell, except that others there can freely come and go, such as the twelve sisters.

I really like what the author has done with the fairytale material, inverting the storyline to focus on the brothers, not the sisters, and omitting the outsider from the equation while adding a new central figure: the bartender/witch/goddess who lays the curse. We see that it’s the brothers whose boots have holes worn in their soles [only to self-repair every day]. There are hints, too, of other tales, such as the ones where dancing is a capital punishment, and stories of sisters saving their [own] brothers. And of course the obligatory near-impossible task imposed as the condition for saving them. And, most importantly, time, which is where I start asking questions.

In fairy tales and fairy lands, time can stop, and people can spend years without aging or dying. But once they leave, once the story, as revisions usually do, leaves fairyland and returns to the mundane world, mundane rules again apply, the aging process begins again, and people have to get jobs and get on with mundane lives. “Happily ever after” doesn’t apply, and the story doesn’t end with twelve weddings.

This story is Jake’s, for whose crime all his brothers are condemned to suffer, although the story makes it clear that they remained out of loyalty when they could have gone free. They suffered because Jake was an asshole who let himself be ruled by his rage. The story doesn’t belong to Isabel, the girl who brings her sisters to save them all, and definitely it doesn’t belong to her sisters, who remain blanks, except that they only come to the bar in loyalty to support her. The story wants us to go with Jake to find Isabel, who has refused to accept that he loves her because she suffers from crippling depression. But I can’t get past Jake’s brothers, and even moreso, time.

He tells us more than once that the youngest brother is fourteen years old, was fourteen when he came to the bar and apparently still fourteen when he left it. While trapped in the bar, he would cut himself. Another brother once hanged himself. Yet from the moment they are allowed to go free, most of this trauma seems to dissipate. All but Jake, the brothers do well, they get good jobs, they have nice houses and cars, they marry [not any of Isabel’s sisters]. But we aren’t in fairyland anymore. All that stuff takes time, takes years. I want to know how all this normality was achieved. I particularly want to know about the youngest brother [youngest brothers are always supposed to be important in these tales] and the other teenagers, how they recovered from their trauma, did they go back to school? I also start to wonder about their parents, if they had them, because while time stopped for the brothers while they were trapped for years in fairyland, it didn’t stop outside, as Isabel’s storyline makes clear. What did the brothers do about reclaiming their IDs and explaining the discrepancy of their ages? This is the stuff that matters in mundania. Isabel’s timeline suggests that it can’t have been much more than a year between the time the brothers were free and when Jake found her again, with his brothers all prosperous and employed adults. Is the story claiming that the brothers somehow, magically, became the ages that they would have been? While this is possible in a fairy tale, I see no evidence of it here.

So not only do I wonder what a fourteen-year-old kid was doing in a bar, I start to wonder about Isabel and her sisters in there. Because we learn that Isabel is the oldest of the sisters, which I certainly can’t accept. She was in high school, studying calculus, which ought to make her sixteen or seventeen, and when Jake finds her afterwards, she has just turned eighteen. So how old were all these younger sisters in the bar? Even if they’re not all natural sibs, as the story claims, the youngest have to have been way too young for this scene. Isabel does have parents, and we’re left to imagine the girls all sneaking out of the house at night, dancing till dawn, and no father/king noticing the fact and sending soldiers to follow them. And while I’m on this trail of thought, it leads me to wonder just how old is Jake, the oldest of twelve brothers, when he’s fucking this teenage, maybe underage girl in the bar? In fairyland, age may not matter, but in mundania this starts to feel kind of creepy.

“The Ways of Walls and Words” by Sabrina Vourvoulias

A potentially interesting juxtaposition: in a dungeon of the Dominicans in 16th century Mexico, we find two girls, both in their own ways victims of the Inquisition. Anica is a Converso, whose entire family has been denounced for practicing their ancestral Jewish religion. Bienvenida [not her real name] is of the conquered, indigenous Nuata people, whose ancestral religion and lore are likewise viewed with suspicion by the Dominicans. Bienvenida, now a servant tasked to sweep the floors in the hallway outside the cells, is well aware that circumstances might one day place her inside. The Conversos are isolated, kept in solitary confinement in cells so thick-walled that voices can’t pass, but Bienvenida is able to hear Anica reciting poems through her door. Although it is forbidden, she initiates contact. Both girls have formidable mothers, but Bienvenida’s mother is a stronger presence in the story, an expert in the uses of native plants for purposes medicinal and otherwise. Under the Inquisition, this is a precarious occupation, but she believes she has an absolute obligation to help anyone in need. Bienvenida shares this belief, which is in part why she attempts to help Anica.

So this is a potentially interesting situation with strong story possibilities, but somehow it doesn’t really come to life. I don’t feel a bond between the two girls, ostensibly based on Bienvenida’s love of poetry, of which we don’t see very much. Anica seems just a bit ungrateful for the other girl’s attention and assistance, for the risks she’s taking. Instead of a story of the connection between two characters, a story moving and heartbreaking, the author seems to be striving for an artificially elevated tone.

I look out my window now and, instead of an empty sky caged by bars, I imagine the leaves of our fig, pomegranate, and lemon trees fluttering there. My mother bought them dear, right off one of the Spanish ships, then planted them in our courtyard so that they would rub lovingly against one another when the wind blew. None had yet given fruit when we were taken from our home, but I picture globes of brilliant red, ovals of green, and sweet, dark teardrops hiding among their leaves. I pretend I am swallowing the sparkling, rubied seeds of the first, and reaching for the scion of the last amid its fragrant greenery. 

This piece is based on historical fact. Anica was the youngest member of the very prominent Carvajal family; their fates were as described here, except for Anica’s. Many of the details here, such as the Carvajals passing notes among themselves, written on seeds, are a matter of record.

“The Pauper Prince and the Eucalyptus Jinn” by Usman T Malik

A cosmic mystery. As a child, Salman liked to listen to his grandfather’s tale of the impoverished Mughal princess who ran a tea stand beneath the eucalyptus tree near his school in Old Lahore. She used to say she could come to no harm there because of the jinn who lived in the tree, charged with the protection of her family. But except for Salman, family and friends in America scoffed at the old man’s tales. Later, when he died, Salman discovered a treasure of books on the nature of the jinn, as well as a journal that suggested his grandfather’s stories might be more true than he had ever suspected. He becomes determined to visit Pakistan and seek out evidence from those days, including the treasure, “the map to the memory of heaven”, that the princess might have bequeathed to his grandfather, hidden beneath the roots of the eucalyptus, destroyed by a lightning strike that might have been of supernatural origin.

It plummeted: a fluttering, helpless, enflamed ball shooting to the earth. It shrieked as it dove, flickering rapidly in and out of space and time but bound by their quantum fetters. It wanted to rage but couldn’t. It wanted to save the lightning trees, to upchuck their tremulous shimmering roots and plant them somewhere the son of man wouldn’t find them. Instead it was imprisoned, captured by prehuman magic and trapped to do time for a sin so old it had forgotten what it was.

So now it tumbled and plunged, hated and hating. It changed colors like a fiendish rainbow: mid-flame blue, muscle red, terror green, until the force of its fall bleached all its hues away and it became a pale scorching bolt of fire.

For readers who know of the jinn only through tales derived from the Arabian Nights, here is a deeper version. The story is concerned with them as expressed in Islamic theology, in relationship to the creation, as beings of fire, the earlier creation, as humans were made of clay. It’s fascinating and poetic stuff, at least to the theologically or mystically inclined. But it is also the epic romance of Muhammad Sharif’s life of marvels.

–RECOMMENDED



Beneath Ceaseless Skies, 170-172 April 2015

A three-Thursday month giving us extra fiction from this site. #170 features fantastic creatures fighting back against capture, #171 has fugitives and exiles, and #172 is a Weird Western special issue promoting the publisher’s anthology of reprints from the zine. I’m particularly fond of this subgenre, and two of these pieces hit the right notes.

#170

“Primaflora’s Journey” by Cat Rambo

The revenge of the dryads. Primaflora was a happy dryad in her grove until it was attacked by agents of the Duke, the trees chopped down and the motile dryads captured and chained for transport to the palace, where they join the menagerie of abused beasts. This is her first, long, journey, on which Primaflora, alone of her fellow dryads, considers resistance to her captors. With the aid of an Oracular Pig [sic] she escapes and joins a resistance group, after another journey.

She would see the city brought down, chopped as savagely as the trees. She would see her sisters avenged. Instead of the slow green life she had known, a contemplative existence, she would choose one no dryad had undertaken before: a life of fire and vengeance. She would see the city destroyed somehow, see the ravenous maw that had eaten so many of her sisters closed for good.

I see a lot of problems here. The life cycle of the dryads themselves is fairly well-conceived, although I wonder how they breed, whether there are males of their species or if they’re gynoecious; the text doesn’t say. At some point of growing maturity, the motile forms undergo a compulsion to root and take on the form of a tree, which proves to be a growing difficulty for Primaflora in the course of the tale. But once we arrive at the city, we find way too many other kinds of fantastic beasts from a variety of mythologies and other imaginaria. It’s an incoherent muddle. At the least, the author could have limited the collection to creatures of the same mythological origin as the dryads. I get an uneasy sense that this is just another version of Narnia, where it’s OK to cut down trees as long as they’re not Talking Trees.

The wood of the dryad trees, once cut down, is good for nothing but burning. The Duke’s city runs on firewood power and has deforested its immediate vicinity. But there is a special bounty placed on dryad wood that makes no obvious sense. And when new dryads root in the Duke’s grove, the older ones, even if still flowering, are cut down to make room. It’s a wasteful practice that seems mainly to demonstrate that the system is evil at its core and justify Primaflora’s passion for vengeance. Although this, too, is inconsistent. Primaflora volunteers to join the camp of the resistance forces, but as soon as she is offered a weapon to raid the human settlement, she gets cold feet.

Mainly, though, this tale is tedious, slow and repetitive. Primaflora undergoes one journey after the other and never really gets anywhere. The very last scene does make up for a certain number of sins, but not the whole multitude.

“Wild Things Got to Go Free” by Heather Clitheroe

This one had me grinding my teeth all the way through, as it employs one of the more deceptive devices in fiction. The narrator is a child, Leah, whose mother is one several people in her village who are leaving for a reason no one will tell Leah, because she’s a child. Leah’s mother promises to tell her, then doesn’t. She promises to take Leah with her, then doesn’t. Naturally and justifiably, Leah whines and complains that no one will tell her because she’s a child, but in fact it’s the author she should blame, artificially attempting to ratchet up the story tension and make readers feel they’re being treated like a child, with the consequence that I, at least, don’t care about any of them.

#171

“The Fires of Mercy” by Spencer Ellsworth

In a fantasy realm something like Arabia where the religion is something like Islam, an assassin follows the repressed cult of a Thirteenth Prophet, on whose behalf she has led a raid on the Emperor to kill him and every member of his harem. But after the blood has been shed, she finds one woman and her baby surviving, hidden in a closet.

She had stared at them, and she thought not of the name of the Thirteenth Prophet, not of the crimes of the Faith, but of the Thousand Names she revered, and she remembered, for the first time in years, that one of those names was Mercy.

Thus, sparing the two, she heads into the desert on a quest to find a safe refuge for them, but her former followers pursue her.

I could have used more insight into the assassin’s impulse to mercy, but the story is sufficiently well-written to keep me from great heights of crankiness.

“Sinseerly a Friend & Yr Obed’t” by Thomas M Waldroon

The title definitely intrigues. It suggests the likelihood of humor, but that’s not really what’s going on here. It involves a Tall Tale, but it turns out to be a true tale. Mainly, it features an interesting protagonist and a very entertaining narrative. The central character is Mr Stutley Northrup, sometimes called “Old Stuck-Up”, who lives the near Pennsylvania shore of Lake Erie in the mid-nineteenth century. Now comes to him the Justice of the Peace, a former student, wondering about the rumors of a sea serpent in the lake. Northrup isn’t impressed; he already knows all about the sea serpent, seen it himself. But there’s a complication, the real reason the JP has come to Northup about—and against—the monster. A body has washed ashore, and it’s been identified as Amos, Northrup’s hired man, known by him as a fugitive slave.

The narrative wanders, entertainingly so, here and there, back and forth, in the course of which we learn of Northrup’s upbringing in a “hemi-demi-semi-quasi Quaker” community where he learned toleration of all living creatures, and where he sees a portent that he doesn’t, then, entirely understand. The mystery of the sea serpent is one that readers will grasp far more readily than the local JP, a man who requires some persuasion.

He continues: Now, as for our friend in the lake. Been there long as I’ve been alive. Longer, maybe. Plenty of time to wreak all the havoc a soul could fear, if havoc was wished for. If my understanding’s good, we’ve as long again to go before any hope of rescue. Yes, rescue. Don’t be a fool, Chambers. Sit down.

But there is a second, more subtle mystery that reveals itself only at the end, requiring readers to do some re-thinking of the evidence.

–RECOMMENDED

#172

“Splitskin” by E Catherine Tobler

Set in a fantasy world previously used by the author, which has explored various sorts of shared individuals, and where individuals seem to have their own spirit creatures. At this time, the California gold rush is underway. The protagonists are Native Americans born to thunderbird women who were one day seized by Raven and imprisoned in a mountain. It is their ambition to free their mothers, but first they have to reach the mountain. In this, they are aided by a shifty man named Jackson, who runs a magic circus train. Jackson’s motives are self-serving.

He believed the thunderbirds were true and he wanted their power for his own. He felt that with the double spirited children born of the thunderbird’s own bodies, he might achieve this. This was visible to anyone who looked into the depths of his eyes. The serpent wanted to wrestle the birds, wanted to claim them even as he knew he could not.

But the narrator is convinced that they are stronger than he is and takes his offer.

The piece strikes me more as fantasy than a Weird Western, most strictly defined, and it relies overly much on the previous stories in this setting. What interests me is the way Gugán is a raven, of raven heritage, while the narrator is eagle. This makes the precise nature of the identity, or shared soul, between them unclear. I’d think that if they were in any real way one, they’d have the same spirit bird. The mothers are both thunderbird, but it’s not clear if they, too, share whatever Gugán and the narrator share. How much we are to take this as literal and how much as imagery?

I also wonder is why raven and eagle are capitalized in referring to the two children. Gugán isn’t Raven, that is, The Raven, Raven Himself, the Trickster god, the individual who stole the thunderbird women while Gugán could only watch helplessly. Individuals can take on the forms of their spirit creatures, have the god’s spirit within them, but this is hardly the same as becoming the god itself. Or so it seems, when the narrator says, “Gugán blamed himself, believed he had called Raven because he shared a kinship with the trickster and his ways.” Raven is the adversary here, Gugán is the narrator’s ally against him, and I’m wondering how this is possible. Did the conflict between himself and his spirit doom him? Again, it’s unclear.

“Swallowing Silver” by Erin Cashier

A mining town in the Black Hills has some strange neighbors, a community of werewolves or, as John Halpern calls them, devil-men. Halpern’s sister married a werewolf, which makes him Eldred’s brother-in-law and gives him the right to ask a favor. A supply wagon has recently been attacked in the hills, and Halpern thinks it was a wendigo. He appeals to their common interest, thinking that sometimes it takes a devil to fight a devil.

“But if it’s as I say, Eldred—it’ll take every wagon that comes through. That’s how they work. They’re always starving, you know that. Give the thing long enough, and I guarantee it’ll attack town.” He still couldn’t read Eldred’s face, and he didn’t need to look to know what Merrill thought.

Definitely a Weird Western, with monsters and horror, although at its heart this is a story of family and its ties. As Halpern notes, some werewolves are assholes, some aren’t. This probably doesn’t apply to the wendigo. I rather wonder about the wendigo, how it ended up in the plains instead of its native forests of the north-east, but I suppose that, like anyone else, legendary monsters can travel.

“The Snake-Oil Salesman and the Prophet’s Head” by Shannon Peavey

Leo and Cary were brothers afflicted with reciprocal curses: Leo could only say what people want to hear and Cary only what they don’t. In consequence, Leo tended to speak lies and Cary the truth, however unpalatable. So unpalatable that one day Leo cut his brother’s throat to shut him up. He wasn’t happy to see the severed head appear in a jar, a new featured attraction of the medicine show where he works. At night, he sneaks into the tent and the head speaks to him, and Leo speaks back, unable as always to say what he really thinks.

Leo stepped closer to the jar. Cary’s white-blond hair floated up from his skull, the tips waving slightly. It looked like strands of spiderweb, or exposed nerves.

Another one definitely a Weird Western, emphasis on the weird. I find myself wanting to know more about these brothers, how Cary in particular managed to live as long as he did, although, as Leo discovers, telling people what they want to hear can also backfire.



Strange Horizons, April 2015

The Ausema story is my favorite of these selections. I like the whimsy.

“Noise Pollution” by Alison Wilgus

Urban fantasy in a future cursed by malignant clouds of Noise. Which is to say that the Musical, a minority of the population, are so cursed, not the Tonedeaf. The Musical must be sure to keep a Song going at all times, to ward off the Noise, and they employ the obsolete technology of cassette for the purpose. There is no rationale whatsoever given for this situation. Our hero, Cheryl, is a talented singer and also a screw-up, who hands us an overload of tape neep.

Type Two BASF ferrochromes, from before they moved production to Korea when I can find them. AC biasing is fine, but no Dolby noise reduction, I don’t care if you think I’m crazy, the preemphasis weakens the range of the spell, everyone knows it, sometimes we’re snobs for a reason. I think I’ve laid down maybe ten, twelve different ward Songs on quarter-inch ATR master tape, you know, different variations for different seasons, a couple specialty tracks for when I’m gonna fly somewhere, all pretty standard stuff. Dub off a new copy whenever a cassette wears out.

The piece is mostly about Cheryl yammering on in this manner while screwing up and making a save in an unremarkable way.

“Among the Sighs of the Violoncellos” by Daniel Ausema

The slaves in the marquesa’s garden discuss their work and hopes for eventual escape. This is essentially a setting more than a story, although it hints at a number of stories that might be set there—highly mannered stories that likely would involve an over-privileged aristocracy and the afflictions of slavery. It’s a magical, fantasy garden, requiring great pains on the part of the gardeners to make sure everything is just right and the marquesa is not displeased. It’s an intriguing setting, wrought with imagination and a touch of wit.

We have also begun some tests with the fairytale tree to see if it will put forth an evil lord of some variety. So far the nearest we have come is a marquesa, one oddly gifted in growing plants and hosting parties.

“Nine Thousand Hours” by Iona Sharma

A world in which magic users perform some but not all important functions, being divided into several different hereditary guilds. Amal’s family is Salt, and often refers to each other by this title, as if to remind them who they are. Salt involves “deep, wordless workings—heat and cold and calm and light”. Amal and some colleagues were attempting a working that promised improvements in magical text messaging. The consequences were catastrophic.

A bright flash of light, bright like a nuclear explosion or the wrath of God, and a great internal cracking, like the marrow turning itself inside out in my bones. And then nothing but the burn of salt, and drowning.

But for the rest of the world, all text, all written work, had been obliterated. The pages of books were blank, and pens refused to mark paper, sticks to scratch signs in dirt.

This is a work of guilt, redemption, and forgiveness. It centers around Amal’s relationship with her family, who have remained at home near the salt sea where they belong and seem to feel that her original sin was going to London. I’m rather more interested in the glimpses into a world without written words, where any information not in human memory has been lost, even the backups.



Lackington’s, Spring 2015

A wide variety in the fiction here, from pieces with a high obscurity index to more conventional stories. It’s a sea-themed issue, five stories plus a novel excerpt.

“The Whale of Penlan Tork” by Steven Earnshaw

A weirdly literary piece with a Greekish chorus serving as quasi-narrator, going strophe and antistrophe with Simon not-Stylites on his pillar, who sends a delegation of them to seek the whale for reasons unrevealed. While they’re gone, Simon engages in dialogue with himself, suggesting that he’s been possessed—”the false Simon who emerges sometimes.” By the spirit of Penlan Tork, perhaps, otherwise unidentified, or the usurpers, likewise. Or not.

This is not why I believe in power. For Simon it is all or nothing. I would rather be on high in the wild air than trapped into a power-sharing arrangement in which my credibility, built up over decades of platform intransigence, remains solid. Now that the six of my Attylites have departed and my experiment with a shadow oligarchy has failed I return to Simon.

This one is pretty obscure [the editorial says “oblique” and certainly it’s not direct], but kind of interesting to follow if you don’t mind not knowing where you’re going, other than the obvious destination of Patagonia. If I were to guess, I might say the piece is about heteronomy, relying on authority to make one’s decisions and abandoning agency. Or not.

“Spider Moves the World” by Dominik Parisien

Had I not just read the preceding, I’d say this one is exceedingly odd. The sea in question is the Greensea, i.e., a sea of grass crossed by a caravan of elephantine spiders who have given a ride to the narrator, having discerned, so they say, that he has a spidery soul. It’s an unending journey, turning the world, as the spiders recite their myths around the campfire and make declarations that might be profound if they could be understood.

And Spider wove a web across the blue and black, caught and keeps the fires there to light our paths, suspends the moon and sun for us in nets. But she tires. Oh, she tires. She has been holding on so long. Today you will rope the moon down for her, to let her rest her weary legs, and tomorrow you will rope the sun.

But . . . spiders. Not octopedal aliens, or pseudo-arachnids but, apparently, actual giant sentient spiders. And insect cities, as well. OK, so this is fantasy and the impossible must be cast aside, but these entities are everything that actual spiders are not: social creatures, migratory, and capable of benevolence. The term “spider” here doesn’t mean anything that resembles an actual spider, except in some superficial physical sense. What, then, does it mean when they say of the [apparently human] narrator that, deep down, he is a spider?

Later they and I will play, in camps divided by the vastness of the Greensea, or the beetle city, or whatever else stands between us, and, looking at the sky, we will know that we are spiders.

This isn’t a matter of arachnophobia on my part [I’m rather fascinated by the beasties] but literal-mindedness; I’m not getting past it to the story’s heart, wherever it is.

“The Selkie” by David K Yeh

Not an animal wife but an immortal combatant, now fighting the Nazis in WWII by delivering an Enigma machine from Arkhangelsk to Scotland. The usual sort of action ensues. The real interest here is in the background based on northern folklores, especially the selkie’s sorceress wife and their talented children.

When she shed seven tears into the waves, I heard her summons and came to her. I did not know why, but she had placed a geas upon me. When I strode from the sea, she lay down beneath me and bore us six children, each with their mother’s sky-blue eyes and my dark glossy hair. These boys wrestled and played laughing in the pounding surf and never once felt the cold. Some could take on the seal-form, like their father. One spoke the language of birds. Still another could summon wind with thought, and another see far distant places in his mind’s eye.

There is irony, as the selkie recognizes, that once their mortal enemies were the Norse vikings, but now their descendants are all allies against the Nazis [this, despite the fact that the Finns were at that time German allies against the Russians invading their land, which our Finnish shaman does not mention]. I can also imagine that Hitler would have been vexed to know that a Wolf’s Head was against him. But the author has mixed in other mythoi, which seem out of place. The Pythia—well, this is a powerful oracle whose reach might well extend to the north. But Baba Yaga, while in the right place geographically, doesn’t seem right for the role she’s cast in here.

I’m also a bit disturbed by the repeated reference to the selkie’s “masters”. Have the Allies, too, like the Nazis, enslaved these creatures to compel their aid? Is the selkie’s wife a hostage? I wouldn’t put it past them.

“Ambergris, or the Sea-Sacrifice” by Rhonda Eikamp

There’s a metaphor here for a boundless love, “like the sand on the shore”. Which seems, as these things go, not exceedingly romantic, but that’s how it is. So it was that the old fisherman loved his young wife, and then the daughter she died in the bearing of. To save the child’s life, he gave her to the denizens of the deep in their onshore palace.

Now the Nacreous Palace had always been there, just beyond the village, its mottled pink spire rising haughty against the sky at the end of the point. The man Sandoval was frightened of the colossal conch-shell, of its glow and the sound of the sea that whooped from its portico when the wind was high.

The child was saved, but both father and daughter emerged from the palace transformed. Ambergris proved a blessing to the whole community, yet it was clear that she would one day return to the palace.

As denizens of faerie go, these are a benevolent bunch, despite their reputation in the village, and it all comes to a particularly happy ending, driven by love. I must say, however, that when it comes to repelling an enemy, a giant magic conch shell would seem to be a lot more impressive than a single magicked girl.

“Littoral Drift” by L S Johnson

This is SF, but barely, set in a future when no one goes to the beach anymore. The narrator is an old woman who recalls past times there with increasing intensity, drawn to her memories.

Drift. Your body seeping away from you, one soft wave after another, until at last you are nothing more than sand, everywhere and nowhere. For a moment I feel it happening to me, a wonderful ebbing, being carried away into cool dark depths—

Good use of the sea imagery. There’s no tragedy here, although those around her might see it as such. There’s a time to let go and allow the tide to take you out.

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

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

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

Methuselah’s Daughter: A Review of The Age of Adaline

by Gary Westfahl

In many respects, Lee Toland Krieger’s The Age of Adaline is exactly what it announces itself to be: a classic Hollywood “women’s film.” And one expects that, as in The Time Traveler’s Wife (2009) (review here), a seemingly novel trope borrowed from science fiction – here, the secret immortal pretending to be an ordinary person – would be deployed in a perfunctory manner solely to generate an otherwise familiar tale about a tumultuous romance. Yet The Age of Adaline proves to be surprisingly attentive to the demands of science fiction, and amidst its emotional turmoil the film is also striving to thoughtfully explore the possible effects of human immortality. It thus qualifies as a worthwhile addition to a long tradition of science fiction stories about immortality, ranging from Mary Shelley’s “The Mortal Immortal” (1833) to Robert A. Heinlein’s Lazarus Long and Jerome Bixby’s The Man from Earth (2007) (editorial review here).

The film’s trailer reveals its fantastic premise: in the late 1930s, a widow named Adaline Bowman (Blake Lively) is involved in a near-fatal car accident and afterwards discovers that, for some reason, she has stopped aging. Many screenwriters would have said nothing more about this remarkable event, confident that audiences would accept this scientific magic without further justification. Yet in J. Miles Goodloe and Salvador Paskowitz’s screenplay, the (at times intrusive) narrator (Hugh Ross) patiently explains that, when her car plunged into cold water, Adaline experienced an “anoxic reflex” causing her to stop breathing and her heart to beat more slowly; then, when a lightning bolt struck the car, this “defibrillated” her heart, “jolted” her to start breathing, and, by inducing “electron compression” in her “deoxyribonucleic acid” (DNA), made her “immune to the ravages of time,” destined to “never age another day” – all in accordance with scientific principles to be discovered in the year 2035. Actual scientists now working to extend the human lifespan would no doubt consider this “explanation” of immortality a nonsensical assemblage of jargon, but the screenwriters were obviously eager to persuade their audience that Adaline did not represent a one-time miracle, but was rather the accidental beneficiary of a procedure that will someday become routine.

As Adaline gradually realizes what has happened to her, she must radically change her lifestyle in ways that have long been recognized in other stories about immortals. First, she must conceal her condition by constantly traveling and adopting new identities, because otherwise both governments and private individuals would try to capture her and place her in a laboratory to discover her secret – the problem faced by the Howard Families of Heinlein’s Methuselah’s Children (1941, 1958), Ben Richards of the short-lived television series The Immortal (1969), and many others. In her case, after improbably contriving to escape from the FBI, Adaline begins a new life of starting over with a new name and job every decade, the same rhythm adopted by Bixby’s John Oldman. When the film begins, she is Jennifer Larson, working in the Pacific Archives in San Francisco and preparing to move to Oregon and become Susan Fleischer.

Second, as a necessary consequence of her situation, Adaline can never have a lasting relationship with any man, as she must spurn all advances to maintain her secret; thus, stories of immortality often become cautionary tales, warning readers of the condition’s negative consequences. Suffering from perpetual loneliness, Adaline might have echoed the lament of Shelley’s “Mortal Immortal”: “Thus I have lived for many a year – alone and weary of myself …. [T]he ardent love that gnaws at my heart, never to be returned – never to find an equal on which to expend itself – lives there only to torment me.” Learning that she has rejected a man she felt attracted to, Ellis Jones (Michiel Huisman), her now-elderly daughter Flemming (Ellen Burstyn) urges her to reconsider: “don’t you miss having someone to love?” Later, receiving similar advice from Ellis’s father William (Harrison Ford), she is told, “You’ve lived, but you’ve never had a life.” There is, of course, a simple solution to this dilemma – find a partner willing to keep your secret and share a life with someone who never grows old – which is precisely what occurs in the most memorable section of Heinlein’s Time Enough for Love (1973) and at the conclusion of Jerome Bixby’s The Man from Earth; and any viewer has to suspect that this will also be the happy ending of this film. Yet presenting a male companion as the necessary solution to Adaline’s plight is arguably a bit sexist; after all, both Oldman and another one of Bixby’s male immortals, Flint of the Star Trek episode “Requiem for Methuselah” (1969), stoically soldiered on for millennia without ever finding True Love, and this film repeatedly demonstrates that Adaline is, as William says, “an extraordinary woman,” more than capable of living a fulfilling life without a male partner.

Indeed, in carefully developing the probable characteristics of a woman with a very extended lifespan, the film at times seems to be working at cross purposes to its sentimental premise. Adaline is impressively knowledgeable: she speaks several languages and can even read braille in Norwegian; she effortlessly wins a game of Trivial Pursuit; and she knows enough about the streets of San Francisco to provide a cab driver with a good alternate route to her destination. She is remarkably observant, emulating Sherlock Holmes as she glances at a man at a party and immediately makes accurate deductions about his background and activities. Preparing to launch a new life, she confidently purchases a home in rural Oregon and obtains the necessary forged identification cards. Adaline needs a man, in other words, like a fish needs a bicycle.

There are also intimations that an immortal, liberated from concerns about aging and death, might develop a more detached perspective, considering everyday worries as unimportant in the broader scheme of things. This is communicated by another aspect of the film that seems related to science fiction, its repeated references to astronomy. The film begins and ends with images of Earth as seen from space, emphasizing how small humans are from a cosmic viewpoint; Adaline’s positive effect on William’s life was to encourage him to abandon medical school and pursue a career as an astronomer; William becomes famous for discovering a comet that he names for Adaline (“Della,” the name she was using at the time he knew her), and he likens her to that comet, which will provide a spectacular show for humans but, as a “near miss,” will come close to but not reach the Earth; she surprises Ellis by taking him to “someplace he’s never been before” – an abandoned, enclosed drive-in theatre with a roof covered with glowing stars forming the constellations; and the narrator finally informs us that Adaline’s car accident was the last in a chain of events inaugurated by the impact of a meteor on the Moon centuries ago. Ellis is interested in the stars in another way, as we observe a copy of Louis MacNeice’s Astrology (1964) on his desk.

Even more intriguing, perhaps, are the film’s subtle suggestions that an immortal, while rising above petty concerns, might be able to transcend gender boundaries as well. Although Lively’s Adaline is a beautiful and glamorous woman, I sometimes detected an aura of androgyny in her performance, as brusque actions and comments suggested that she had been directed to act like a man in woman’s clothing. Perhaps this was intended solely to communicate her unusual independence, but it led me to recall that Bixby’s Oldman did seem like an unusually gentle and sensitive man, almost feminine in his inability to be harsh or violent. Living many lives, and keeping one’s distance from society, might therefore enable immortals to get in touch with both their masculine and feminine sides. And this would naturally influence their choice of companions, as Huisman’s Ellis is a preternaturally nice guy who patiently endures a series of rude rejections and happily welcomes her without complaints when she finally decides to seek out his company. He is, in other words, the sweet Boy Next Door that the typical romantic heroine would unhesitatingly reject in favor of the colder but more appealing Tall Dark Stranger. Adaline, clearly, is not a typical romantic heroine.

In being lonely, knowledgeable, wise, detached, and slightly androgynous, Adaline is arguably similar to other science fiction immortals; but in one respect, she falls short of her precursors, since she has accomplished nothing. Flint, after all, had previously lived as Leonardo da Vinci, Johannes Brahms, and other luminaries, and Oldman had been Jesus Christ Himself; but Adaline has always been a nonentity. True, when William celebrates his fortieth wedding anniversary by proclaiming that “I could have no greater ambition in life than to be the best possible husband for my wife,” he suggests that, in keeping with the traditions of the romance novel, forging an enduring relationship is the greatest thing that anyone could achieve. Yet William’s own career as a noted astronomer indicates that he in fact had other, more conventionally greater ambitions, and the need to aspire to lofty goals – to reach for the stars, one might say – is a recurring theme in the film. One of the first things that Adaline says, to the talented young man who forges her documents, Tony (Richard Harmon), is “I just hate to see wasted potential,” and when she first meets Ellis, who has become rich after a chance discovery proved immensely profitable, he remarks that “If you want to make a real difference in the world, it’s harder than it seems.” Adaline is just as intelligent and capable as William, Jeff, and Ellis, if not more so, but her only victory is literally “Trivial.” Her desire to avoid becoming “a specimen” has forced her to become invisible, and after living for over a century, she has left absolutely no mark on the world.

This thought opens up another, entirely different way to look at this film, which is signaled by its title. Of course, Adaline’s most remarkable feature is her “age,” which is 108 years as the film begins, and one way to read the title is as “Adaline’s Age.” However, when the phrase “The Age of” precedes someone’s name, it is usually describing a period of time that was dominated by that individual, like “the Age of Pericles” or “the Age of Napoleon.” Interpreted that way, the title is describing the time period covered in the film – from 1908 to 2015 – as an era dominated by Adaline Bowman, which would be ludicrous because virtually no one during that time was even aware of her existence. If we see Adaline as a symbol of immortality, though, one could read the title as a reference to the twentieth century as “the age of immortality” – and arguably that is an apt description.

For this was the era when one way to achieve a form of immortality – photography – became ubiquitous. True, the art was first mastered by professionals in the 1850s, but only in the twentieth century did it become commonplace for virtually everyone to own a portable camera, and thus to have the ability to forever preserve their own images. Photographs permeate this film: Adaline keeps a photo album to remember her only companions, her dogs; she stares at a photograph of her wedding in her apartment, and while attending a New Year’s Eve party at a hotel, she sees a photograph of herself on the wall, celebrating during the same event decades earlier; people are regularly interested in taking her photograph; and in the final scene, we see that she still owns an old-fashioned camera. When William suspects that Adaline is the woman he met many years ago, he rifles through a box of old photographs to find one photograph that might provide definitive evidence. The twentieth century also ushered in a new way to record moving images – motion pictures – and these figure in the film as well, as one of Adaline’s early tasks at the Pacific Archives is to prepare some old newsreels for digitization, and she happily watches old films of San Francisco in 1906 and other eras. The Spencer Davis Group’s “Gimme Some Lovin’” (1966) blaring on Ellis’s car radio references the new way that twentieth-century people could also preserve their voices – sound recordings – and Adaline carries with her the modern device that enables anyone today to produce their own photographs, movies, and recordings, a smartphone. Thus, while we can read accounts or look at paintings of life in earlier centuries, the twentieth century is the first century that people will always be able to actually look at and listen to – the first immortal century.

Ironically, throughout the film, Adaline displays an aversion to being photographed; and there are practical reasons for this, since she has no desire to create potential evidence of her agelessness. But since she always looks the same – she dismisses photographs of herself by telling her daughter, “If you’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all” – Adaline also has no need for photography, explaining why she never wants to be photographed. Blessed with true immortality, she has no desire for the ersatz immortality provided by photography.

Still, Adaline remains captivated by images of other people, much like almost everyone else, and this might be regarded as a harmless diversion, a new way to be entertained. But The Age of Adaline also indicates that having access to all these records of the past might have harmful effects, as it sometimes seems that everyone in the film has an unhealthy obsession with the past. Adaline’s job at the Pacific Archives involves preserving old books and films, and facing the challenge of showing each other something they are not familiar with, both Ellis and Adaline do not turn to some new attraction, but rather to an ancient artifact – a nineteenth-century boat buried underground and an early drive-in theatre. William’s harmonious forty-year marriage is briefly disrupted when he first sees Adaline and starts babbling about how wonderful this woman he once knew was, inspiring his wife to complain that she is now feeling like his “second choice.” Certainly, any marriage might be threatened if the wife discovered that her husband had saved photographs of an old girlfriend, which is precisely why William kept his photographs of Adaline hidden away in a storage room, inside a box with a misleading label. William also muses that as astronomical instruments keep improving, astronomers keep look further and further into the past. The narrator’s reference to 2035 is thus jarring because nobody else in the film seems to be thinking about twenty years in the future – or even one year in the future; instead, their eyes, and their thoughts, are constantly drawn back to the enticingly clear images of the past that surround them.

The film itself, despite its virtues as a work of science fiction, is also studiously avoiding any consideration of the future it envisions – a world in which human immortality is not a rare accident, but something that scientists can achieve as a matter of routine. Since Adaline will still be alive in 2035, the filmmakers could conceivably craft a sequel wherein she lives to witness the emergence of such a world, but one doubts very much that they would ever do so. For there are many fanciful films about immortal vampires, and films about solitary immortals or handfuls of immortals (as in the Highlander films), but other than the cartoonish Zardoz (1974), one is hard pressed to come up with examples of films that ponder the implications of an entire society where immortality is commonplace. To find such stories, which do not lend themselves to conventional Hollywood formulas, one must turn to the literature of science fiction, not its films.

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

Paul Di Filippo reviews Algernon Blackwood

The Face of the Earth and Other Imaginings, Algernon Blackwood, edited by Mike Ashley (Stark House 978-1933586700, $19.95, 222pp, hc) March 2015.

If you see a book with the byline of Mike Ashley on it, as either editor or author, buy it. You won’t go wrong. Ashley is a scholar of fantastika who exhibits a populist touch and an academic’s depth of knowledge. Readability and historical importance go hand-in-hand in his spelunking through the vast untapped storehouse of forgotten fantasy, science fiction and horror. Moreover, he knows these hidden nooks and crannies of the field better than nine-tenths of the rest of us alleged experts, and can be relied on to ferret out concealed treasures. Also, he is scrupulous in his documentation and annotations.

Now, when you yoke Ashley to the somewhat neglected yet canonical fantasist Algernon Blackwood (1869-1951, most famous for “The Wendigo”), you know you are in for a special treat, mainly because Ashley has previously produced a book-length biography of Blackwood and inhabits this terrain especially well.

This current Ashley-compiled volume from Stark House—a superb small press which concentrates on rescuing groovy vintage noir, but which has also reprinted ten Blackwood novels and story collections previously—features rare stories and essays from the early years of Blackwood’s career. Some thirty entries in the generous table of contents preclude an item-by-item discussion, so I shall have to cite just a few of my favorites.

The initial section of the collection is “Early Tales,” and it kicks off with Blackwood’s very first piece of published fiction, from when he was a mere twenty years old. “The Mysterious House” is very creepy, and presents a youthful flair and exuberance without a lot of sophistication. But that latter quality, along with more craftsmanship, shows up pretty quickly, for Blackwood was a natural storyteller. I don’t see how else someone could make a haunted piece of luggage, for goodness’s sake, really horrific, as he does in “The Kit-Bag.” Blackwood had a knack for coining really unsettling phrases, as in this story, that expressed uncanny symptoms and phenomena. “It was a singular and curious malaise that had come over him, and he hardly knew what to make of it. He felt as though he were doing something that was strongly objected to by another person, a person, moreover, who had some right to object.” And the title story is a small masterpiece, because it leaves you in doubt right up to the end. Yes, the mad professor believed our planet was a sentient beast that demanded sacrificial victims. But just because he was possessed with this monomania, was he so very wrong?

Ashley segregates four stories into the second section under the rubric “Imagination Awakes,” because they all illuminate Blackwood’s notion of the powers of the non-mimetic mind. “Stodgman’s Opportunity” is an amusing piece about a fellow utterly devoid of that vital power of fancy. But the strongest item here is “The Night-Wind,” in which Uncle Henry, an author, summons up by his oral fairytales a deity which the children in his presence help to reify, joyfully but spookily.

Section three, “Nature Inspires,” consists of journalistic essays by Blackwood that give us further insights into the sources of his literary powers and the passions that served as the engines of his daily life. Many of them display a Thoreauvian quality, for Blackwood was in love with natural creation like that old Walden chap. “‘Mid the Haunts of the Moose” might call up comparisons to Thoreau’s The Maine Woods, with a similar mix of closely observed nature and philosophy. But “Down the Danube in a Canadian Canoe” conjures up not Thoreau, but rather the gentle idle humor of Jerome K. Jerome.

Our final segment, “Conflicts of the Soul,” is a mix of fiction and non-fiction which surveys a sea-changed Blackwood who emerged from the horrors of World War I as a semi-shattered man and had to rebuild his soul. The standout item here is the story “Onanonanon.” In a very compact space, we get a seminal and semi-mystical childhood incident recounted in hallucinatory detail. Then we jump ahead by several decades to the recurrence of the incident, with mortal variations. If you were to read this story in, say, Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet, you would think it utterly congruent with Kelly Link’s own postmodern fiction, and acclaim it as the work of some hot new millennial fabulist.

With a fair shake, this collection should drive thousands of readers to seek out Blackwood’s mature work, rewarding the efforts and faith of both Ashley and Stark House, whilst procuring much reading pleasure for themselves.

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


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